“The ox is a most noble animal, patient, thrifty, durable and gentle.” What an elegant, almost reverential description by Peter Burnett, Oregon Trail traveler of the 1850s. Yet humor and practicality quickly enter as he continued, “But, best of all, the mammoth does not run off.”
This sentiment comes in direct contrast to the demeanor of horses, the animal most commonly portrayed crossing the Great Plains, settling the west. Though faster, horses were persnickety.
In America, oxen were a pioneer essential. It was these brutes that conquered prairies covered with grasses anchored by roots more than five feet deep, and wooded lands filled with stumps and undergrowth so thick you needed a machete to manage.
Since they were domesticated about 4000 B.C., oxen were the favorite beast of burden worldwide. Then, in the 40 years from 1850 to 1890, they all but disappeared in America. In 1850, the U.S. Federal Census reported there were 1.7 million oxen in the nation. By 1900, the census did not record working oxen. An era had ended.
So, just what is an ox? Oxen were not a separate breed of cattle; they were just steers over the age of three that were allowed to grow and be trained to work. They should not be confused with Asian water buffalo or Arctic musk oxen, both of which are used as beasts of burden in their native lands.
Bull calves from any breed available were used. Shorthorns, an English breed of cow, was the most common type available in Wisconsin prior to the rise of the dairy industry in the 1870s. Once there was greater variety among cattle; large breeds like Holsteins were used for logging and smaller breeds like Jerseys were better suited for farm work.
Oxen learned to follow their teamster's (ox driver's) signals given verbally, by body language, or by the use of a goad or whip. The most common verbal commands were: get up, go, whoa, back up, gee (turn to the right) and haw (turn to the left).
A plowing team of eight oxen consisted of four pairs aged a year apart. With a working life of 10 years or more, they had an average life span of about 15 years. Once a pair was selected, they became companions for life, working side-by-side and never far apart, whether grazing in meadows or sleeping in the ox barn.
Working cattle had to be shod, and since they had cloven hooves, that involved fitting two half-moon shaped iron shoes to each foot, meaning a fully-shod ox wore eight shoes. No man was strong enough to hold an ox foot up for shoeing, and oxen were unable to stand on three feet while the fourth was being shod. A strong wooden frame with a wide belly-band had to be used to raise the animals from the floor.
Of an obstinate nature, they usually had to be dragged into the blacksmith shop by tying a rope around their horns and pulling them in with a windlass. Never an easy task, in Franklin, it was well-known that blacksmith Jacob Eifler distanced himself from shoeing oxen, while his colleague Peter Schneider took the difficulties all in stride.
Gustave Buchen wrote of the June 7, 1842 wedding of David Giddings and Dorothy Trowbridge in Sheboygan Falls. “Slowly chewing their cuds as they walked leisurely along the old winding Indian trail, widened by the axe of the white man, an immense pair of red and white oxen with wide spreading horns, was observed approaching the festive scene in languid indifference to the fact that, momentarily at least, they were the center of interest. Their yoke was polished. They were sleek and fat, the admiration of the assembled guests and the pride of their driver, who was mounted on a log boat of the better type, made of two maple planks sawed with a hip on the old muley saw at the Falls, and fastened together by arched cross pieces to which the planks were firmly bolted. Thus, came David Giddings to his wedding. . . It was not poverty that compelled David Giddings to go to his wedding in this equipage. It was the simple fact that at this stage of the country’s development, the ox was the only animal adapted to the work which confronted this farming community. Boys and girls grew to considerable size without ever having seen a horse.”
Working in the woods, pulling stumps, and breaking up new land, especially, were jobs for the use of ox-power. If a plow share got caught in a tree-root or boulder, horses were apt to become nervous and excited, while slow-motion oxen were content to stand perfectly still, peacefully chewing their cuds, while the driver worked to clear the obstacle. Oxen were also cheaper than horses, a yoke costing from $90 to $100, and a cow from $10 to $18, according to Peter Daane of Oostburg.
Likewise, oxen were often the choice of emigrants traveling west by covered wagon in the mid-1800s in the United States. Horses were considered ineffective because they could not live off prairie grasses. Needing grain to thrive, horses were expensive and finicky in comparison to their bovine compatriots; oxen could live off grass or sagebrush and seldom had the bloat.
Useful for many other important jobs, Joseph Osthelder of Sheboygan Falls, delivered beer from the local brewery, located near the foot of Buffalo and Broadway, with a wagon pulled by oxen. During Osthelder’s tenure in the mid-1850s, delivery by any other method was nearly impossible. With no real roads, only trails through the forests and swamps, oftentimes travel required two teams of oxen. One memorable trip involved Osthelder going to Abbott (Sherman) to retrieve barley for Sheboygan businessman, Michael Winter. Carrying $500 in cash and battling wolves the entire trip, Osthelder was accompanied by Charles Michael and a couple of well-oiled shot guns.
Gus Buchen also remembers that for many years there was a covered frame bridge—a well-known landmark—over the Sheboygan River near the first rapids, which was familiarly known as the Ashby bridge. It was built in 1874. He states that contrary to popular belief, covered bridges were not built to give protection against rain and snow, but to prevent horses and oxen from being frightened while crossing the water.
Broken sod, improved roads and advances in farming eventually left the oxen behind. They had become a symbol of the past; no progressive farmer needed such a beast. Steam power made the ox obsolete.
But, in the settling of the West, and Wisconsin was the west in the 1840s and 1850s, oxen were the unsung heroes. They made agriculture and road building possible. They cleared the dense forests of the state, and they symbolized the tough, rugged, demanding traits required to make a go of it in the American frontier.
Beth Dippel is executive director of the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center.