Jesse Wilkinson with his everyday working clothes and equipment.
An Era Begins
Wilkinson was born September 18, 1882 on a ranch in the small central
California coast settlement of La Graciosa, which
eventually became what is now the Orcutt area near Santa Maria. The
Wilkinson family had migrated from Missouri to California in a covered
wagon. They were some of the first settlers in the area.
to California were working class people seeking the adventures of a new
frontier and a brighter future than what was available to them in the
Eastern and Midwestern states. Migration to California was slow and
filled with torment through hostile environments, areas with no roads or
marked pathways, no developed river crossings, very few towns, and without
the civilized conveniences we take for granted today. Early
settlements were quite basic and in most cases somewhat primitive because of
the limited resources available. These people had
only a limited vision of the magnificent and dynamic changes that were in
An early Wilkinson family ranch home. Jesse is seated in the buggy.
Jesse was the
second of 10 children (5 boys and 5 girls) born to John Wilkinson and Hattie
Ann (Stubblefield) Wilkinson. Because of the large number of
children in Jesse’s family, the boys left school at an early age and
began full-time work. The three oldest boys, Ab, Jesse, and Cleve,
joined the cowboy lifestyle; the remaining siblings had other
called “Jess” or “Jake”) was a cowboy in every sense of the word. At the
age of 12 he left school and went to work for Miller & Lux, the greatest
cattle spread ever known. Miller & Lux reportedly owned over one
million acres of cattle grazing land in California, Nevada and Oregon plus several ranches leased.
Henry Miller was reportedly the only person in the United States to ever own
a million head of branded cattle on the range at one time. Bill
Stubblefield, Jesse’s uncle, was superintendent for the Miller & Lux
which included Cuyama Valley, Carrizo Plains, and the Buttonwillow area of
Jesse rode the
rough stock of horses and cowboyed for Miller & Lux for many years. He had
the fortune of working with older vaqueros who tutored him in the finer
skills of horsemanship and cattle handling. Jesse advanced to one of the
company’s top foremen and one of its best riders. He said he broke
more wild horses for Henry Miller than he could remember.
Jesse at the Chimeneas Ranch circa 1934.
Jesse rode were common bloodline ranch horses that were bred, born, and raised on large open ranges
where they learned early in life to handle themselves in several types of
terrain and range conditions. These horses were virtually untouched until 5
years old when they were gathered from the range and prepared for use as
saddle horses. Horse training lessons were doled out during daily
on-the-job training sessions in numerous ranching activities. The cowboy was an
unofficial veterinarian who often faced on-the-spot cattle doctoring
situations. Roping cattle was standard practice because corrals and
cattle handling facilities were often several miles away.
the California vaquero system of horse breaking. All horses were started in
a braided rawhide hackamore with horse hair mecate reins. Snaffle bits were
almost never used. The horse was ridden for about a year or so in the
hackamore while being used for all daily ranching activities. This was an
important formative training period for the horse. The horse then advanced
to the two-rein system, using a combination of a bosal (a smaller sized
hackamore) with horse hair mecate reins while also wearing a bit with bridle
reins. This was an important time for gradually advancing
from riding in the hackamore to riding "straight up in the bit." The
two-rein transition period usually lasted about a year or so, depending on
the progress of the horse. The bit used most often was a spade bit, although a half breed bit was occasionally
used. After completing the two-rein training period, the horse was
ridden "straight-up in the bit," which usually continued for the rest of its
advocated the benefits of allowing a horse to mature before beginning the
training process. These horses were to be used as part of several cowboying tasks in a variety of terrains,
and he insisted that they needed
mental and physical maturity to endure conditions that probably could not be
handled by young, immature horses. He reasoned that before 5 years old a
horse’s bones, tendons & ligaments, teeth, and mind are not ready for the difficult
tasks that may be required. He insisted that starting a horse any younger
than 5 years old was inviting
problems that may cripple it for life, and therefore render it useless
for the necessary ranch work.
California vaquero horses were especially admired for their
responsiveness to feather-light handling of the reins and their graceful
movements while involved in numerous ranching activities. Jesse and
his brother Ab were
well-known for having outstanding horses.
Jesse and Ab at the Chimeneas Ranch, circa 1935.
Ab riding a hackamore horse
at the Chimeneas Ranch, circa 1935.
Jesse while working at the Camatta Ranch.
Cattle went to
market on foot in those days, or at least as far as the loading pens at the
railroads. Jesse drove cattle many times across areas where Maricopa,
Taft, McKittrick, Devil’s Den, and Avenal now stand, before there were any
buildings and the only inhabitants in that country were jackrabbits and
horned toads. On one drive Jesse and others swam 3,500 head of cattle over
the Miller & Lux canal while moving them to market. On another
occasion, 60,000 head of cattle under four Miller & Lux outfits were gathered
at Buttonwillow to be graded and shipped. On another occasion a team
of 60 Miller & Lux vaqueros took four wagons to Deep Wells to brand a
few head of cattle Henry Miller had bought; the few head were 15,000 two-year-old steers - they roped and branded them all.
Jesse (second from left) and other vaqueros in front of the Beale Library
after a cattle drive that ended near Bakersfield.
Jesse at the Jobe Ranch in the Carrizo Plains area of San Luis Obispo
Jesse and Ab while working at Ozena, CA, near the Cuyama River and
completely wild cattle, as wild as deer, roamed the hills in those days. Some of the
most exciting moments during Jesse’s boyhood took place in the Ozena and
Pine Mountain areas which sheltered many herds of wild cattle. Jesse and his companion riders would rope the wild
cattle with their riatas, throw the animal down and tie it’s feet together with a piece of grass rope,
and then with another grass rope tie the animal by its horns to a tree.
After securing the animal to a tree, the grass rope binding its feet was cut
loose and the wild steer was left there overnight, tethered by the horns to
the tree. During the night the wild steer would attempt to get away, walking around the tree and
frequently pull back on the rope tied around its horns. The constant friction caused the skin around
the horns to become quite tender and sensitive. The next morning the riders
would return, put a riata around the animal’s horns, and cut the grass rope
free. With the riata around the tender and sensitive area of the horns
the steer would quietly follow the rider with very little resistance.
A wild steer tethered to a tree.
recalled a Tule Elk relocation activity that took place in 1904, when he was
22 years old.
The Tule Elk
California's central valley) were significantly declining in numbers during
the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although they were declining in
numbers, they were causing significant crop damage in the Buttonwillow area
of Kern County. A government preservation program was developed that
included relocating some of the elk herd to other areas of the state.
Henry Miller had significant land holdings in the Buttonwillow area, he was a strong advocate for Tule
Elk protection, and he
cooperated with the government's elk preservation programs.
In 1904 government officials decided to relocate some of the elk herd from the Buttonwillow
area to Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of
Bakersfield. The elk were to be gathered by highly skilled cowboys and
specially designed catch pens. They would then be transported by train
to Sequoia National Park. Some of the highly skilled Miller & Lux vaqueros were chosen to
assist in the elk gathering because of their experience handling wild
cattle. Jesse was one of the men chosen for this task.
Miller & Lux cattle pens and loading chutes were already located
nearby at Lokern, so wings were extended out to better facilitate the riders when they
began to drive the elk into the catch pens. Jim Ogden, manager
of the Buttonwillow Ranch where the elk were located, was in charge of the drive. His
orders were that only as a last resort, if the elk were escaping, as many as
possible should be lassoed.
Crews of men
on horseback, about sixty men, were placed in a series of relays for handling the
first group of riders drove a large band of elk about a mile and a half to a
relay crew. As soon as the second crew took over the elk spooked and
scattered to the countryside of the Elk Hills area. The scattered elk seemed to be
running in every direction. Jesse saw Ogden getting his riata ready
to catch an elk, so Jesse built a loop in his riata.
Ahead of Jesse
was a big bull elk with large antlers. Bill
Stubblefield, Jesse’s uncle, was in the lead and
Jesse was right behind him. Bill took after the big bull, swinging his riata. Just as Bill threw his loop the running elk jumped sideways, and the
loop fell to the ground. Jesse followed with a toss and caught the feisty
bull elk around the antlers, and he dallied his riata around the saddle horn,
while the rest of the elk and cowboys
There he was
on one end of the riata, and a wild elk on the other end. He
thought, “Well, I can throw and tie down a wild cow, so maybe I can throw
and tie down a wild elk.
I’ll try.” He did. With all the spunk of his youth, Jesse threw
the animal and tied it down (immobilized it by hog-tying all four feet together with a short
piece of rope).
He was quickly
back in the saddle and went after a cow elk, which he also caught and tied
By this time
the elk and other cowboys were out of sight. However, along the rim of the
hill he saw two dust clouds, moving fast. Two men were riding hard about a
mile behind a spike elk. Jesse rode his horse into a washout and
waited unnoticed. When the
spike elk was near he jumped his horse out of the washout, lassoed the elk,
and tied it down too.
Out of the
entire elk herd only ten were captured that day. All were roped,
including the three Jesse caught and tied down.
used for taking the captured elk to the railroad loading pens. Because
elk are extremely nervous, one of them died before it could be loaded into a
wagon. The antlers of the big bull elk Jesse caught were so large that
the animal had to be dehorned so he could fit through the loading chute and
into the railroad car.
The big bull
elk was the only one to survive the train ride to Sequoia National Park.
The others all died in transit. When the big bull elk was turned loose
in the park he was apparently one very furious animal after the entire ruckus.
He saw a buck deer nearby and charged for a battle to the death, not
realizing he had no antlers. Because the elk’s antlers had been
removed, the buck deer made short work of him, killing the bull elk.
Upon that occurrence, all of the elk that were captured had died. The
elk drive was a total failure.
descriptions of the 1904 elk relocation effort are included in California Fish & Game and other historical
and government publications. An article
featuring the elk drive published in a San Francisco newspaper several
months after the event included a picture of Jesse on horseback with the large bull elk
at the end of his riata.
photographs of the 1904 elk drive are available courtesy of the U.C. Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate
Zoology, and courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences. Photographs were taken by John Rowley and C. H. Merriam.
Big bull elk tied to fence at the Miller & Lux Buttonwillow corrals.
Sawing antlers off the roped and tied big bull elk.
Horse drawn wagon used for hauling elk.
Loading an elk into a railroad car.
Special Note: Henry Miller was a real hero for the Tule Elk because
he made significant efforts to protect them. Although the 1904 elk
drive was not successful, Tule Elk have subsequently been relocated from the
Buttonwillow area to government supervised elk preserves in other parts of
the state. A Tule Elk Preserve near Buttonwillow (established in 1932)
is managed by the state parks system.
In 1908 Jesse
married Nora Ethel Jobe, daughter of Sam Jobe and Eliza (Blackburn) Jobe.
Sam Jobe was a Pony Express rider, a stagecoach driver, and a personal friend of Buffalo Bill
Cody. Nora was the first non-Indian child born in the Carrizo Plains area
of San Luis Obispo County. Jesse and Nora had four children (2 boys and 2
Jesse and Nora Wilkinson at their 50th wedding anniversary celebration in
Bit maker Abby Hunt and his wife Alma at the Wilkinson's home
Jesse and Nora's 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
the art of rawhide braiding as a boy. He watched with fascination as the
cow-hands made the riatas, hackamores, bosals, reins, hobbles, quirts, etc. that
they needed. He asked one of these skilled craftsmen if he would teach him. Jesse was told to ask his uncle for a “green” cow hide and he would show
him how to do it. His teacher had to be away for a while, so Jesse worked
on some rawhide gear by himself. Upon the teacher’s return Jesse quite proudly
showed him the work he had done. But he was shown where some of the strands
were not smooth enough, and he was told to take it apart and do it over. His teacher insisted on
perfection, a trait that Jesse adopted and followed throughout his life.
Jesse was a
serious student who worked hard at perfecting rawhide working techniques.
Because he had the fortunate opportunity to also use all of the rawhide
items he made,
he perfected all aspects of the work to make them ideally functional for
Ab and Jesse
preferred 85 foot riatas for open range work, and when a riata got down to
65 feet through wear and breakage, they made a new one.
Jesse circa 1930 with several rawhide riatas and other horse gear he
rawhide work was widely known. He sold it to patrons from Canada to
South America, as well as many areas of the United States. Among his
customers were such notables as philosopher and humorist Will Rogers,
western artist Ed Borein, western movie actor Buck Jones, author and
historian Seldon Spaulding, as well as numerous ranchers, buckaroos and
collectors. His rawhide work can be found in museums and private
collections in many parts of the world.
Jesse at age 72 with samples of his rawhide work.
A picture of
Jesse with samples of his rawhide work is included in books by Bruce
Grant entitled "How to Make
Cowboy Horse Gear" and "Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding."
Bruce told Jesse that these books never would not have been completed without his
Jesse's grandson, Ernest Morris, asked Jesse to teach him the skills and
"secrets" of rawhide braiding. Jesse was aware that his own reputation
would forever be associated with Ernie's work. He told Ernie that he
would teach him the rawhide business from A to Z if he would make two
promises. The two promises were: "never
cheat the people," and "do what he told him to do, the way he told
him to do it."
Ernie agreed. Jesse then said, "If you can't
get it, I want you barking at the hole.” “Barking at the hole”
essentially meant to pay attention and be diligent in
efforts to understand and learn, try on your own as much as possible, and then to ask for help if needed. Ernie
was a diligent student. The two spent
numerous hours together working rawhide and discussing cowboying activities
of the past.
Jesse tutoring Ernie on some finer points of rawhide work.
Ernie with a number of hackamores he made.
during a period of the great Spanish and Mexican ranchos of California,
working daily during his youth with many older vaqueros. Ranching areas were massive open
ranges with a variety of terrains. Fences dividing the ranchos into
smaller areas were almost non-existent. The cattle that ranged on ranchos
took on the characteristics of wild beasts, many seeing men or horsemen on
only limited occasions. Jesse cowboyed on ranches in Kern, Kings,
Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties of
primarily a self-taught man, reading numerous books and publications for
both learning and enjoyment purposes. He was physically hardened by daily
tasks, he took pride in his appearance, and he cast a handsome cowboy
Jesse at age 26 and at age 70.
Hard work and the environment of nature kept him riveted to the
truth. He was a no nonsense man who lived his life with impeccable
honesty and unwavering determination. His shoulder never left the wheel when there was work to be
done. He retired from cowboying at the age of 70, and continued working
rawhide until the age of 81.
When asked why he never drank alcoholic beverages,
he said he saw it make people act like fools, and he saw it ruin the lives of
many good people and their families. He wanted nothing to do with anything that could
cause those results.
In 1958 Jesse
was honored as Marshall of the annual the Pioneer Day parade in Paso
Robles. His brother Ab served as deputy Marshall for the event.
Jesse and Ab
at the 1958 Pioneer Day Parade (Paso Robles, CA).
This is the way they and their
horses were equipped while working everyday.
This was the last time either of them rode horseback.
Because of their active
lifestyles, the Wilkinson family was seldom all together at one time. The
first time all five Wilkinson brothers sat down together for a meal at the
same time was in
1960 when Jesse was 77 years old.
The five Wilkinson brothers in 1960 at their first ever meal together at
the same time.
From left to right (youngest to oldest) - John, Ira, Cleve, Jesse, Ab.
lifestyle Jesse lived had many risks and dangerous incidents, many
hardships, and it did not pay well. Those who did it either loved their
work, or they moved on to another occupation. Jesse loved his work.
Jesse lived a
full and colorful life that contemporary cowboys can only dream about.
Amazingly, he never broke any bones.
Jesse at 80 years old.
lifetime there were 15 different US presidents, 16 different California
governors, and two world wars. Technology and personal conveniences advanced
beyond wildest imaginations. He witnessed industrial,
social, environmental, and economic revolutions that changed the lives of
all of us that followed, including the life of the cowboy.
An Era Ends
Jesse had all
of his wit, spirit and faculties all the way to the end. On June 21,
1965 Jesse passed on to join the other vaqueros who had gone before him.
I'm sure a good horse was saddled and waiting for him when he arrived.
His wife, Nora, and his grandson, Ernest Morris, were at his bedside.
A riata made by Ernie Morris is proudly displayed on Jesse's everyday working saddle
This saddle was made by Visalia Stock Saddle Co. circa 1934.
The decorated and personalized cantle of Jesse's everyday working saddle.