America was still a more callous world than not for cats. But our status was in the process of being forever changed by some of history’s bravest and most determined felines.
The United States offered itself as a land of opportunity, but the overcrowded cities and squalid slums of the East Coast fulfilled that promise for precious few. Once again, the more stouthearted of your kind began to migrate, risking the gamble of a new life in the huge westward expanses. Traveling over the Rockies, pioneers started breaking ground on new farms and towns, and even if the terrain was harsh and unforgiving, it was land they could call their own, in a place where the sun was bright, the sky was blue, and the endless horizon carried the promise of freedom.
But the frontier also offered something with less appeal: mice, and plenty of them, over regions so vast that nothing less than the paws of experts could be relied upon. We were desperately needed in the American West! Once more we answered the call, and as the 19th century wore on, cats slowly began to appear in the hinterlands. But from where were these intrepid felines coming? Some had traveled with wagon trains, among humans who had the foresight to bring a cat along. Others migrated up from Mexico, having arrived in Central and South America aboard Spanish galleons, and staking their claim to the American Southwest as they traveled northward with Spanish missionaries. And still more blazed their own trails, true pioneers who migrated further and further from the large cities of the Eastern Seaboard and eventually crossed the Mississippi.
As with the generations of seafaring felines who had colonized the new land, the cats of the frontier were by nature strong and clever. And they were also valuable commodities, especially popular among cowboys, who packed months’ worth of supplies and for whom the predations of field mice could spell disaster. Virile and independent, they nonetheless needed our help. And while you may not see this in your Western films, many cowboys traveled with us across the plains, and I’ll have you know they paid a hefty price for our services.
Consider that in the Arizona territory in the 1880s the fixed price for a cat, any cat at all, was $10. This was a princely sum at a time when a month’s wages might barely exceed $20. But it was dictated by the market itself: There simply weren’t enough of us to fill the demand. Meanwhile entrepreneurs in the Midwest were tripling their money by buying cats up in bulk and shipping us to the Dakotas by railcar, and up in Alaska we were worth our weight in gold—literally so, as desperate miners paid for their felines with gold dust.
You might ask if catching mice on the frontier wasn’t just the same old servitude. I can’t deny the truth of that, but this was a new kind of world where traditional roles and mores didn’t always hold, thereby creating opportunities for those with enough grit to earn a pawhold in society. And many were the cats who rose to that challenge, and in the process redefined public opinion about felines. Take for example a big tomcat named Tom from Salt Lake City. He had been living with a man named John West until, one fine day, Tom took a certain flounder which Mr. West believed belonged to him. (Then as now, the debate over who owns the food within the household was a common matter of contention between cats and humans.) Rather than negotiate the matter peaceably, Mr. West became so enraged that he trapped Tom in a bag, which he then hid under a seat on a train headed to California! Some 337 miles later, in Caliente, Nev., the train’s staff heard Tom’s mewing and rustling. Having discovered the poor cat, they compounded his plight—he had no ticket, so off he went.
But as I have told you, cats on the frontier were of their nature clever and strong, and Tom knew what he had to do. That house in Salt Lake City was his as much as it was Mr. West’s, and he would be damned if he would give it up. He turned eastward and began walking. He crossed mountains and deserts, suffering through brutally hot days and frigid nights in a terrain where dangerous predators roamed. And even though the path was unknown to him, three weeks later he appeared nowhere else than on the very doorstep. He was worse for the wear to be sure, but he wanted one thing and in fact demanded it: dinner. Mr. West could be nothing but impressed, and he gave Tom dinner, and in addition swore never again to put him out. Tom had showed himself the bolder of the two and earned a permanent and rightful place in the home.
Meanwhile Cy Warman, a poet who had worked for the railroads in his younger days and was nicknamed the Bard of the Rockies, recalled the story of another pioneering feline. While employed by the Western Line, he had taken in a stray black female cat who had been residing in the rail yard, and having traveled countless miles together, they had grown quite attached. On the day Warman left the company, he determined to bring her with him into retirement. She was found on the train, sleeping atop the coal stack. He called to her and she responded with an arched back and familiar purr, then stood up and began to make her way over. But midway between him and the train, she suddenly stopped her stride and stood stock-still. There followed a moment of indecision as the rail yard filled with a palpable anxiety, finally to be pierced by a pitiful meow. The cat’s eyes fixed on Warman, and after another pause that must have seemed a day, she made an about face and returned to the train without looking back.
The black cat knew her human was leaving (we always know!), and she knew a choice must be made. That it was difficult, we cannot doubt, but as appealing as a comfortable life with a caring human might be, she was a frontier cat. She chose the train—a dirty coal pile over a comfortable bed, the feeling of speed and power rather than days lazing on a porch, the unbroken expanse over a well-tended garden. She chose to ride, the wind whipping her whiskers. And so she did, at least for the next couple of years, until one fateful day when the train derailed. The engineer was found dead, his body broken, and a few feet away the cat was found, her body also crumpled and lifeless. Where she had come from and whom she had been before the rail yard, no one knows. But the men of the line all knew who she became, America’s (and the world’s!) one and only railroad cat.
She had chosen her own path through life, having died as she had lived, a pioneer even among pioneers. But that was the nature of the frontier! Life was not easy, but it was a place where old identities were forgotten and new ones formed. Bonds grew under the lonely Western sky, and in that great expanse an ancient idea was born anew: cats as companions. Two frontiers were being simultaneously conquered by felines out west, not simply the one shown on maps, but also the one bordering human hearts. Think about the railway men and that fine black cat! Never would they imagine they would be hurtling down the line with a feline conductor! Getting to know and understand her, sharing a laugh and a meow over the smell of burning coal. Think of the cowboys who traveled with us across the endless terrain as we sat perched behind their saddle horns. Along those empty trails they likewise learned our ways, and can you doubt that on a starry night by the campfire they might strum their guitars and offer a song to a feline friend, who in return offered a contented purr?
Excerpted from A Cat’s Tale: A Journey Through Feline History, by Paul Koudounaris and Baba the Cat. Published by Henry Holt and Company, November 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Paul Koudounaris. All rights reserved.