If one digs deep enough, it’s an almost sure thing that cats, in some way, shape or form, are going to be found to be connected to almost every subject in history.
This is true for such diverse topics as Earnest Hemingway, Royal Navy World War II Battleships and, surprisingly, the Wild West.
In popular culture, perhaps the most memorable image of Wild West cats has been given to us by Steven Spielberg.
He produced the animated feature that presented us with what is possibly the most iconic western cat villain of all time: Cat R. Waul, who menaced the Mousekewitzes, and everyone else, in “An American Tale: Fievel Goes West”.
With his top hat, cape, spats and plummy accent, Waul, voiced by John Cleese, was a striking figure, and his love of mouse burgers made sure that he struck terror into the hearts of mice far and wide.
In this case, reality might not have been so very different from fantasy, especially for one small town in South Dakota in 1876.
Deadwood, SD, was almost overrun with rats in the mid-1870s, but the frontier town did not have enough predators to keep the rat population in check.
This was when freighter Phatty Thompson had his brilliant idea: he would rustle up a herd of cats in nearby Cheyenne and transport them back to Deadwood by wagon.
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Once there, he would corner the cat-market and sell the felines for an exorbitant sum. Phatty duly took himself off to Cheyenne, some twelve days’ wagon-travel away, and went about rounding up stray – and some not-so-stray! – cats.
Armed with cats, crates and cat-food for twelve days on the wagon trail, Thompson left Cheyenne with high hopes and thoughts full of the profits he’d make from selling the kitties once he reached Deadwood.
His future didn’t seem so rosy, however, when his wagon overturned while crossing a creek and his howling cargo of drenched moggies escaped.
He managed to lure most of them back to captivity by putting out food for them, though, and soon they were on their way to Deadwood again.
On arrival, the Deadwood populace was so thrilled to see the furry solutions to their rat-problems that a quick cat-auction yielded Thompson prices of up to $30 per cat.
Thompson walked away a rich man, and the inhabitants of Deadwood walked away with about eighty cats!
No doubt the rat population was soon brought down to acceptable levels, and Badger Clark, South Dakota’s first poet laureate, even wrote a poem commemorating the event: The Cat Pioneers.
Deadwood wasn’t the only city where cats had to be imported to save the day, and a similar thing happened in Mount Shasta, California, during the mid-1800s gold rush.
It was also common practice for cats to be bred out east and for the kittens to be shipped out to the western towns by rail.
As always: scratch history’s surface, and you’ll find a cat!