Abel Head "Shanghi" Pierce
By D E Truchon
The following document is a brief biography of, and tales about Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce. He was born in Little Compton, RI on June 29, 1834. His parents ran a small farm and his father had a modest blacksmith shop.
It was from these modest beginnings that he rose to become a multimillionaire, with land holdings in Texas that exceeded a million acres and cattle holdings of over 100,000 head.
Although the accomplishments and tales that follow are about "Shanghai", it should be noted that many of his business successes and land acquisitions could not have come about without the partnership of his brother Jonathan (born in Little Compton in 1839). The brothers worked for Bing Grimes prior to the Civil War, joined the Confederate Army together, became partners following the Civil War and remained in that partnership for the following twenty-five years. The brothers continued to succeed in business, even after splitting their holdings.
Sister Susan Pierce (born in Little Compton 1841) moved to Texas and married Wiley Kuykendall who was the chief ranch manager for the Pierce brothers.
Even after the brothers divided their holdings, Mary Pierce Borden's (born in Little Compton 1832) son, Abel Pierce Borden (born in Tiverton 1866) managed "Shanghai's" holdings. By implementing his uncle's ideas he brought international fame to the Texas cattle business.
Two towns in Texas were planned, developed, and named by the Pierce brothers. Shanghai plotted streets, built a hotel, church, railroad station and convinced the railroad to extend their rails to his town of Pierce. Jonathan did the same with a town about thirty five miles southeast of Pierce. He wanted them to call the town "Thank God" because it took them such a long time to complete the line. The railroad company thought that name would be inappropriate. Jonathan relented and settled for the name Blessing. 10
Little Compton can be proud of the Pierce family. The brothers over time accumulated over 1,000,000 acres, (Rhode Island consists of 693,760 acres.) 6, hundreds of thousands of cattle, and millions of dollars.
Abel Head Pierce was named after his uncle. Uncle Abel Head was a successful Virginia merchant. Frugal Little Compton family members would often talk about "rich" Uncle Abel. This and other stories of successful people made young Abel establish the goal of becoming rich at all costs.
Abel was a tall skinny boy while attending school and was nicknamed "Shanghai" after the local farm rooster that had long spindly legs. This nickname was not used in his presence because, as he later expressed, "Shanghai" meant fight.
Like many boys in their early teens, Abel could not envision any way to become rich or successful under the somewhat overbearing influence of his father. Many heated arguments led to the decision to send Abel to Virginia to work for his uncle.
His experience with his uncle was just as disappointing as his Little Compton family experience. A routine of getting up before dawn, sweeping and cleaning floors, stocking merchandise, and other menial tasks was not his idea of a road to riches. Even Uncle Abel became frustrated with what seemed to him to be a lack of enthusiasm. What the boy needed was more guidance from an increased amount of time in the church.
Abel did enjoy one part of his apprenticeship. He would listen intently to stories of Texas, a new land where cattle and land could be had just for the asking. By his late teens he had had enough of the mercantile business, and "too many cases of sanctimony." He left his uncle and went to the docks of New York City where he stowed away on a boat bound for Matagorda Bay Texas. He was either discovered or surrendered himself after departure and put to work to pay for his passage.
Upon his arrival in Texas, with 75 cents his pocket, he found employment on a cattle ranch owned by W B "Bing" Grimes. Bing put the now strong 6'3" 19 year old to work splitting rails for "4 bits" (50 cents) a day and board. Many mornings Abel had to leave for his work site before breakfast was ready. While on route he had to pass widow Ward's house where he became a breakfast guest for huge mounds of flapjacks.
Years later, after Pierce became very rich and successful, widow Ward's son applied for a $90,000 loan for a land speculation deal. Abel was a major stockholder in the bank. The bank offered young Ward $70,000. Mr. Ward asked permission to contact Pierce for support for the original $90,000. Abel wrote a letter instructing the bank to loan the young man the full $90,000 "because his mother made good flapjacks."7
On one occasion Bing's wife saw a slave take a very hard fall while breaking a horse. Mrs. Grimes was very upset with her husband for assigning this task to a slave. She told Bing that "it was stupid to have a slave that cost $1000 doing that dangerous work when he had a two-bit Yankee splitting logs." Abel became the ranch horse breaker.
Every good horseman needs spurs. Abel went to the blacksmith shop and had a pair of spurs made for himself. While trying them out, he strutted around jangling the loose rowels and decided that he did indeed look like a Shanghai rooster. From that day on the moniker Shanghai ceased to be a term of derision and the young broncobuster became Shanghai Pierce.
In a year's time Shanghai had learned a lot about the cattle business and decided to take his back pay in stock instead of money. Bing owed him about $200 and a strong cow with a healthy calf sold for about $14. Bing paid Shanghai with very old cows and the weakest calves that he had on the ranch. None of the "wages" survived the first winter. When asked about the transaction later Bing stated that he "was just teaching a Yankee the cattle business." Shanghai had indeed learned lesson "One."
This was not the only time Shanghai became upset with his boss. Shanghai was infatuated with Bing's sister. He would envision himself as marrying into the Grimes family and becoming a rich cattle rancher. Once when the family had gathered for a festive dinner in the ranch house, Shanghai arrived hoping to be included in the festivities. Bing met Shanghai on the front porch and said "you don't eat in this house, you eat with the slaves and the Yankee white trash out back in the cook house." Shanghai turned and rode off with as much dignity as he could muster.
There is one feature that everyone who ever met Shanghai Pierce remembered. That is his voice. It has been described as "the bellow of a bull" or "the roar of a hurricane." "He could sit in one end of a railroad coach and in his normal voice carry on a conversation with someone at the other end. Of course the other fellow would have to yell."2 When one of his partners was asked if Shanghai was in town, he would go to the door, cup his hand behind his ear, turn to his guest and say "nope, if he was anywhere in town you would hear him." Shanghai was asked about his voice once and he "My voice wasn't made for indoor use."4 In Little Compton while visiting his sister and attending a funeral service, he asked Miranda, in what he thought was a whisper, if they were going to serve mince pie at the collation. Much to her embarrassment everyone in the congregation heard his whisper. "Mirandie" would insist that Shanghai attend church services when he visited. It is said that everyone knew when Shanghai was in town because you could hear his "Amens."
Shanghai stayed with Bing Grimes and became a valued employee. His pay increased to $22.50 per month, with extra pay for each calf or maverick he branded. The Grimes Ranch had three registered brands and Shanghai had one. Bing's sister had one, Bing had another, and Bing's father had a third. Shang would brand the best cattle with the sisters brand, (he still thought he might become part of the family) the fathers brand would go to the ordinary cows, and Bing's brand would be placed on the weakest and skinniest cattle. Sometimes, "by accident", Shanghai's brand would get put on a calf. "Interest on my first years pay."
When asked why he left Rhode Island Shanghai replied "When I laid down, my head would be in someone's lap in Massachusetts and my feet would be bothering someone in Connecticut."
Brother Jonathan Pierce came to Texas and went to work on the Grimes Ranch. Jon was not very good as a horsemanship, but he excelled at bookkeeping, horticulture, land management, and construction. Shanghai became Trail Boss and Jonathan became the business manager.
Shanghai drove a herd of Grimes cattle from the ranch in Texas to New Orleans. When he was asked how he got the cattle across all of the swamps and streams in Louisiana he replied "those mosseyhorns just looked for some vines, tangled them around their horns and swung across like monkeys."
At the outbreak of the Civil War both Pierce brothers became privates in Company D, of the First Texas Cavalry. The commanding officer recognized Shanghai's uncanny ability to "find" cattle, no matter who they belonged to. For this special talent Shanghai was assigned the rank of "Regimental Butcher." 1 When asked about his rank during the War, Shanghai would say that "I was about the same as a major general, the last to leave camp on the attack, and the first to leave on retreat." 4
The first thing Shanghai did when he was released at the end of the War, was head for the Grimes Ranch to retrieve the five hundred dollars he had left with Bing. Bing pointed to a whole barrel full of worthless confederate money and told Shanghai to "help himself." Shanghai shouted in anger "By God, Sir, I'll put you on the Black Hills for this!." 1
THE CATTLE BUSINESS
Shanghai and Jonathan became partners in the cattle business rather than returning to the Grimes ranch. Jonathan had made some wise investments in cattle and Shanghai was able to borrow on his knowledge and experience. Jonathan would stay at the ranch taking care of the books and the business problems while Shanghai would handle the roundup, trail, and outside portion of the business. Cattle had multiplied, increasing geometrically during the War years. Most of these cattle were not branded and were available for the taking. Reconstruction was extremely difficult on the South. In the North the demand for beef was insatiable. The problem was finding some way to get the cattle north to satisfy the demand.
The railroads were expanding into Dodge City, Abilene, and Wichita. Shanghai gathered his cattle and bought cattle from other Texas ranchers to drive north to the Kansas railheads. He was among the first to use the new Chisholm Trail for the four months long cattle drive to Kansas. It is during these drives and the transactions related to them that Shanghai Pierce earned his reputation. The self proclaimed "Webster on cattle" or "mystic knight of Bovine" became known from the Rio Grande to the Canadian boarder. Shanghai's cattle became "Shanghai's mosseyhorns" or "Shanghai's sea lions." 1
Shanghai would roam the countryside with his slave, Neptune. Money was scarce, cattle were plentiful, and owners were in dire need of income. He and Neptune would ride up to a camp and ask for the boss. Shanghai would say "Young man he called everyone young man, young or old I've come to buy cattle." He would instruct Neptune to spread out a saddle blanket and fetch the saddlebags containing gold and silver coins. Shanghai would then pick out the best two or three hundred head and pay for them with cash, much to the delight of the owners.
During one particularly dry season, Shanghai's cattle were suffering from "pinkeye" and "worms" from lack of water. Upon reaching a large waterhole, the company was prevented from allowing the cattle to drink. A force of armed men surrounded the waterhole claiming that only their cattle could use the water. Shanghai strongly protested claiming that the water was a God given commodity that everyone had rights to. He even offered to pay to allow his cattle drink, but to no avail. He then ordered the drive to continue without water. That night, after bedding the herd down, Shang held a "star council." He ordered some of his men to return to the water hole; round up all of the cattle they could find and drive them "until their tongues dragged on the ground." The following day the armed group caught up with Shanghai's herd and demanded that they inspect the herd for their lost cattle. Shanghai said "Go ahead boys and take your time, we are in no hurry!." The following day they arrived and asked to cut the herd again and they found nothing. On a third occasion they returned, but this time Shanghai refused claiming that no one has the right to cut another's herd three times for the same reason. The offenders left without incident. When Shanghai arrived in Kansas he was asked how the drive went. Shanghai replied "considering the natural increase in the cattle along the road, it was a fairly profitable trip."5
On one occasion Shanghai decided to take a ride on the cattle cars to find out how some of the cattle were being injured while in transit. He completed his trip and headed for his favorite hotel for a much-needed bath and change of clothes. When he approached the desk, the clerk would not acknowledge his presence. With no other alternative, the clerk finally asked who he was. Shanghai shouted in a voice that could be heard half way across Kansas "I, sir, am Shanghai Pierce Webster on Cattle."
Besides buying cattle and driving them to the railheads in Kansas, Jonathan and Shanghai were acquiring large tracts of land. When the market price for cattle dropped the brothers would pasture the cattle until the price increased. At times it became more profitable to slaughter the stock for hides and tallow. On occasion they would even sell the cattle.
Shanghai sold a large herd of cattle to a group of "shorthorn" men from up north. The buyers were not familiar with the wild nature of these Shanghai sea lions. The new owners started their drive north with this wild herd, but they continued to lose cattle every night. By the time they got to the Oklahoma border they had no cattle left to drive. Somehow most of the cattle returned to the ranch on their own, only to be sold again.8
Barbed wire was now defining pastures and replacing the "open range" of cattle country. The Pierce brothers were advocates of these enclosures. The practice would allow a landowner to enclose a plot of land with barbed wire and then drive branded cattle of other owners off that land, thereby allowing only his cattle to graze on the pasture. It is with this procedure that all of Bing Grime's cattle were ousted leaving Bing with no recourse but to sell and get out of the cattle business completely. Shanghai's prophecy of "I'll put you on the Black Hills for this!" had come to fruition as far as the cattle business was concerned.
While inspecting some of his holdings Shanghai came upon a band of cattle thieves. They had set up a tallow factory. They had killed several hundred heads of cattle for the tallow and hides. Four hundred of the cattle had Pierce brands. A lynch mob was formed and four of the thieves were lynched. A rumor was spread that Shanghai had participated in that lynching. Some people believed that he had even given the order for the lynching. An investigation was started and Shanghai was subpoenaed to testify at the proceedings. Shanghai had married Fanny Lacy and she bore two of his children, a daughter and a son. The son died at four months, and shortly thereafter Fanny died. Shanghai packed up and moved to Kansas. Some say that he moved to avoid giving testimony, some say because of grief, some say because he was being hunted by business rivals and gunfighters. Maybe they were all right! 14 He moved back to Texas after about 18 months and acquired about a half million acres of land in Wharton and Matagorda Counties.
Shanghai noticed that cattle that had Brahman blood were adaptable to the hot damp conditions found in coastal Texas and were not bothered be ticks. He also noticed that this breed and the crossbreeds did not "catch" Texas fever. He concluded that it was ticks that caused the dreaded Texas fever that had become the scourge of the cattle industry. He was able to buy two of these sacred cattle from India at a traveling circus.7 (Shanghai's nephew, Abel Pierce Borden, became the manager of Shanghai's estate. He went to India and bought 51 head of Brahman cattle. Before they were allowed into the United States, they were quarantined on an island off New Jersey. Some of the herd was infected with a disease carried by the tsetse fly. The Secretary of Agriculture ordered the whole herd destroyed. A. P. Borden appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt for intervention. With the Presidents help it was found that 33 head were disease free. They were released and were shipped to the Pierce ranch in Texas where they became the foundation stock for the Brahman breed throughout the United States.) 11
It was during the last half of the nineteenth century that all of the famous gunfighters and lawmen were made famous through dime novels and movies. Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Texas Oklahoma and Kansas were the frontier areas. Most people carried guns and were not overly concerned about how they used them. Wyatt Earp and Ben Thompson were real gunslingers on the side of the law. John Wesley Hardin was an outlaw killer on the other side of the law. (By age 19, Hardin had killed at least 21 men not counting Blacks or Mexicans!) 9
Shanghai believed in fighting with money and didn't "take much to scrappin'." He often said "Just give me 30 minutes and I can talk any Man out of a fight." 2. On another occasion he was overheard saying "By heaven, young man, if I stopped to fight with everyone who cussed me I'd be fighting all the time and I wouldn't have time to take their money!"7
While on the range Shanghai wandered into the territory of one of his bitterest enemies. Four cowboys who worked for this enemy captured him and told him to start saying his prayers because they were going to hang him and deliver his body to their boss. Shanghai told them that they "were the biggest fools he had ever met because you have caught me and don't understand my value." He explained that a steer would be more valuable than he was because they could at least skin it and sell the hide. He offered them a check for $5000 and they accepted. One of his captors took the check to town and cashed it while the others stood guard over Shanghai. Upon his return they split the money and released Shanghai leaving no one the wiser.13
Shanghai had a ranch foreman with whom he had become very friendly. His foreman was shot and killed by a ranch hand from a neighboring ranch. The killer fled. About four months after the incident, Shanghai was on a business trip to the southern part of Texas. He stopped for lunch at a café and encountered the killer, who called out for his friends to rescue him from a vengeful Shanghai. The killer's friends drew their guns and entered the café. Shanghai grabbed the killer, shielding himself with his captor, explaining that they were really friends. He then invited all present to join him at the bar for drinks. Later Shanghai explained that he had visions of his name in large black print on his large white gravestone during the encounter.13
The Texas Cattle Raisers Association held a banquet at a hotel in Austin. A lawyer entered the banquet hall by mistake and was quickly escorted out and roughly thrown into the street. He shouted that Ben Thompson, the fancy gun handler and city marshal would hear about the abuse. Shanghai had arrived at the banquet late and was not able to take his usual seat at the head of the table. Shanghai, "the king of the cattle barons", couldn't even get anyone to pass the turkey down the long banquet table. He removed his boots, got up on the table and gingerly picked his way toward the turkey, being careful not to step in the peas or upset the gravy boat. About half way to his destination, Ben Thompson weapons drawn burst through the door shouting "Who the hell says my friend can't come in here." Shanghai leapt from the table and dove through the nearest window, glass, sash, screen, and all. He later explained that he was "too big a target to wait around for the fire works."7
Shanghai was not known as a "drinker", but one time in Wichita he got drunk. After a prolonged struggle with Wyatt Earp, he found himself in front of a judge paying $100 fines for himself and 21 of his hired cowboys.6 While on a roundup, Shanghai's cowboys had herded a farmers family milk cow. The farmer approached Shanghai and in a meek voice asked to have his cow cut out of the herd and returned. Shang brushed the farmer off by telling him that they were all too busy to be bothered with one cow at this time and he would take care of it later. The farmer went away but returned in a short time with a double barrel shotgun. Bracing the shotgun against his saddle, pointed directly at Shanghai's head again requested that his cow be cut from the herd and returned. Shanghai ordered his men to stop what they were doing and get this fellows cow immediately. He told his crew later that he saw the inscription on his gravestone and it said, "Shanghai Pierce, born June 29, 1834 died TODAY"
John Wesley Hardin, one of the most vicious killers of the old west, was a relative of the Taylor family in DeWitt, County Texas. The Taylor family had been feuding with the Sutton family for years with family members lost by both families. Cattle barons Shanghai Pierce, Jake Christman, and Jim Cox along with Sheriff JB Morgan and lawman Jack Helm sided with the Sutton faction. Hardin threatened to kill all who supported the Suttons. Hardin did in fact kill Christman, Cox, Morgan, and Helm. It has been said that Shanghai conducted a lot of business up in Kansas while Harden was in Texas. (Hardin was shot in the back and killed 8/19/1895.) 9
Shanghai went on a tour of Europe. He intended to check on the cattle and pay a visit to the head of state of each country he visited. He discovered that these leaders were "not at home" when he went calling. When he visited the Vatican to see the Pope no one told him that it was customary to make an appointment to visit His Holiness. After trying some closed doors Shanghai was turned back by the halberds of the Swiss Guards. He later said "When I saw those men come at me with their bayonets, I just threw up my hands western style and backed out."2
Jonathan Pierce had contacted a sculptor, Frank Teich, to meet him at the ranch to discuss a family burial marker. Shanghai was at the ranch and while discussing some of the European statues he had seen while touring Europe discovered that Mr. Teich had assisted in creating them. Shanghai asked if Mr. Teich could sculpt a full size likeness of himself. Mr. Teich said that he could and would for $2500. After insisting on a statue that would stand "higher than any Confederate general" and that the statue would be a "fair likeness" to be determined "by a person of my choosing", Teich agreed. Shanghai then insisted that $2500 was too much. Mr. Teich finally agreed to accept $2250 for the work.
While the statue was being created, Shanghai went about claiming that he had contracted for a bronze statue to be cast of him at a cost of $20,000.
Three sections were delivered Deming's Bridge Cemetery. A ten foot section of highly polished gray granite with the inscription A H Pierce, born June 29, 1834 died -----, another ten foot pilaster upon which was to be mounted the 6' 5" statue. When the construction was completed, Green Duncan, a small Negro boy walked slowly around the statue looking at Shanghai, then the statue, then again at Shanghai and finally exclaimed "Mr. Shanghai, dat shore do look like you up there." Upon hearing this Shanghai said, "By Gad, that does it, I'll take it!" Shanghai wrote Frank Teich his acceptance of the "fair likeness."3
Shanghai's sister, Miranda, was approached in Little Compton to inspect a monument that was being delivered. The monument was carved and inscribed by the Providence Monument Works. Shanghai had ordered it to be placed at the Pierce family gravesite on West Main Rd. in Little Compton, but forgot to tell anyone about it. Miranda wouldn't sign anything she didn't know about. She was very angry with Shanghai when she learned that he had indeed ordered the marker without her knowledge.
Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce died at 3 AM on December 26,1900. He had feasted on a turkey dinner and copious quantities of raw oysters at Christmas dinner against his doctor's advice. Many thought spoiled oysters killed him, but the real cause was a cerebral hemorrhage.
The funeral took place in the church Pierce had built for the community. (At an earlier time Shanghai was asked if he belonged to that church, he replied "Hell no! That church belongs to me.")
Comments about him after his passing:
"His wealth did not change his nature; he remained to the end a crude, vulgar, loud-mouthed egotist." 1
"If there is one of the old Texans I'd like to have known it would have been him." 12
"He was as uncouth as the cattle he drove, but with all his blustering ways, there was no harm in him. He was, at heart, one of the best men in this or any other land" 7
" A man who, through hard work and ruthless determination, rose to become the undisputed king of the Texas Cattle Barons." 4
In conclusion, it should be noted that neither the flamboyance of "Shanghai" nor the quiet industriousness of "King Jon" should not detract from the legacy these two Little Compton Pierce brothers have left to Texas or the cattle business of the United States.
D E Truchon
Mrs. "Judy" Truchon, Mrs. Ruth Pierce, Mrs. Janet Barrett-Hobizal, Ms. Mary Belle Ingram, the staff of the Wharton County Historical Museum, the staff of the Matagorda County Museum.
1 . Davis, Joe Tom Legendary Texans Eakin Press 1982 VIII
2 . Douglas, C L Cattle Kings of Texas The Cattlemen 1938
3 . Emmett, Chris Shanghai Pierce A Fair Likeness University of Oklahoma Press 1953
4 . Ingram, Mary Belle Unpublished Paper for South Texas Regional Historical Society.
5 . Ladd, Kevin Webster on Cattle Texas Illustrated L51
6 . Patten, David Adventures in a Remembered World
7 . Pattie, J R Shanghai Pierce Webster on Cattle True West March-April 1965
8 . Seringo, Charles A Texas Cowboy William Sloane Associates New York 1950
9 . Steele, Phillip W Outlaws and Gunfighters of the Old West Pelican Publishing 1991
10 Tolbert, Frank "Tolberts Texas" Dallas News July 1963
11 Williams, Annie Lee A History of Wharton County Von Boeckmann-Jones Co. Austin, TX
12 Wolff, Henry Jr. "The Victoria Advocate" Henry's Journal Aug 28, 1994
13 Young, S. O. "Houston Chronicle" March 26 1920
14 Unknown Author "Houston Post" Sunday, April 29 1934
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