The Story of 80 John: Daniel Webster “80 John” Wallace was born into slavery in coastal Victoria County on the Gulf of Mexico in 1860 as the country embarked on the bloodiest war in its history over the issue of whether men such as he would be confined to a life of servitude or might aspire to freedom, conjure up dreams, and pursue them with all of their heart & soul. He followed his simple dream of becoming a cowboy, then a new vision of becoming a “Texas Cattleman”. The story of 80 John and his wife, Laura D. Wallace, is a beautiful thread in the tapestry of the American West, reflecting courage and achievement and illuminating the little-known fact that one in four cowboys of cattle’s heyday were African-American.
The Early Days – 1860-1885: His mother, Mary Barber, had been sold to the O’Daniel family 3 months before his birth. Webster, as he was known, was always a dreamer who longed to rope and ride, and in 1875, at age 15, he begged his way onto a local cattle drive as a chuck wagon helper and horse wrangler. He quickly mastered the skills and duties of a trail-driving cowboy, developing a reputation for his skills. He forged deep, lasting friendships with his fellow cowboys and employers as he rode every major trail like the Chisolm and Goodnight-Loving, riding for the most respected cattle barons of his day – Slaughter, Ellwood, Gholson, O’Keefe, Bush & Tillar, and Nunn as a wrangler and horse breaker – a skill for which he had no peer. He won their respect for his cattle knowledge, fearlessness, code of ethics and intelligence; and won their trust for his integrity and innate business savvy. He made long, daring solo rides and had harrowing adventures in wild stampedes, river crossings, Comanche raids and brutal snowstorms in Texas, New Mexico and Old Mexico, carrying a six-shooter and keeping a Winchester rifle wrapped with his bedding for self-defense. As a testament to his employers’ trust in him, he delivered the cash proceeds of major cattle sales back to home ranches in long, solo rides, never failing to deliver a single penny. On the range as a young man he sometimes felt alone, without friends to turn to for understanding, but he suffered no racial indignities or epithets and eventually forged great, longstanding friendships. He participated in spring and fall deliveries, branding, finding mavericks and breaking horses. He didn’t participate in the cowboys’ heavy drinking, poker, craps, and pranks – his principles and rugged individualism did not allow such hi-jinx.
Working for Clay Mann – 1885-1891:In 1885 young Webster went to work for well-known cattleman, Clay Mann, whose extensive holdings in Texas, New Mexico and Old Mexico included his Bovito Ranch, later sold to William Randolph Hearst. Over time Webster became Mann’s most trusted hand, and it was branding Mann’s cattle with a large “80” on one side that gave Wallace his nickname of “80 John”. Their friendship fostered Webster’s ultimate dream – becoming a landowning, true Texas Cattleman. He mastered every phase of ranching under Mann and they implemented a plan in which Mann paid Wallace only $5 per month from his $30 wage for two years, putting the remainder aside to invest in his own herd. With little formal education, at age 25 he returned to school down in Navarro County, and in two winters learned to read and write. There he met and courted his wife, Laura Owens, convincing her to marry him and return to West Texas to start what became a marriage of 51 years. By 1885 he was ready to start ranching for himself and purchased his first land in Mitchell County with Mann providing free pasture. Whenever Clay Mann travelled he tasked 80 John with running the ranch and watching over his family and upon Mann’s 1889 passing 80 John continued to work for Mrs. Mann with his duties including training their two young boys in cowboy skills and the techniques of ranching. In 1891 80 John and Laura moved their cattle to their 1,280 acre ranch property, built their homestead house and commenced full time ranching. He and Laura methodically built the herd, utilizing his learnings from Mann and the old ranchmen. Laura was his life and business partner, assisting with all legal contracts, and handling ranch management solo for long periods when he was away on drives, including for one year when he drove the herd to New Mexico in search of pasture during a long West Texas drought. They endured such frontier hardships over the decades to build a successful ranching business of over 8,800 acres and 500 head of cattle through hard work, sacrifice and their widely-acknowledged progressive ranching practices, including the area’s first windmill.
Successful Family Man, Businessman & Philanthropist – 1900-1939: He was a natural born leader, a rugged individualist, who led by example with passion, work ethic, and progressive business practices. On his passing, at age 79 in 1939, he had no debt and was worth over one million dollars with no loans, mortgages, passed due taxes or any encumbrances to overshadow his ownership. He was noted for sharing his skills, wisdom and bounty with all. He cherished formal education and sent his children and grandchildren and many other unrelated youths to college. In homage to his hard-scrabble roots and cowboy and cattleman relationships, 80 John kept close track of the financial affairs of old friends, white and black, who had assisted him in the early days and if found in need, he was always there with unsolicited cash aid, earnestly and gratefully proffered. From the 1890’s on he and Laura utilized lawyers for all major business transactions and developed family estate trusts still in effect to this day. They sent their children and grandchildren to colleges including Northwestern University, the University of Colorado, the University of Chicago, Prairie View and Texas College. He built local schools and churches and was revered for his great recall and knowledge of Mitchell County, and the wild early days of the cattle industry. He was a highly respected and active member of the Texas Cattle Raisers Association for over 30 years. At the age of seventy-nine, he was still quite active, riding two hours daily on his favorite mount, Blondie, a beautiful horse with a long mane and tail that almost touched the ground. Still loving the feel of the saddle, he would show young men how to ride a wild horse in the streets of Loraine, the small town nearby the ranch. Even after he built a beautiful modern home for his beloved Laura, he often preferred to sleep in the nearby bunkhouse, which reminded him of his cowboy days. In his later years he was visited regularly by surviving members of the O’Daniel and Mann families, who came to check on him and give him an opportunity to talk about the “old days” and his days with his little friend Dial, the O’Daniel son whom his Mother, Mary, had nursed alongside him. The Wallace, O’Daniel and Mann families maintain friendships to this day.
Daniel and Laura are buried on the first section of land they acquired, nearby the homes they built for their family. There is a Texas State Historical Marker on the ranch and their descendants still live on and run the family’s Mitchell County ranch today. The land is leased for grazing, grows cotton, has oil exploration, hosts oil pipelines and wind turbine power generation. In 2014 the family donated the original ranch house (circa-1900) to the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock, where it is lovingly restored and displayed as a tribute to their vision, tenacity, resiliency and achievement.
80 John Wallace literally rode astride the fast-moving and epic transformation of the West, moving from impoverished enslavement to trail-riding cowboy adventure to becoming a highly respected and innovative rancher and revered philanthropic pillar of his West Texas community. His life story shows how the bonds of friendship, common struggle and the interdependence of West Texas life overrode the historical racial and social divisiveness otherwise present in those times. His character was imbued with an unrelenting competitive, entrepreneurial spirit and he became successful and widely respected by the sweat of his brow. 80 John Wallace had the pleasure of seeing his big dreams come true.