Monday, 29 August 2016

Sam Maverick: a rancher who entered the dictionary

The word “maverick” is often used to describe someone who doesn’t fit in with everyone else, or is something of a nonconformist whose behaviour cannot be predicted. The expression “a maverick politician” means one who can’t be expected to vote the way the rest of his party votes. But where does the term “maverick” come from?

Sam Maverick

Samuel Augustus Maverick was a rancher in Texas during the early 19th century. He displayed his independent streak by being one of those who fought for the independence of Texas against the government of Mexico, to which it then belonged. He had been at the siege of the Alamo in 1836 before Santa Anna killed all the occupants, but had left in order to be a signatory of the Texas Declaration of Independence.

However, that was not why the name Maverick is best remembered today. Instead, it was his lack of attention to detail when it came to managing his cattle that got his name into the dictionary.

Maverick came to own a huge amount of land, amounting to more than 300,000 acres by the time he died in 1870. In 1844 he bought land at Decrows Point near the Gulf of Mexico coast and also a herd of cattle to graze it. He stopped living there in 1847, but left the herd in the care of his slaves.

What they should have done was brand each season’s new calves so that they could be identified from those of other ranchers when it came to round-up time. However, this was not always done, so there were some unbranded cattle wandering about and getting mixed up with those of other ranchers. Those other ranchers, who were far more careful about these things, always knew that a cow without a brand was a “Maverick”, and the name stuck.

Sam Maverick got away with it for a number of years, but in 1854 he responded to complaints by taking personal charge of his herd and making sure that every beast was properly branded.

As is often the case in such matters, the person who was blamed for the oversight was not really the guilty party. If Sam had gone away in 1847 having left instructions that branding should be done, but his people had failed to do so, was it really his fault? Or should he have made sure that the job was done properly? Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, to this day a wayward politician is not a smith or a jones or a robinson but a maverick!

© John Welford