How Mavericks Got Their Name

Col Wheeler Traces the Term to Samuel A. Maverick, Yale, 1835

The much-discussed question of when the term "maverick," meaning an unbranded steer, first came into use seems to have received an impetus toward solution from Col Homer W. Wheeler, 5th United States Cavalry, retired, who in his recently published autobiography ascribes to conditions during the Civil War responsibility for the adoption of that term.

It has been quite widely known for more than 60 years that the word maverick for a beef animal was a new adaption of the surname of Samuel A. Maverick of San Antonio, Tex, a Yale College 1825 graduate and one of the founders of Texas independence, who in testimony of his disapproval of nullification had fought a duel with John C. Calhoun [sic].

How his name became a synonym in the West for an unbranded steer and eventually for practically any sort of illegally acquired property, even real estate, has been variously described by different authorities since Mr Maverick's death 57 years ago.

Originated in Civil War

Col Wheeler, the autobiographer, though a native of Vermont, went West in boyhood and from 1867 till 1875, when he obtained a commission in the Army, was a cattle raiser in Western Kansas and civilian scout for the Army during Indian hostilities.

He states that the term maverick originated during the Civil War "from Samuel A. Maverick of San Antonio, the largest land proprietor and largest owner of cattle on the free public range in Texas."

Col Wheeler adds that during the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, nearly all Maverick's employees entered the Army on the Southern side and in consequence his cattle ran wild on the public range, the tens of thousands of young ones constituting the natural increase remaining unbranded and consequently showing no proof of their ownership during four years, though the absence of any mark on them caused them to be generally known as "Maverick's," till some one else clapped his own brand on them.

It was thus, according to Col Wheeler that stray cattle became known as mavericks.

The word first appeared in print with its present significance in a Dictionary of Americanisms about 1870. It got into a regular dictionary about 35 years ago and is probably now found in all of them. Kipling exploited the word prominently about 1890.

Did Not Come From Boston

Samuel A. Maverick died in 1870. A biographer a year later contributed an interesting detail in connection with the adoption of the word for an unbranded steer, which may reasonably be true to some extent, at least.

That biographer wrote that when Maverick had the largest herd of cattle in the United States, his ranch was in the charge of a negro who was unduly fond of the bottle and was correspondingly negligent of his duty, to see to the branding of young cattle.

Neighboring cattle raisers, knowing the weakness of the colored ranch manager, naturally remarked whenever they found any young cattle unbranded: "They are Maverick's," and that name got to signify absence of a distinguishing mark of any kind on cattle generally.

A few years ago an ingenious cattleman broached the theory that the term Maverick did not originate in Texas but in Boston, where Samuel A. Maverick's ancestor, Samuel Maverick, nearly 300 years ago, owned the whole of Noddles Island, now East Boston, and was the sole tenant there, raising herds of cattle which he sold to constantly-arriving settlers, to departing ships for their larders, even exporting them to Virginia.

There seems to be no presumptive evidence that the term originated with that early Samuel, who having all his cattle confined to his own island, seems to have had no reason for branding them at all.

Boston Daily Globe, Oct. 23, 1927, p. A57

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