Wharton rancher was larger than life
PIERCE — Shanghai Pierce, the larger-than-life cattleman with the instantly memorable nickname, was always a man of vision. Several years before his death in 1900, he commissioned a majestic marble statue of himself to mark his future grave, explaining that if he didn’t do it, nobody else would. Thanks to his foresight, so to speak, you can visit the rural Hawley Cemetery near Bay City and see Old Shanghai standing tall on a granite pedestal more than 20 feet high. Wide-brimmed hat in hand, his sightless eyes are set on the coastal prairie where his vast herds once grazed.
The rancher credited with bringing the brahman breed of cattle to Texas is still tending to his legacy. His great-great grandson, Laurance Armour III, the fifthgeneration family overseer of the ranch, told me earlier this week that in the old ranch house near
this faded ghost town south of Wharton, Shanghai’s shade has been known to appear.
“My brother woke up one night when we were growing up, and he was standing at the foot of the bed,” Armour said, laughing. “Shanghai told him, ‘Don’t sell this place.’ ”
Despite hosting several ghosts, not just Shanghai’s, the two-story, six-bedroom house beneath a grove of live oaks is a comfortable and welcoming place; I can see why the old rancher would want to hold on. The house, the land, the cattle — these were the essence of the man’s life. “The guy was driven, absolutely driven,” Armour said. “He was always wheeling and dealing, always buying and selling.”
Escape from family business
He was born Abel Head Pierce in Rhode Island in 1834. At 16, he told his parents he had no intention of busting sod or hammering red-hot metal in his father’s blacksmith shop, so they sent him to Petersburg, Va., where he worked as an apprentice in the dry-goods store of his uncle and namesake, Abel Head. The future cattle baron learned bookkeeping, a skill that would come in handy for a man who would come to see himself as a businessman above all.
At 18, tired of working under the gimlet gaze of a sternly religious relative, he stowed away on a coastal trading schooner and ended up five months later at Port Lavaca. The ship’s captain had taken a liking to the teenager but advised him to go ashore and catch on with a friend of his named Richard Grimes, who operated a cattle ranch near the mouth of the Colorado River. Pierce took his advice.
Six-and-a-half-feet tall, gangly as a young colt, Pierce caught on as a rail-splitter. “That’s one thing the captain had noticed about Shanghai. He was big and strong and wasn’t scared of work at all,” Armour said.
He was promoted to wrangler and given the task of breaking wild horses after Grimes’ daughter-in-law questioned why the rancher was risking injury to a slave worth $200 when a 25-cents-a-day cowboy could do the job.
Abel Pierce also picked up a nickname on the Grimes ranch. Tall, his pants usually too short for his long legs, he bought himself a pair of Spanish spurs with prominent rowels. With the spurs jangling around his ankles, his fellow cowhands decided he looked like a long-legged Shanghai fighting rooster. “He hated the name, but it stuck with him his whole life,” Armour said. “He wanted to be called Colonel.” (A nickname that didn’t stick, perhaps because he’d been a corporal with Hood’s Brigade during the Civil War.)
Bing Grimes, the son of the man who hired Pierce, was not as honorable as his father. When Pierce told the younger Grimes he planned to go into the cattle business and wanted to take his first year’s pay in cattle, Grimes agreed — and gave him all the worthless culls.
He left Grimes and went to work as a wrangler and then brander for William Demetris Lacy, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. After the Civil War, a minor interruption for Shanghai, he and his brother Jonathan established El Rancho Grande on Tres Palacios River near Blessing. Shanghai also married his former boss’s daughter, Fanny Lacy; his brother married her sister.
Big, bold, brash, loud
Fanny and Shanghai Pierce had two children — a daughter, Mary Francis, and a son who died at 4 months. Fanny died shortly afterward, and Shanghai sold out in 1871 and moved to Kansas City. His departure may have had something to do with his grief but also perhaps with a lynching incident involving cattle rustlers. After about 18 months, he came back home to Texas, and started buying up land in Wharton and Matagorda counties, eventually amassing a half million acres. He also put together the first cattle drives from the Texas Gulf Coast to New Orleans, herding close to a thousand head to market despite the countless streams, the bayous and the gator-ridden swamps.
He was the quintessential Texas cattleman — big, bold, brash and loud. The late T.R. Fehrenbach, writing in “Lone Star,” described Shanghai and his peers “as wild and tumultuous and dangerous as the surly longhorns they drove to market.” They also were shrewd businessmen, who “forged new ties,” including hooking up with the railroads that were beginning to push their way closer to Texas. The Northeast, hungry for beef after four years of war, had the market, and Texas had the cattle.
An old cowboy named George W. Saunders, quoted in the book “Trail Drivers of Texas,” knew Shanghai from the rancher’s cattle-buying trips. Shanghai, he said, “was a large portly man, always rode a fine horse, and would be accompanied by a Negro who led a pack horse loaded with gold and silver, which, when he reached our camp, was dumped on the ground and remained there until the cattle were classed and counted out to him; then he would empty the money on a blanket in camp and pay it out to the different stockmen from whom he had purchased cattle. He would generally buy 200 or 300 head at a time.”
In 1894, Shanghai laid out the town he christened Pierce, hoping it would become the Wharton County seat, but it never developed. The magnificent hotel he built as its centerpiece stood empty most of the time and was demolished in 1980.
Ranch house as hunting lodge
Shanghai had his own troubles, as well. He went broke during the Panic of 1891, the result of an ill-considered investment in a Galveston bank, but, as his great-great-grandson notes, he made good on his debts.
The Pierce Ranch survived that crisis and others in the decades following Shanghai’s death. These days it consists of about 32,000 acres of pastureland, rice and row crops.
Armour, who grew up in the Chicago area as scion of the famous meat-packing family, is low-key and unassuming, unlike his famous ancestor. Like most ranching families, he has to worry these days about keeping his family’s legacy a thriving enterprise and making sure it stays intact through successive generations.
The old ranch house, he told me this week, is becoming a high-end lodge for hunters, business groups and family events. I didn’t mention it to Armour, but I’m hoping that when guests retire for the evening they’ll get a special greeting: Ol’ Shang himself at the foot of the bed, offering a bellowing-voice welcome.
Laurance Armour, who grew up in the Chicago area, is part of the fifth generation to run the ranch founded by Shanghai Pierce.