The Haunting Legend of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ is Based on a True Story

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Tony Maples Photography


Texas is full of lore, legends, and ghost stories. The tale of the Ghost Riders is by far the saddest, most evil, not to mention, the most famous one in the country. This legend is sadly true, a senseless ghoulish tragedy which took place in Crosby County, Texas. You may know it as Stampede Mesa. The legend inspired the classic song “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

The Haunting Legend of 'Ghost Riders in the Sky' is Based on a True Story

Photo: Pinterest

It all began like any other cattle drive should have back in the fall of 1889. The weather had been less than cooperative; the cowboys were worn to a frazzle and the herd had been restless the entire trip. Late one night as they began climbing the slope to the top of the range near some water, a storm began brewing. They’d planned to set up camp just over the ridge near the water. Sawyer, the trail boss rode ahead to check out the surroundings and  look out for Indians. He was shocked to see a brand new homestead perched right on top of the hill. He’d taken this route hundreds of  times without incident, but now this was blocking his entire herd from crossing. It would take hours to go around it.

Sawyer became infuriated. Without explanation, he shouted and cursed and, waved a blanket high into the air to create a stampede. The nervous cattle scattered. Horses, some with riders, some without began running with all their might. His men obediently followed behind.  Sawyer was screaming, whipping at the animals, as lightning bolts began flashing through the sky.  The panicked livestock hurled straight through the farmhouse crushing everyone and everything in its path.  No one could hear the screams of the innocent as the animals raged through. Loud thunder and dark skies made the terrified herd keep running until they ran off of several nearby cliffs to their death. Horses holding the cowhands followed behind.

Near dawn, Sawyer  began surveying the devastating damage he’d caused. Below the mesa were nearly 700 dead steer. Lifeless cowpokes and their horses  scattered around them.  With no remorse in his soul, he ordered what was left of his hired help to round up the remaining three hundred cattle and hit the trail again.

When the drive ended, it’s said he never worked again. No one would work for him and try as he might, not a soul would hire him, even for menial tasks. Folks in that area turned their backs on him and he took comfort in liquor.He was never seen again

The following season, another trail boss and his men bedded down their herd on top of that same mesa which had been cleared of any previous devastation or debris.  The skies were perfectly clear. In the early hours of the morning, for no apparent reason, the herd charged. Again, most of them and four other cowboys riding  horses fell off the cliffs to their deaths. Unlike Sawyer, this trail boss was overcome with guilt and grief.  He, too, turned to the bottle and was never heard from again.

Several more attempts by other outfits which baulked at the previous  stories ended with the same results. Word spread, everyone believed evil was perched on top of Stampede Mesa.

The Haunting Legend of 'Ghost Riders in the Sky' is Based on a True Story

Photo: Pixabay.com

All cattle drives from then on avoided that part of Texas.  Only lone horsemen and curiosity seekers pass through now. Stories of ghostly counterparts up in the sky have been witnessed along with claims of blood-curdling screams and sounds of angry hooves of phantom longhorns. People still swear today to the haunting in that part of the Texas sky.

This particular legend inspired songwriter Stan Jones to write a western melody in 1948 about this tableland in Crosby County, Texas. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” was set to an old Irish song called “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”. This Texas legend has spread throughout the world through music.  Even if you’ve never heard the spooky legend of this evil, most likely you’ve heard the song.

Burl Ives was the first of more than 50 singers who have recorded this iconic tune. It’s become the most-recorded composed western song of all time. When Johnny Cash performed it, it topped the charts for months. The words remain exactly as they were originally written.

Video: YouTube/Johnny Cash

The lyrics of Ghost Riders in the Sky:

An old cowboy went ridin’ out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw
Plowin’ through the ragged skies and up a cloudy draw

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the riders comin’ hard and he heard their mournful cries

Yippie I ohhh ohh ohh
Yippie I aye ye ye
Ghost riders in the sky

Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred
Their shirts all soaked with sweat
He’s ridin’ hard to catch that herd
But he ain’t caught em yet
Cause they got to ride forever in that range up in the sky
On horses snortin’ fire as they ride on hear their cries

As the riders loped on by him he heard one call his name
‘If you wanna save your soul from hell a-ridin’ on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride
Tryin’ to catch the devil’s herd across these endless skies

Yippie I ohhh oh oh
Yippie I aye ye ye
Ghost riders in the sky
Ghost riders in the sky
Ghost riders in the sky

The Haunting Legend of 'Ghost Riders in the Sky' is Based on a True Story

Photo: Pixabay.com

The moral of this popular tune is simple. Living cowboys need to change their ugly ways and do the right thing. If not, they too will spend eternity in hell working the Devil’s herd of cows.