It was unusual for a cattleman to come to Texas as a stowaway on a ship. But that is exactly how 19-year-old Abel Head Pierce made his way to Port Lavaca in 1854. Discovered when the ship reached the high seas, he earned his passage by mopping the deck and hauling cargo at
ports-of-call along the six-month journey.
Soon after landing with only the clothes on his back and seventy-five cents in the pocket of his too-short britches, Pierce met William Bradford Grimes, “the most important cattleman in the region.” Grimes hired the greenhorn to split rails, apparently thinking the six-foot-four giant with the booming Yankee accent needed to learn some lessons about the cattle business. Immediately Pierce informed his new employer that he wanted to be paid at the end of the year in cows and calves because he planned to go into the cattle business.
Pierce set about his work on the ranch with industry, rising early, and quickly taking on other responsibilities. In his eagerness to prepare for his future as a cattleman, Pierce hired a blacksmith to forge his own brand and then proudly showed the “AP” to Grimes. Chris Emmett in his delightful book, Shanghai Pierce: A Fair Likeness, says at the end of the year when time came for payment, Grimes “cut four old cows and three scrawny calves from the run of range cattle. . . .” As winter set it, the cows died, leaving Pierce with only the calves to show for a year of work. Grimes bragged that he gave Pierce his “first degree in the cattle business.”
The origin of the moniker “Shanghai,” claims an unclear pedigree. Glorying in his self-appointed image as a storyteller and entertainer, he relished an audience whether gathered around a campfire among cowboys or in later years among dignitaries. At times he alluded to school days in Rhode Island when “Shanghai” was a fighting word. Then he claimed it became a “brand of distinction.” He said, “I do not have time to fight everybody who wants to fight me. If I take that much time off I will not have time to take their money away from them.” His nephew said in later years that he “looked so much like the long-necked, long-legged rooster from Shanghai that they named him after his counterpart.” Chris Emmett tells another version, usually whispered, “came because he ‘shanghaied’ so many people out of their property.” He often made fun of his size by claiming he was born in Rhode Island, but the state got too small for him. When he lay down, his head landed in the lap of somebody in Massachusetts and his feet bothered someone in Connecticut.
Shanghai did not leave Grimes’ employ when Grimes cheated him out of his first year’s pay. Instead, he stayed on to work for the richest cattlemen in South Texas. Shanghai rounded up mavericks and branded them for Grimes at $1 a head. He told a fellow cowboy at the end of the year, “I’m damn glad he [Grimes] didn’t ask me whose branding iron I used this year.” That spelled the beginning of Shanghai Pierce’s cattle acquisitions.
At the end of the Civil War, when some of the men bragged about their accomplishments and tried to tease Shanghai about being the regimental butcher, he boasted: “By God, Sir; I was all the same as a major general: always in the rear in advance, always in the lead on retreat.”
After the war, when the only profit from beef lay in hides and tallow (the carcasses were fed to the hogs or thrown away), he went into the slaughter business. Finally, Shanghai Pierce became one of the first to drive a herd along the Chisholm Trail to market in Abilene, Kansas. He quickly proved to be a cunning and able businessman, eventually acquiring up to 35,000 head of cattle and 250,000 south Texas acres.
In 1881, when the railroad came through his land, Shanghai dreamed of Pierce’s Station becoming the county seat. He did not get his wish, but he discovered another interest. He wrote the railroad asking that two cars of lumber be deadheaded at Pierce because: “I am pioneering in another matter. I am trying to introduce religion into the community.” He ordered pews and a pulpit. Shanghai proudly showed the new facility to all visitors. One gentleman asked, “Colonel Pierce, do you belong to that church?” “Hell, no!” Pierce shouted. “The church belongs to me.”
Shanghai believed ticks caused fever in cattle and, after touring Europe, he decided Brahman cattle were immune to ticks because “’Bremmers’ sweated and the ticks fell off, and the cattle got fat thereafter.” After his death in 1900, his estate and another rancher, Thomas O’Connor, undertook the importation of Brahmans, the beginning of a new cattle industry for Texas.
During Shanghai’s European tour, the fine statuary caught his attention, and upon his return, he commissioned a marble statue of himself created by sculptor Frank Teich. They agreed on the payment of the $2,250 commission only if Shanghai felt satisfied that the statue represented a fair likeness of himself. As workmen placed the life-size marble statue atop a ten-foot granite pilaster, mounted on another ten-foot piece of gray granite, Pierce sat with a friend watching the finishing touches. A small black boy approached the statue and after walking round and round the figure and looking again and again at Shanghai, the boy said, “Mr. Shanghai, that sure does look like you up there.”
“Ugh, by God.” Shanghai snorted. “I’ll take it.”
Shanghai Pierce died on December 26, 1900, from a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried beneath his massive likeness.