The Abernathys Were the Original Free-Range Children

When your dad is the youngest U.S. marshall ever, you probably shouldn’t expect to be coddled. For the Abernathy boys, though, that was just fine. On July 10, 1909, the brothers Temple (age five) and Louis (age eight) saddled up their horses Geronimo and Sam in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and aimed for Roswell, New Mexico—by themselves. It was their father’s idea. Jack Abernathy said they boys needed to toughen up. But there were limits—they were restricted to traveling no more than 35 miles a day on their 1,300-mile ride.

They came from hardy stock, the Abernathy boys. Their father was a musical prodigy who by age six was playing piano in a Nolan County, Texas, saloon for $13 a night (at a time when cowboys made $30 a month). His mom quickly put a stop to that, but by 11 he was working as a cowboy, by 15 he was in charge of busting the toughest horses at J-A Ranch, and by the time he was in his late 20s he’d learned how to catch prairie wolves alive with his bare hands. It was this last unique skill that brought him to the attention of Teddy Roosevelt, who went on a wolf-hunting expedition with Abernathy as his guide.

Jack and Teddy became friends, and Roosevelt appointed him to be a marshall in Guthrie. Through that relationship, Abernathy met some of the biggest names of the day, including Mark Twain and Thomas Edison, through whom he came to make films of the boys’ exploits.


In 1910, the two young Abernathys set out from Oklahoma for New York, again alone and again on horseback, to meet Roosevelt when he returned from a hunting trip to Africa. Their trip was a sensation from the start, with the country following each leg via breathless reports in the newspapers. Temple, now six, was dodging kisses from adoring women the entire way. When he and his brother arrived in New York City on June 11, there were greeted by a crowd of several thousand (and their dad).

“One woman tried hard to kiss Temple,” the New York Times reported, “but the lad drew his hat down over his face and clung bashfully to his father’s neck for protection.

“It seems that Temple has steadfastly refused to allow himself to be kissed by women ever since he set out on the long journey overland, and the only woman who succeeded in getting a kiss from him lives in Washington. But it was a bargain on the lad’s part, for he sold the kiss for one quarter.”

For the return trip, the boys bought themselves a Brush Motor Car and drove home, once again on their own. They were nine and six.

Temple and Louis had two more big adventures in them before they turned to the serious business of puberty. In 1911, they accepted a challenge to ride horses from New York City to San Francisco in under 60 days. The rules: They couldn’t sleep or eat indoors during the entire journey. On the line was a $10,000 prize if they succeeded. Alas, they fell behind early—by Chicago they were two day’s off schedule and were never able to make up the time. They arrived in San Francisco, just the two of them, in 62 days.

Their final journey? They pooled the money they’d earned from their notoriety and bought a sweet Indian motorcycle. With it, they rode from Oklahoma to New York in 1913, when Louis was 14 and Temple 10. This time, perhaps, they craved company, because their stepbrother Anton came along.

Louis grew up to become a lawyer and practice law in Wichita Falls, Texas. He died in 1979. Temple followed his peripatetic father into the oil and passed away in 1986. Whatever adventures they had later in life were not documented.



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