Henry Clay Hooker was a wealthy rancher in the Old West, known as the "cattle king of Arizona." Modern audiences may know him because he was played by Charlton Heston in the 1993 movie Tombstone
Perhaps the most famous part of Hooker's life story is the claim that he made his fortune by herding 500 turkeys over the Sierra Nevada mountain range into Nevada.
The story goes that Hooker moved out to California from the East Coast as a young man. He opened a hardware store in Placerville, and was growing quite successful until tragedy struck in 1866 when his store and entire stock of goods burned to the ground, leaving him with only $1000.
But Hooker wasn't defeated. Drawing upon his Yankee ingenuity, he came up with a novel way of regaining his fortune. He used what was left of his money to buy 500 turkeys, at $1.50 a bird, with the plan of herding them over the mountains to sell to hungry, turkey-deprived miners in Carson City, Nevada.
Aiding him in this strange venture were one helper and several trained dogs. Despite the skepticism of the other Placerville residents, off Hooker went with his turkeys, up into the mountains.
All went well until Hooker and his turkey herd reached the outskirts of Carson City. There they arrived at a precipice too steep to descend but almost impossible to go around. But the dogs kept pressing the birds to go forward until finally they became desperate and took to the air (as depicted in the illustration above). Said Hooker:
"As I saw them take wing and race away through the air I had the most indescribable feeling of my life. I thought, here is goodbye turkeys! My finances were at the last ebb; these turkeys were my whole earthly possession, and they seemed lost. I thought of my wife and children who were expecting me back with the profits of my venture, all of which appeared to have gone glimmering in a few minutes."
But when he made it to the valley below, Hooker realized, to his relief, that all was not lost. There were his turkeys, all still alive. After rounding them up, he finished steering them to Carson City where he sold them for $5 a piece, thereby not only recouping his lost money, but almost tripling it. He used the windfall to establish a ranch and become a supplier for the army posts and Indian agencies in Arizona.
The story of the great turkey drive was never written down by Hooker himself, but it was recounted by Frank Lockwood in his book Arizona Characters
(published in 1928). Lockwood, in turn, said he heard it from C.O. Anderson, a newspaper editor who had known Hooker well.
It's a colorful tale, but is there any truth to it? In a word, no. It's just one of the tall tales of the Old West.
Lynn Bailey offers a detailed debunking of the tale in her 1998 book Henry Clay Hooker and the Sierra Bonita Ranch
"A wonderful story, but an impossible one for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, turkeys of any kind cannot be herded. Somewhat intelligent, wild turkeys possess a flock instinct. They are wily birds, however, and will scatter in every direction when threatened. Domestic turkeys, on the other hand, are stupid, all intelligence having been bred out of them. Frightened of everything, the slightest sound will stampede them. Turkeys can be caged, loaded into wagons and driven anywhere, but trail-herded, no, impossible.
"Secondly, using dogs to handle turkeys would have had disastrous consequences. As in the case of sheep, dogs would have to be trained to handle any kind of poultry. Turned loose around a flock of turkeys, dogs would attack and kill the birds. There is no such thing as a 'turkey dog.' And thirdly, by 1866 Virginia City was a mature mining community with lavish residences, restaurants hotels, and saloons. .. . In short [Comstock miners] were eating as well as San Franciscans. Their days of beans and bacon were long gone. If there was a demand for turkey, it was minimal.
"Not by any stretch of the imagination did Henry Hooker drive 500 turkeys through the passes of the Sierra Nevada. Hooker's turkey story is a 'big windy,' a tale perfected to entertain guests and family around a dining room table. Every rancher and farmer has such a story."