James Hamilton Cator, buffalo hunter, Panhandle pioneer, and rancher, one of five children of Capt. John Bertie Cator, administrator of the Port of Hull, England, was born on September 2, 1852, near Fintra, Ireland, where his father was on duty at the time. As a British naval officer, Captain Bertie had already distinguished himself in the Chinese Opium Wars and in his attempts to find the polar expedition of Sir John Franklin. However, he determined that his two oldest sons, James and Arthur J. L. (Bob), would seek less hazardous careers and had them trained in engineering and draftsmanship. After a fruitless effort to find suitable employment for his sons in the British Empire, the Captain wrote the American consul in London inquiring of opportunities for young men in the less settled parts of the United States. In 1871, after hearing glowing reports of the Kansas Land and Immigration Company, he sent James and Bob over to strike it rich by farming in Kansas.
The brothers, however, found farming to be different from what it was in England and were scorned by most Kansas frontiersmen. Soon they became enthusiastic over the buffalo-hide trade. Having had previous experience in hunting game, the Cators joined in this profitable business and killed 300 buffalo soon after purchasing new Sharps buffalo rifles. With their earnings they bought a wagon, mules, horses, and food. Between July 1 and September 1, 1873, the Cators killed nearly 7,000 buffalo and had in their employ seven skinners. When the Panic of 1873 caused the price of hides to drop momentarily, the Cators took up "wolfing" and killed over 600 gray wolves and coyotes for bounty. However, soon they were hunting buffalo again, and late in the fall they followed Josiah Wright and John Wesley Mooar from Clay Center, Kansas, to the Texas Panhandle, where the animals were still abundant. A severe snowstorm on Christmas Day 1873 caught the Cators' hunting party in a break along North Palo Duro Creek (in what is now Hansford County) huddling against an earthen wall. There they constructed a crude dugout of cottonwood pickets and buffalo hides and waited out the winter. The success that the Cators and Mooars enjoyed led to the establishment of the trading center at Adobe Walls the following spring; the Cators, in fact, entered the post from their camp on Aroja Bonita Creek, in Potter County twelve miles away, the day after the Indian attack that took place on June 27, 1874 (see ADOBE WALLS, SECOND BATTLE OF). Subsequently the brothers and their companions filed claims for property burned or stolen by the Indians, but not until 1892 was their case heard by a federal court, in Wichita, Kansas. After Adobe Walls was abandoned, the Cators settled down to quiet lives at their Palo Duro Creek shelter. Never bothered by Indians in the course of the Red River War, they continued hunting buffalo until 1877, when decimation of the herds prompted them to seek another occupation.
With the arrival of free-range cattle outfits, the Cators decided to try ranching on a small scale. From the LX Ranch in 1878 they bought forty two-year-olds, eleven cows, and ten heifers and drove them back to their dugout to range along North Palo Duro Creek. As this herd expanded, James Cator used a Diamond C brand, while Bob used a VP. In that same year, 1878, the Cators erected a three-room picket house and started a store they called Zulu Stockade because they considered their territory "as wild as the Zululand region of Africa." Bob hauled supplies on a freight line he established to Dodge City, bringing in additional orders for other settlers moving into the region. Buffalo hunters, soldiers, and ranchers traveling over the military road between forts Dodge and Bascom stopped at Zulu for supplies, and the first Hansford County post office was opened there in December 1880 with Bob Cator as postmaster.
Letters from the Cator brothers to their family back in England prompted their sister Clara and younger brother Bert O. to join them at Zulu Stockade in 1879. Traveling with them was Jennie Ludlow, who married Bob in 1882. Clara and Jennie were the first White women to settle in the Panhandle north of the Canadian River. They helped tend the store and added such refinements as gunnysack carpets and wall whitewash made from creekbed gyp and crushed rocks.
James Cator returned to England in the fall of 1879 to recover from the ague. There he met Edith Land, daughter of a Hull physician, and promised to return and marry her later. That promise, however, was delayed by the "Big Die-up" of January 1886, in which blizzards nearly wiped out the Cator herd. Disheartened, Bob and Jennie Cator sold their share of the business and cattle and moved to Oregon. As a result, James sent for his fiancée in the spring of 1887 to meet him at Dodge City, where their wedding was held. Arriving with Edith was her brother, Arthur Land. For his bride Cator had built a multiroom house from native stone, and there they raised a son and two daughters.
Business at the Cator Ranch picked up after the town of Hansford was platted in 1887. Clara and her husband Clayton McCrea, who taught the first school at Tascosa, took charge of the stockade. Another brother, Leslie Stewart Cator, immigrated from England, brought over his bride, Bessie Donelson, and stayed to put down roots in the Panhandle. Bessie and her six-month-old son Charles never settled into frontier life and chose to return to England. After Hansford County was organized in 1889, James Cator was elected the first county judge and Arthur Land the first county treasurer; fewer than thirty ballots were cast. Bert Cator, who operated a lumber and grain firm in Hansford, served as a county commissioner. Later, from 1898 to 1900, Leslie Cator served as county judge.
After retiring from the bench in 1894, James Cator devoted himself to improving his cattle herds with selective breeding. He also became involved in the move to promote agriculture in the northern Panhandle and with Clate McCrea introduced alfalfa into the county. In 1907 Cator organized the county's first bank, which was moved from Hansford to Spearman with the building of the North Texas and Santa Fe Railway in 1917. Zulu Stockade was abandoned in 1912, and after World War I the McCreas moved to California. James H. Cator lived in the rock house until his death on October 4, 1927. He was buried in the family cemetery near the ghost town of Hansford. His widow continued to reside in the house until her death in 1950. Although the original Diamond C and VP brands were no longer used, in the late 1980s Cator's heirs still operated the ranch on Palo Duro Creek. His "Big 50" Sharps rifle, with which he killed 16,000 buffalo in three years, is on display at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon.