If a tall sexy Clint Eastwood, or a swaggering John Wayne come to mind when we think of a cowboy, in truth they were the Hollywood made for movie versions and they bear little resemblance to the real thing.
Many cowboys were illiterate Hispanic, African Americans or farm teenagers from the Southern States looking for adventure and a paycheque. The cowboy legend was created thanks to the great cattle drives from the 1860s to the 1880s when, in the spring, thousands of longhorn cattle and tough little mustang ponies were rounded up and herded from the coastal prairies and Texan bush lands north to Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and other states.
Most cowboys were between 15 and 25 years old and the life they took on was rough, tough, dangerous and more than a few died on the trail in horse related accidents, flooding rivers or stampedes caused by lightening or something as innocuous as a cowboy striking a match on his pants.
A cowboy’s day began at sunrise and he spent an 8 or 10 hours in the saddle riding “swing” beside the herd or “drag” behind the herd. He had to encourage the cattle to move forward, keep an eye out for Indians, strays, wolves, and stampede starters while inhaling gallons of dust.
In the late afternoon the cowboys began to look for a suitable night bedding ground which offered good grazing, a watering hole and if possible a pleasant cooling breeze. After his dinner of beef, fry pan bread, tinned tomatoes and beans with bacon served from the chuckwagon, he began his night herding chores and he and another cowboy circled the herd slowly in opposite directions humming tunes learned at his church as a child or creating something soothing for the cattle.
When he was finally able to lie down to sleep, his 40 pound, $50.00 saddle often served as his pillow at night, while in the day time it worked overtime to help with roping cattle, crossing streams and breaking broncos. A yellow rain slicker was tied at the back of the saddle and his canteen hung from the horn. His bridle was decorated with silver “conchas” and his 50 foot lasso of hemp catch rope was limbered up or softened by dragging it behind the horse. His saddle blanket was a cover and on cold nights he held the bridle bit in his hands to keep it warm for his horse in the morning. His high crowned, wide brimmed hat also served as a pillow, water bucket, sun shade, and umbrella and marked him as a real “cowboy.” His pants were dark wool covered with chaps to protect him from brambles, trees, and the elements, while his neck bandanna did double duty against the dust or for an instant face wash when wet.
The cowboys’ herding horses started off as wild mustangs that needed to be broke before the drive began and the remuda, or herd of fresh horses for the cowboys was always at the back of the drive. Each cowboy needed four to six horses to complete the long trek and, as time went by, a bond and an understanding was forged between man and horse. Most of the “horses” used were about 14 hands high or smaller, weighed 700-900 and each one had a particular strong point or trait: bravery for crossing streams and rivers, agility for cutting cattle or speed for galloping during stampedes.
For the bone weary cowboy who endured thirst and endless long hot days interspersed with disasters and potentially life threatening situations, the pay ranged from $15.00 to $20.00 a month while the trail boss made about $35.00.
The cook made twice as much and he ruled his cooking roost with an iron hand. His private space, including cooking fire, was sacrosanct and ran about 10 feet from the work table. “Come an’ get it!” was the verbal invitation for a meal and the cowboys served themselves from huge pots or Dutch ovens using spoons and forks that were called “eaten irons.” The trail boss could tether his horse closest to the chuckwagon (and always downwind of course) while the regular cowboys tethered theirs at least 30 feet away. The cook was expected to have the upcoming meals ready for the team so he often moved camp more than once a day hitching up his 2 or 4 horse teams and driving to the new location to prepare the noonday and evening meals.
When Willie Nelson sang: “Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” he must have known a thing or two about the truth behind the iconic legend. It certainly wasn’t all “Happy Trails to You,” and riding off into the sunset at the OK corral!
Did you know that to a cowboy belly wash was weak coffee; axle grease was butter, a brain tablet was a cigarette, a calico queen was a honky-tonk woman and a saddle horn was an apple.