Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Old West - Interesting Facts - Part 5

Ever wonder where some of our Cowboy jargon came from?

Well, for me, I really hadn't given it a whole lot of thought until lately. A few readers have asked about some 19th century words, wanting to know what they meant to cowboys, and how they came about back then.

One was the term "cayuse." She said she looked it up and found that it had to do with Indians, but didn't know how the word applied to cowboys? 

Frankly folks, other than knowing that a cayuse was a horse, I had no idea where the name came from. So yes, as curious as I am, I decided to look into it and other bits of jargon that we use -- or have used once upon a time.

A "cayuse" is a wild horse of Oregon, named after the Cayuse Indians who were known for the horsemanship and breeding of Cayuse Ponies. Back in the 1800s, the name was used by northern cowboys to refer specifically to Cayuse Ponies. Later it became used for Western Horses to set them apart from those brought from the East. The name then became a derogatory term, a term showing contempt, for a horse thought to be scrubby or undersized. Today cowboys from just about anywhere use the word cayuse to refer to any horse, although you may find an old timer that will use it is a derogatory way.

Beefalo is term that is used a bit these days. Most know that "beefalo" is any of a breed of beef cattle developed in the United States that is genetically 3/8 North American bison and 5/8 domestic bovine.

The term beefalo came about in the early 1970s to describe a hybrid animal that is a cross between a buffalo and the domestic cow, bred for disease resistance and for meat with low fat content. Isn't it amazing what is old is new again!

"Cattalo" was name used to describe a hybrid offspring of buffalo and cattle in Texas in the mid-1800s. And yes, as far back as 1750, wild bison were known to occasionally breed with cattle in the southern United States, yielding hybrid calves with some qualities of both animals. Ranchers saw the bison's superb adaptations to prairie winters, from thick fur to foraging skills to the ability to survive a long period without food. The economic potential of breeding those traits into cattle was obvious.

It is said that the first people to attempt crosses of bison and cattle were American ranchers like Charles "Buffalo" Jones who supposed coined the term "Cattalo" in 1888. But the word may be from Charles Goodnight, who actually coined the term "Cattalo" in 1876, when he first started a preservation herd of native plains bison that year. Goodnight crossbred the bison with domestic cattle, which he called "Cattalo.  

His herd is said to survive to this day in Caprock Canyons State Park. And yes, it is believed that bison of his herd were introduced into the Yellowstone National Park in 1902. 

Charles "Buffalo" Jones, a co-founder of Garden City, Kansas, after meeting with Charles Goodnight in Texas, also bred cattalo on a ranch near Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona. 

One reader wrote to ask about a few more terms that she said she'd heard in movies and read in books and wondered what they meant or where they came from. She wanted to know what a "nester" was in Cowboy terms?

Back in the 1800s, a "nester" was a squatter who settled on state or government land. The term was not a nice one at all. In fact, the term was applied with contempt by cattlemen to just about any homesteader who tilled the soil in what was always considered range country.

Why nester? Well, it was said that if one viewed their homestead from a ridge that an early nester's home with its little patch of clear brush and stacked in a circle to form a protective barrier of sorts to keep range cattle out -- that it looked like a gigantic bird's nest. After others began noticing the resemblance in other homesteads, the moniker stuck. Soon, every homesteader was a nester.

So what is a "Night horse"? Well, a "night horse" is exactly what it sounds like. It is a horse picketed, tied up, so that he can be easily gotten and used at night in a moment's notice.

It's said that a good night horse is a special type of horse in that in the days of the open range he was most essential to a cattle drive. A night horse was usually selected for its sure-footedness, good eyesight, and sense of direction.

The horse selected to do this job couldn't be high-strung, excitable, but should be gentle and show some smarts. And yes, a night horse was only used at night by most outfits because during stampedes he was depended upon. During a stampede at night, yes that's when most took place, his rider's life depended on his ability to negotiate the dark, run and keep its footing, and turn stampede.

It's said that a good night horse could find its way back to camp on the darkest of nights with a Cowboy half-asleep in the saddle. Yes, according to old timers, a good night horse was priceless.

This takes us to the term "smooth out the bumps" when it comes to horses, my reader said she's heard this expression and thought it had something to do with putting a blanket on a horse. Well, not exactly.

"Smoothing out the bumps" is just an old cowboy expression for taking the rough edges off a horse -- usually one that hadn't been ridden in a while. Some horses are inclined to pitch a fit when saddled regardless of how long they've been ridden, but in spring when the grass is green and they putting on flesh, putting on weight, and generally feeling good after winter they can get a little ornery.

After a winter of idleness, a cowboy has to do some riding and make some wet blankets to smooth out the bumps and have a horse that would pitch a fit and buck.

From horses to gamblers? Yes, a "tinhorn" is a gambler -- but he is a special sort of gambler. A tinhorn gambler is usually a cheat, a con man, one of low class who would do just about anything to take your money.

In the 1800s when gamblers were considered people making an "honest" living, a "tinhorn" was considered a cheap, flashy, pretentious sort who was always looking for an easy mark. The term "tinhorn" comes from the game Chuck-a-Luck where the operator would shake their dice in a small metal chute.

Chuck-a-luck was unsophisticated and easy to set up, so it was the province of small-time gamblers on river boats, on street corners, or in low gaming establishments. Though the proper chute was made of leather, those with limited resources used a cruder one made of tin.

Because the game was looked down on because it could be rigged to take your money, a Chuck-a-Luck gambler was never allowed to join the ranks of Faro dealers -- who were really looked up as a sort of aristocracy in the gambling world once upon a time. While the term "tinhorn" originally referred to this cheap chute, it quickly became a term of contempt for those gamblers who were among the dregs of society.

As for a tinhorn being called a snake? In the Old West, it wasn't unusual for a man of low-principles to be called a "snake". And yes. that's not the same as saying that someone has "snake blood."

Snake blood is just an old cowboy term for meanness. If a cowboy knew another who was just down-right mean, he's say, "he's got snake blood."

If you're thinking that cowboys have an obsession with snakes, well you could be right. In the Old West, a mean horse was called "snake eyes;" whisky was called "snake poison" or "snake water;"  and in the days when the game of Faro was played with the cards face down and the game was rigged to fleece suckers -- it was called "snaking a game."

The term "snake" seems to be only outdone by the term "Indian" in the Old West. Take for example, there is the term "Indian bread" which was a strip of fat that extended from the shoulder blade back down along the backbone of a buffalo.

When seared in hot grease and then smoked, supposedly it became what buffalo hunters used for bread. When it was used with lean meat, supposedly it made a great sandwich. And yes, "Indian bread" also meant bread made of corn meal -- but the buffalo story sounds a lot more incredible than simply talking about a type of cornbread.

An "Indian broke" horse was said to be a horse trained to allow the rider to mount from the right, or off side, instead of on the left, or near side. Of course "Indian Coffee" was that coffee which was served to Indians who came to camp to trade for horses. Supposedly water was added to the grounds and boiled until it would take paint off a barn. It was said that such coffee was resented by cowmen by "good enough for an Indian." Sad commentary really, but no one said they were nice.

Then there's the term "Indian deading". That was a steamboatman's term for a deserted Indian camp along the river that contained dead cottonwood trees.  Indians were known to cut them down all for the smaller branches which they fed to their horses during heavy winters. The rest of tree would lay dead and dried out. Soon the steamboats used the dead trees for fuel because they were dry and seasoned.

Of course an "Indian Pony" is still the name old timers of the Southwest use to describe a pinto or paint horse -- which was said to be a favorite among Indians way back when. And as for an "Indian haircut," that was a term used for a scalping. And yes, it was not one that anyone wanted.

Robert McGee 1890
Scalped by the Sioux as a child and survived
Scalping is the act of removing the scalp, or a portion of the scalp, either from a dead body or living person, as a trophy of battle or portable proof of a combatant's prowess in war.

Many Native Americans tribes practiced scalping, in some instances up until the end of the 19th century. Of the approximately 500 bodies at the Crow Creek Massacre site, 90% of the skulls show evidence of scalping. That event took place around 1325 AD. Yes, long before the arrival of Europeans such as the Spanish, English or the French.

Author and historian Mark van de Logt wrote: "Although military historians tend to reserve the concept of “total war” for conflicts between modern industrial nations, the term nevertheless most closely approaches the state of affairs between the Pawnees and the Sioux and Cheyennes. Noncombatants were legitimate targets. Indeed, the taking of a scalp of a woman or child was considered honorable because it signified that the scalp taker had dared to enter the very heart of the enemy's territory."

"Indian whisky" is another term from the 1800s that is not all that flattering. Supposedly it refers to a cheap whisky sold to Indians by European traders who didn't care how they got rich. Famed Englishman turned Texan, Teddy Blue Abbott, once claimed that "Indian Whisky" was invented by Missouri River traders.

Teddy Blue Abbott's recipe for "Indian Whisky" sounds like death in a bottle:

"Take one barrel of Missouri River water, and two gallons of alcohol. Them you add two ounces of strychnine to make them crazy -- because strychnine is the greatest stimulant in the world -- three bars of tobacco to make them sick -- because an Indian wouldn't figure it was whisky unless it made him sick -- five bars of soap to give it a bead, and a half pound of red pepper, and then you put some sage brush and boil it until it's brown. Strain this into a barrel and you've got Indian Whisky."

Of course besides "Indian Whisky" back in the Old West, there were what was known as a cowman's "Indian list." Simply put, a cowman's "Indian list" was the term used for a blacklist.

Yes, whether its Teddy Blue Abbott's recipe for "Indian Whisky" or the term "Indian list," there were those in the Old West who had contempt for the American Indian just as there are those today who have contempt for any race that they hate for one reason or another.

Doing the research on this, I did find one thing that I had never heard of which filled my curiosity about Indians and horses. The term "Indian shoeing" was one that I'd heard of, but I was always led to believe that Indians didn't shoe their horses. So I assumed "Indian shoeing" meant having a horse go barefoot.

While I was right in that Indians didn't show their horses as we know shoeing, many tribes did use a shoe of sorts. In fact, "Indian shoeing" is a method of horseshoeing in which the entire hoof was covered with a piece of rawhide.

It was applied wet and stretchy, but when it dried the rawhide formed to the hoof and made an extremely tough long lasting hoof protection. Yes, sort of like an over-reach boot that fastened with thongs.

Tom Correa


  1. An interesting read. Thank you for posting this.

  2. A common term I hear from time to time, especially from people out West, is, "Food so good make ya wanna slap ya mama". Now I don't know about that slapping yo mama part but at least the food is good.


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