Monday, January 9, 2017

Life For Cowboys In 1800s America

Dear Friends,

We all know the picture of the cowboy moving cattle from Texas to the cow towns, and once there getting drunk, then being thrown in jail after getting pistol whipped, or "buffaloed", by a city lawmen like Wyatt Earp. And yes, we can thank Hollywood for that image. After all, movies are the medium which spread such notions of what a cowboy was in the 1800s. 

Of course, in most movies cowboys were made to look like young uncouth drunks who were somehow always sitting in on a card game in town. And yes, somehow screen writers almost always portrayed cowboy behavior as almost always lacking good manners, never good at a fight, in over their heads in trouble, as mouthy rowdies just looking for trouble.  

Too bad that's the picture that Hollywood has implanted in the minds of Americans. Too bad cowboys were always painted in ways that they weren't.

As with the cowboys who I was brought up with, I learned early that like Fact is for cowboys in the 1800s, a cowboy’s life was full of hard work, low pay, and very little sleep. And yes, that as always been especially true around roundup time and gatherings. 

As for those few years when the historic cattle drives from Texas moves cows up the trail, hard work was all there was on a trail drive. A drive from Texas to Montana could take up to five months. Cowboys driving cattle to market could expect to make between $25 and $40 per month. The Trail Boss might make as much as $125 per month.

For cowboys on the trail, they moved cattle herds an average of 12 miles a day. Yes, 10 miles a day was the norm but on some days cattle would be pushed to 14 miles depending on water and grazing. And yes, the Trail Boss needed to be tough to be able to deal with cowboys and cattle just so there was no loss of human life or livestock. 

Also, we know that the cattle were branded so the owner could distinguish his steer from the rest. But what surprise you is that several times per trail drive, cowboys actually conducted roundups so that the cattle would be sorted and counted again. 

One of the greatest fears along the trail was stampeding cattle. Cowboys found that the easiest way to contain a stampede was to get the cattle to run in a circle. This would eventually tire them out.

And yes, because of the hard work, a cowboy during the 1800s was a lot like a hand today in that he would go to bed early and he would rise before the sun. If he was with a big outfit then their cook would be up before him to have chuck ready. But if he were with a small outfit of only a couple or more hands, then either he or one of the others would make up a quick breakfast of bacon, beans, bread, and coffee. No, not all ranches had the luxury of having a full time cook hired on. 

On more remote ranches, it's said the cook shack door was usually left unlocked. This was so a cowboy passing by could help himself to a meal in return for performing a few odd jobs such as mending fences, repairing a door or window or something that may need attention around the place, maybe shoeing a horse or two, or maybe chopping wood.

Once a cowboy was out and going, well that's where a working ranch cowboy in the 1800s would differ from a cowboy on the cattle drives. A cowboy on a drive was in the saddle about 18 hours day. He might have caught a few hours sleep on his bedroll under the stars, but if it was his night to tend the herd then he knew that sleep would have to wait.

Because ranch work was left to the "peons", Californio vaquero of the late-1700s and early to mid-1800s didn't do almost any ranch work other than herding and working with horses. "Peons" were Spanish laborers, unskilled farm workers, and those of low rank. Yes, in Old California there was a class system that enabled vaqueros to assume a higher status. 

That's not the case for American cowboys. As for ranch cowboys, sure they spent time in the saddle, sure they roped, sure they branded and castrated cattle, sure they culled out the herd, and sure they did all the things that we know as the duties of a cowboy. But ranch hands were also used for other things no different than today. They did work such as mending corrals and fixing fences, tending to problems with water meant for the herd, constructing barns, sheds, and even homes, fixing wagons, and shoeing their own horses. Yes, ranch hands, like today, had to be a jack-of-all-trades.

Of course back in the 1800s, cowboys came from many walks of life. Very often they were former soldiers and civil war veterans who decided to stay out West. Many were former or retired lawmen, some were outlaws, and even bandits and gunslingers who wanted a new start. 

As we know, predecessors of the Western cowboy date back to colonial times. History tells us that there were cowboys in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, and cattle associations, long before there were ever Great Plains cowboys. We know that it was in Florida that much of the protocol involving branding evolved. 

Both Eastern and Western cowboys had a lot in common, mostly that they were a hard men who worked hard. As with getting any group a men together and putting them together, there are many differing opinions and often not all get along with each other. Diaries show that fights among cowboys did occur from time to time. While camaraderie was present, it wasn't always as harmonious as one would think by what we see in movies.

At a ranch, workdays were just as long as those on the trail drives. And yes, some records say that the living conditions were worse than out on the range. 

We know this because cowboys and ranch hands usually had to share a small bunkhouse, which were known to leak when it rained and hot as hell during the summer. They were also said to be icy cold in winter. The beds were said to be plagued with lice, and sanitation was horrible.

The 1890 photograph above is of three working cowboys from Yankon, South Dakota. This is a picture of common ranch cowboys of the time.

The photograph above is special and unusual at the same time. It is special because men during that time were not usually photographed in their work clothes in a studio setting. Photography was actually pretty expensive and people tended to wear their Sunday best, or the found the flashiest gear they could find from either a friend or props from that the photographer may have on hand.

Yes, the cowboy life in the 1800s was far from what the movies depict. For one thing, cowboys were said to wash maybe once a week in the summer if there was a lake or stream nearby or a tub big enough to bath in. And in the wintertime, most hands would not even think about it until the spring.

As for the cowboys on the trail, rivers and lakes were used. Once getting their cattle to market, the first thing they did was get a bath, a shave, a haircut, and buy things. They bought new clothes, boots, saddles, headstalls, reins, blankets, a horse of their own, a new Stetson, and at $17 maybe a new Colt Peacemaker among other things. And yes, that was usually all before looking for a drink of whiskey or female companionship.

For cowboys at the ranch, if the smell of a roomful of men who had been working hard with horses and cows and chores all day got too bad? OK, a horse trough would work well. But historically, we know that they just wouldn’t bother to bathe unless going into town or to a social event.

As for going into town and sitting in a saloon all night? Fact is that while we know that nights were a lonely time, most hands really wanted to catch up on lost sleep. Sure cowboys would spend his free time playing poker, but mostly that was right there at the ranch. Not very many cowboys looked forward to working 12 to 18 hours a day, then saddle up and ride for 15 to 20 miles or more to the nearest town to play poker when they can get in a few hands of cards right there at the ranch. 

As for holding "Kangaroo Court"?  A kangaroo court being a judicial assembly that blatantly disregards recognized standards of law or justice, and often carries little or no official standing in the territory within which it resides. Yes, they were held at ranches where a cowboy was put on trial for some obscure charge like oversleeping.

Many times fellow cowboys would hold a kangaroo court, or mock trial, to straighten out a lazy cowboy, a shirker, or someone who simply wasn't pulling his weight. As for carrying out a sentence? Most times it involved all hands throwing "the offender" in the horse trough. It would have to be real bad for a cowboy to get fired and sent packing.

Unlike town folk who mostly wore bowlers, derbies, simply because they did not have to worry about the elements, the typical cowboy wore a hat with a wide brim to provide him protection from the sun and the rain. Because cattle kicked up clouds of dust, cowboys donned a bandanna over the lower half of his face. As for chaps and high boots, they were worn as protection from brush, briars, cactus, and cattle, among other things.

While movies depict cowboys wearing guns, most did not because they got in the way. On trail drives, guns were usually left in the chuck wagon. On night watch, guns were forbidden because a single shot could send a quiet herd scattering and stampeding. And no, unless he was a former lawman or soldier, chances were that the typical cowboy was not a skilled marksman.

It's true, contrary to popular believe, most cowboys didn't shoot up towns that they arrived in because most of them didn't carry guns while they were riding. Carrying a gun was a nuisance to the riders because they scared both the cows and the horses.

That's not to say that cowboys didn't have to take up arms now and again. While their work was hard and their workdays lasted for maybe 16 to 18 hours with much of their day spent in the saddle, there were armed conflicts. In most cases, cowboys would encounter shots from hostile Indians. But also, cowboys were the only law within a hundred miles to stop cattle rustlers wanting to steal their steers.

There were about 45,000 working cowboys during the heydays of the cattle drives. Of those, some 5,000 were African-Americans. Another 5,000 are said to have been Mexican-Americans.

To avoid additional strain on their horses, cowboys were usually young and smaller built and not the big men depicted in movies. And yes, it is a fact that many cowboys simply died young.

Whether it was being thrown from a horse in a corral or being trampled by cattle in a stampede on a trail drive, accidents of one sort or another claimed the lives cowboys. Of course, so did disease, as well as skirmishes with rustlers and Indians. 

Even before Owen Wister's "The Virginian" was published in 1902, the American cowboy had become a part of the American soul. On the overall, movies have not shown the reality of life for a cowboy in 1800s America. And maybe other than the fairly recent 2003 version of the film "Monte Walsh" starring Tom Selleck, they probably never will. 

As for a little trivia goes, we know that Theodore Roosevelt was sent to live in North Dakota for health reasons. While there on his ranch, he fell in love with the West and the cowboy life of hard work.

Later he wrote a book titled "Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail." He wrote it before becoming President of the United States. The book was illustrated by famous Western artist Frederick Remington.

So frankly, we know that cowboys in the 1800s worked hard, were tough as nails, and had short hard lives. And yes, because of their toughness, no vision of the American West is complete without the image of the American cowboy. 

We see him tall in the saddle, facing danger, one man against nature's wrath and the outlaws that plague humanity. That image appealed to people and makes the cowboy the symbol of the American West. While the image in the movies is not always accurate, the image of the hard working resilient cowboy will always be the image that is quintessentially American. 

And yes, that's the way I see things.

Tom Correa


  1. A long time ago, I read a book that chronicled cowboy's cause of death.
    1. pneumonia
    2. Falling off a horse or having a horse fall on him
    3 Don't remeber
    4. Knife
    5 Got shot.

  2. What sort of age was the typical cowboy? I guess a lot younger than Hollywood portrays. Perhaps leaving school and their family at 12.


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