Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Golden Age Of The Cowboy

Dear Friends,

I received an email asking me about the heyday of the cowboy, that golden age when the American cowboy became a folk hero, a half-real half-myth symbol of the Old West.

Above all else, we should first realize that the American cowboy was a hard working man. The cowboy of both myth and reality had his beginnings right after the Civil War in 1866 when the nation was still in shambles. It was from 1866 to 1886, that the American cowboy had his golden age. And though it was only a short twenty years, it was the era of the great cattle drives, the open range, and the struggle to feed a nation savaged by war. It was a time that changed America.

Before the end of the Civil War, most ranches were primarily small family affairs where cattle was raised for their own needs. Granted they sold off their surplus meat and hides locally, but there really wasn't a larger market for hides, horns, hooves, and tallow that we know became associated manufacturing processes that came about later.

Also prior to the mid 1860s, surprising as it might sound, there was little demand for beef. But with the expansion of the meat packing industry, the availability of the railroad, and the demand for beef in the East, by 1866 cattle were being sold for as much as $40 a head instead of $2 a head in Texas. This made cattle extremely profitable. And yes, Texas contained vast herds of free-ranging cattle available for free to anyone who could round them up and get them to market.

Ranchers learned quickly that cattle drives had to strike a balance between speed and trying to maintain the weight of their cattle. While they knew that cattle could be driven as far as 25 miles in a single day, they also knew that cattle would lose so much weight doing so. And yes, that would make it hard to sell them when they reached the end of the trail.

Because of this, cattle were driven shorter distances each day, then allowed to rest and graze both at midday and at night. This meant that a herd that traveled for two months would still maintain a healthy weight and look good on arrival after moving about 15 miles per day. At the end of a typical day on the trail, the herd might have moved about 15 miles but this too depended on the terrain and if there were rivers to cross.

Back in those days, a single herd numbered about 3,000 head. And to move a such a herd, a rancher needed a crew of at least 10 to 12 cowboys. Of course, part of the drive that people don't think about is the remuda of horses that was needed. All so that there would be three to four to six horses per cowboy on the trail.

Duties Along The Trail

At the start the cattle drive, all of the cowboys gathered up their gear and report to the Trail Boss. It was the Trail Boss ran the entire operation. And no, the drive would not begin all at once. Usually the steers would be left to graze in the morning and then slowly led down the trail. This type system of grazing and driving would be used to get the cattle used to the drive. After a few days of this, the herd would be accustomed to the routine and automatically begin to follow the lead steer who would be led by the cowboys riding point. The Trail Boss was responsible for picking the one dominant steer to act as a lead for the herd.

During the drives, cowboys worked in shifts to keep an eye on the cattle 24 hours a day. They not only herded them in the right direction during the day, but they also watched over them at night to keep them calm. The fear of stampedes and thieves was always a present danger, especially at night. And yes, they did a lot more when one looks at the duties of each specific job along the trail.

As in life in general, the cowboy too had a boss. His boss was the rancher and Trail Boos that he worked for. The Trail Boss had previous experience with trail drives He was responsible for the entire operation which meant the cowboys, cattle, horses, everyone, while on trail. As stated before, he was responsible for selecting the one dominant steer to act as a lead for the herd. He was also responsible for locating water, grass, and good trail for cattle. A great Trail Boss known the range, and knew it as well or better than most.

Besides maintaining discipline, he kept peace between the cowboys. He also made sure all did their jobs. And yes, he was the man who handled all money transactions whether it involved placing orders for supplies or paying the appropriate tolls. He was the boss. His pay was $90 a month.

The Point Man, sometimes two, was the most honored post on the drive. These cowboys would determine the direction of the drive. He was looked to for his reliability and ability to point the lead steers in the right direction. And yes, he was the man who sets the pace for the drive. His pay was $30 to $40 a month

Swing Riders had to know how to ride a horse, and previous experience with trail drives was seen as a big help. They rode a third of the way back from the front of the herd as it is moving down the trail, and back again while moving. Their pay was $30 to $40 a month.

Flank Riders also needed to know how to ride a horse, and he too needed previous experience with trail drives. Their main job was to "cuts in" cattle that have gotten out of the herd. They would make sure that cattle did not wander too far away from the main herd. They would also ride about two thirds of the way back from the front of the herd on the trail and then back again while the herd is moving. Their pay was $30 to $40 a month.

Drag Riders were your entry-level cowboys on the drive. These were the newbies who had everything to learn and ate dust doing it. They had to be willing to work hard and endure dust and dirt kicked up by the cattle and riders ahead of them. They were assigned to ride at the back of the herd on the trail to make sure that the cattle stayed with the herd. And yes, they had to be able to "push" slower cattle forward. Riding drag was not a fun job, but it's where all the inexperienced hands started after moving up from horse wrangler. Their pay was $30 to $40 a month.

The Horse Wrangler was another entry-level hand. He was generally a young boy who wants to be a cowboy. He was said to be willing to learn and work hard. He rounded up the extra horses and got them into a rope corral several times during the day. He kept the horses together, and made sure they were eating until it's time for a cowboy to change mounts. He made sure that those ridden hard are given extra grain, usually COB, and he kept saddle horses from straying too far. And yes, besides everything else, he also helped the cook. That meant including gathering wood and harnessing the teams.

A young wrangler would learn different ways of catching horses in the remuda because most horse would dodge anyone's attempts to rope them. This meant a young horse wrangler would learn one of the most important parts of being a skilled cowboy, how to rope. Catching mounts to get them ready for a change meant constantly working on one's rope-handling skills. Many used what was known as a "smear" or "houlihan" throw. Roper had different throws for different purposes, and the horse wrangler would learn most on his first drive.

It's said the smear or houlihan throw is a fast overhand throw with an open loop, rather than a side or spinning throw, which required more room to execute. The houlihan catch is performed quickly and in a tight area. It was one that many a young wrangler would learn first. His pay was $25 a month.

As for the Chuck Wagon Cook, it's said that he was usually a former cowboy who was either too old for the more difficult work or had been hurt too many times. He duties were more than simply knowing how to drive a wagon and being able to move the chuck wagon about two times a day about 10 to 15 miles each time, and prepare meals with limited resources to cook for the men.

The cook was to awaken at 3:00 a.m., and have breakfast ready when he woke the cowboys. He was to prepare three meals a day out of the back of a wagon, and serve them on time. While he was not expected to help with the cattle or any of the other trail jobs, he was expected to have some experience and knowledge of medical techniques because he did as a the drive's doctor.

Breakfast was usually sourdough biscuits, white gravy, sowbelly, and black coffee. Dinner, what many of us call lunch or noon chow, was sowbellly, black coffee, sourdough biscuits, white gravy, and maybe some pickles. Supper was black coffee, sowbelly, beans or white gravy, and sourdough biscuits.

While some might not know, sowbelly is salt pork. Of course, there was a "son-of-a-gun stew" which was supposedly served to cowboys on the trail from time to time. It was made of the brains, sweetbreads which is the pancreas or thymus, and choice pieces of a freshly killed calf. It was a rarity since cattle was not consumed on the trail. Fact is, cattle meant money to the owner. So subsequently cowhands did not butcher a cow or a calf for chow.

By the way, something that folks might not realize is that the Trail Boss and the chuck wagon cook would ride perhaps two or three miles ahead of the herd. This would allow the Trail Boss time to look for a suitable location with good grass and water for the noon rest. Stopping at the end of the day meant the herd needed to be bedded down. Shift were set up and watches were scheduled throughout the night. A cowboy would have to stand a watch that might be two to four hours long.

At night, all there wanted quiet and peace. Above all, no one wanted anything that would rile the herd. And this, well this was because a single spooked steer could ignite a stampede. Fact is, the possibility of being caught up in a stampede would be the most dangerous thing that could happen to a cowboy on a cattle drive.

And while stampedes were likely to occur at night, they would happen in an instant maybe set off by the clap of thunder clap, or some natural predator such as a nearby mountain lion, the song of some unknown noise coming for the dark prairie.

Stampedes caused the drive to lose valuable time, but they could be a deadly affair for a cowboy. It is said that more than one cowboy was trampled to death during a stampede. No, it wasn't unusual for a horse to step into a prairie dog hole or rut and a cowboy hitting the ground during a stampede in the dark.

Of course, even in the daylight, stampedes took place. As with the clap of thunder at night, a noise of something out of the ordinary could set them off. And no, it wasn't unusual for an Indian to wave a blanket at the herd to start one. Dangerous or not, stampedes meant that brave and hungry Indians may try to cut out a few cattle for themselves.

While a cattle drive was tough and dangerous work, and with the two constant threats from outlaws and Indians and stampedes, it's said the Trail Boss was under a lot of tension. Of course the cowboys themselves became weary from the hard riding and lack of sleep. While on the trail, the Trail Bosses was the law.

There were rules to follow and they were known before the trail drive ever started. Breaking of the rules would be dealt with, with no exceptions. And yes, murder could result in a hanging. The cowboys during the drive would usually follow the rules and regulations to the letter. Some ranchers actually forbid gambling during a drive because they saw it as just something that created problems and ill will.

But remember, these were mostly young men and not older adults as the movies depict. So yes, though their pockets were empty, they did find time to play a game or two of poker if time allowed and the herd was content. And yes, they would usually be play using match sticks as chips. Remember, they didn't get paid the entire two months of more and they would not get paid until the end of the drive.

Hitting Town After The Drive

After the long cattle drive, all celebrations were at trail's end. Once the trail drive ended, the cowboys would be paid and they would definitely be ready to let off steam. And depending on the length of the trail drive, a cowboy might have anywhere from $80 to $90 in his pocket when paid. Friends, that's the equivalent of having about $2,100 in your pocket in 2017 dollars.

So yes, with the arrival of cattle now in the stockyards and the cowboys with such money in the pockets, "cow-towns" boomed between 1866 and 1890 as railroads reached towns suitable for gathering and shipping cattle. History tells us the first was Abilene, Kansas. Other towns in Kansas included Wichita and Dodge City. In the 1880s Dodge City boasted of being the "Cowboy Capital of the World."

And yes, there were a number of merchants, saloons and gambling halls, con-men, prostitutes, and others all more than willing to relieve the young cowboy of his new found wealth. And no, unlike the movies, cowboys did not hit the saloons first.

In fact, they got haircuts and shaves and a bath, they bought new clothes, a new Stetson, and new boots. They bought new gear such as new saddles, headstalls, bits, chaps, and of course they were known to buy their favorite horse from the Trail Boss himself if the cowboy was moving on. Yes, some would return with the Trail Boss while other cowboys went on their way.

The merchants who sold goods were the businesses which made huge profits as a result of the cattle drives. As for drinking and such, yes they drank and sought out soiled doves. So yes, brothels and gambling-halls flourished in towns that were wide open twenty-four hours a day.

As For The Violence In The Cow-Towns

As for violence and drunkenness, there was that -- especially since most were mere boys and unaccustomed to liquor of any sort. Of the drunken brawls, towns benefited from the fines. Of course, lawmen who got a cut from the fines collected benefited as well. And no, it was not unusual for a town lawman to buffalo a cowboy, hit him upside the head with the butt of his pistol, and throw him in jail just because he wanted to make more money in fines.

As for the number of killings? If one believes Hollywood, cowboys killed all sorts of innocent people all over the West. In reality there were only a small number. And that, well that's especially true when compared to what was going on in Eastern cities which was where the real violence was taking place in the late 1800s.

Fact is while the cowboy lived life on his own terms in many cases by his own wits. with the exception of a cowboy having a rifle to protect himself from wild animals, outlaws, and Indians, handguns were not a piece of equipment seen as frequently as seen in Hollywood films. It's said one rancher summed it up when he pointed out that "an unarmed man would not be challenged to a gunfight."

It's true, the Code of the West was such that it forbid firing on an unarmed man. That's one reason that in so many instances in the Old West, we read about people telling the other to go get armed. Besides many a Trail Boss was known to warn his hands about how the act of carrying six-shooters could lead to unwanted trouble. As a result, believe it or not, contrary to what Hollywood and novels want to say, more cowboys walked around unarmed then armed.

And if the cow-town of Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City, and Caldwell, Kansas, were such deadly places because of cowboys, why is it that for the years from 1870 to 1885, a 15 year span, there were only a total of only 45 total homicides combined. That equates to a rate of approximately 1 murder per 100,000 residents per year. And by the way, 16 of those 45 homicides were committed by duly authorized lawmen.
And another thing, other than only two towns, Ellsworth in 1873 and Dodge City in 1876, none of the other cow towns ever had as many as five killings in any one year period. I've even read where in Abilene, Kansas, supposedly one of the wildest of the cow-towns, did not have a single person killed in 1869 and 1870. Yes, at the beginning of the heyday of the cattle drives.

Consider this, in a town like Dodge City, it's said that if local women were spoken to in the wrong way by a drunken cowboy, that cowboy would face quick punishment. Fact is letting off steam at the end of a drive would be more along the lines of telling stories, recalling the adventure, and doing some bragging and drinking rather than breaking the law.

While things were definitely rowdy, they were very rarely deadly. Of course, that's not to say that shootings didn't happen as a result of the unsavory folks also attracted to boom towns. Remember that the influx of cattle money attracted all sorts of the parasites of society as well. As in other boom towns con-artists, gamblers, prostitutes, and outlaws arrived. In fact this was what took place in the gold mining camps and towns here in California in the 1850s, and in the silver mining camps and towns in Nevada and Arizona in the 1880s.

Of course, when a shooting did happen, the Eastern newspapers sensationalized it to support the lies printed in the dime novels. In general shootings in cow-towns were not nearly as frequent and deadly as the Hollywood movies would have us believe. But where it the surprise there. Hollywood has been very unfair in their depiction of cowboys for a long time.

Cowboys Lived With A Sense Of Camaraderie On The Trail

In the Old West, especially during the time of the cattle drives, they were very young and very hard working. They were very honest and knew that there were consequences for not being that way. Most were Christian, and on the trail cowboys were known to conduct what we today call "Cowboy Church" on the trail drives. And yes, on the overall, they did in fact get along with just about everyone both on the trail and in towns.

This is especially true since, contrary to Hollywood, they were not all white or racists. In fact, it's said that 1 out of ever 4 cowboys was black, and 1 out of every 4 were said to be Mexican. And yes, there were even Indian cowboys. Of course of the "white" cowboys, those of European decent, many were from various countries. So no, the white cowboys shouldn't be lumped together. Fact is those "white" cowboys were English, Irish, French, German, Italian, Basque, Portuguese, Spanish, Swiss, Norwegian, Slavic, Russian, and other nationalities.

In many cases, these were not third or fourth generation Americans. Many came from families who's families were fairly recent arrivals. Many came from families who still remembered how they didn't always get along in Europe. And yes, one can actually compare their histories in Europe to say how the Sioux and the Pawnee didn't get along in North America.

The Trail Boss made sure they got along if there were any problems. And no, he didn't take any guff from anyone. He was not above cutting a man out of his crew to keep harmony on the long arduous drive.

But the fact is that they worked and lived together, and they had a bond that we do not see in Hollywood movies. It was a bond, a camaraderie, built on respect for each other's abilities to cowboy. Each man had to proof his worth or not be there.

One's skin color and ancestry did not matter. What mattered along the trail was a cowboy's ability to cowboy. What mattered was his skill with horses and cattle and not turn tail in the face of adversity. What mattered was a cowboy's ability to endure the hardship and the challenge and prevail. On the trail, each man, not matter of his background, was measure by what he could do and his character.

Some say the cattle drives were manned with lowlifes and ruffians, outlaws on the run and killers, no-goods and shirkers, on the trail. That's all Hollywood, because that's not real. Fact is that Trail Bosses picked his crew carefully for their experience and ability to get along with others. And yes, his crew knew that he would not put up with any sort of wrong behavior. All of the hands knew that if they stepped out of line, then they'd be sent packing.

The Start Of The Cowboy Code

The fact is that an unwritten code was forming at the time. That code was evolving to reflect the honest and forthright cowboy that did not abide by thieving or rustling, that did not shirk his duties, that was respectful and held to Christian values.

Folks reading this should remember that that was the Victorian era. The way people looked at life at the time was what started the cowboy code. For example, to give you an idea of how men were expected to conduct themselves back in the day, read what Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture wrote in 1886:

"It is the duty of a gentleman to know how to ride, to shoot, to fence, to box, to swim, to row and to dance. He should be graceful. If attacked by ruffians, a man should be able to defend himself, and also to defend women from their insults"

Over time, cowboys developed a personal code and culture of their own. I believe cowboys lived a life of frontiersman with Victorian era values and sense of manners, bravery and chivalry and commitment, all blended together with American individuality. Along with this, since they still did extremely dangerous work, they held steadfast to their tradition of self-dependence and individualism. Yes, this is where we find American individualism in the truest sense of the term.

They placed enormous value on personal honesty, pride, integrity, loyalty, trust, respect, hard work, and morals. These were personal attributes that money could not buy. And yes, this was the beginnings of what we know today as the "Cowboy Culture." Yes. what some today call the "Cowboy Way."

And all in all, it is estimated that millions of head of cattle were herded from Texas to railheads in Kansas for shipments to stockyards in Chicago and all points East during those years. Friends, that's quite a feat. Fact is that's an incredible number even by anyone's standards.

The End of An Era

It is said that barbed wire ended the era of the cattle drives while at the same time put a lot of cowboys out of work. Joseph F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, received a patent in 1874 for the modern invention after he made his own modifications to previous versions of barbed wire. And while his version of barbed wire really didn't impact the West until the early 1880s, barbed wire was all about restraining cattle. Wire fences were cheaper and easier to erect than their alternatives. And yes, one such alternative was Osage orange which is said to be a thorny bush which is also said to be extremely time-consuming to transplant and grow.

Here's another little bit of trivia for you. You ever notice those wood posts for barbed wire fences in places where wood is scarce? Well, it's said that the Osage orange later became the wood used in making barb wire fence posts.

By the 1890s, barbed wire was the standard in the northern plains. And by then the railroads had expanded to cover most of the nation, so that meant that meat packing plants could be built closer to major ranching areas. This made the long cattle drives from Texas to the railheads in Kansas completely unnecessary. And with barbed wire, the age of the open range and cattle drives were gone.

Now that's not to say that there weren't smaller cattle drives. In fact, smaller cattle drives continued for years even into the 1950s when modern cattle trucks started taking over the job of transporting beef from the ranch to the slaughter house or stockyards. And today, there are even places where big ranches move pretty big herds.

What ended the Golden Age of the American Cowboy?

There are those who say the heyday of the cowboy ended because of barbed wire and the demise of the open range. But was it all because of the invention of barbed wire, the loss of open range, the railroad, the availability of closer meat packing plants? I believe that they were all contributing factors to the end of the heyday of the cowboy, but I also believe that the real end came as a result of weather and economics.

Fact is, by 1883 there was a horrible drought that ruined what grass was available. And for the next few years, that drought plagued the West. To add to that, the demand for beef fell off and so did market prices. This happened all while there was a glut of cattle.

This of course all meant that the cattle business became a lot less profitable. Soon many ranches went under or sold out to Eastern corporation. Then the death knell was rung during the winter of 1886 into 1887.

It is called the "Big Die-Up" because it was so severe that cattle and cowboys died in the freezing temperatures. In November of 1886, it started to snow. And yes, it kept snowing for a long long time right into the new year. It carried gale-force winds and temperatures of 50 degrees below zero. Then, it's said that thing got worse when rain fell.

The rain was followed by a massive freeze that is said to have virtually sealed what little grass there was beneath a very thick layer of snow and ice that was said to be absolutely impenetrable. The result was that cattle died of exposure and starvation. Their frozen carcasses littered the plains and filled the draws.

Without so many cattle, there was no need for so many cowboys. Yes, the golden age of the young cowboy was gone. But, they weren't out by a long shot. While some moved on to other things including rustling, many adapted to the new world around them and tried their hand at working for smaller ranches where mending fences and tending to small herds was the norm.

During this time, many a cowboy ended up working for day wages and chuck when they could find it. But after the freeze, though not the same, it wasn't long before ranching made a come back. And over time, ranches multiplied all over the developing West. And while the numbers of cowboys were not that of before 1866, those small ranches kept a number of cowboys employed. Some say cowboys became somewhat more settled then before.

It was all in all a low-paid job. The average cowboy earned about a dollar a day plus food and board. No, the pay was not the greatest. That in itself may be the reason that cowboys ranked low on the social ladder of the period.

But then again, while there were those young men who did hire on for the drives and left to do other things when the drives were over, there were also those who weren't there just for the money. Of course, the many who stayed cowboys created part of the folklore that lives on today.

You see, while cowboys knew darn well that the money was never great, they remained cowboys for the life and the freedom that they knew they couldn't find anywhere else. And that, well that's part of what Americans want. Yes, to live a life where one may still work for another yet still has freedom.

So why is the period called the Golden Age of the Cowboy?

Well, the period between 1866 and 1886 cemented the image of the American cowboy as one of courage and hard work, or tirelessness and loyalty to the brand, of individualism and perseverance, of what one person once called spirited horseman living dangerous lives. They faced lightning and flash floods, drought and the most horrible winters on record. They faced stampedes, rattlesnakes, outlaws, Indians, and slept under the stars on the dying frontier.

Yes indeed, they worked the cattle drives and fought the worse of nature's elements, thieving outlaws, and marauding Indians in the Old West. They had to adapt and overcome, and no not everyone could do what they did.

Yes, the men who lived the life became known as cowboys. And yes, their life carried an appeal that refuses to disappear even today. My friends, that short twenty year time period is called the golden age of the American cowboy because it was a time when cowboys became American folk heroes for all the right reasons.

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

Tom Correa


  1. Very good stuff, Tom. Texas Jack Omohundro, who became a cowboy after serving as a scout under J.E.B. Stuart during the Civil War, did much to enshrine the ideal of the cowboy as western hero when he went on stage with his friend Buffalo Bill in 1872. By bringing the West to the stages of the East, even when they portrayed the legend more than the truth, the two ensured that the image of Texas Jack tossing his lasso over an Indian or "bad man" would forevermore remind America of the idealized frontier man.


Thank you for your comment.