Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Real Cowboys

The Real Cowboys

by: Kathleen Mary Andersen

Reprinted from Western Chronicles Magazine, 2004

Their heyday was only a small piece of history, but their folklore and spirit has lasted many generations. The myth and mystery lasted from around 1850 to the early 1880s and created a hero that was larger in our memories than in the actual life he had lead. They had a dream and a vision.
These are the cowboys.

In September of 2003, I went to the Idaho Panhandlers Cowboy Action Shoot at Faragutt State Park. I am always in awe of the outfits and the spirit at these events. As I sat on this clear Saturday watching the mounted shoorting event, I thought back to my childhood at the Saturday afternoon matinee. I was mesmerized with the dashing men, singing their way down the trail, fighting for truth and justice in the old west. They came to the rescue of a fair damsel, forever upholding the code of the west. I wanted to leap onto that screen and ride off into the sunset with them. But here I was in the reality of this modern affair complaining about my frozen toes and fingers wondering how these brave souls of the past carried on without all the comforts we now have..

The miles I had traveled in my car to get here as hardly a “spit in the bucket” in comparison to the long and arduous journey that the real cowboy had to take. While I traveled I-90 the American cowboy traveled routes called “The Chisholm Trail” The Goodnight Loving Trail” and “The Western Trail”. All leading from the Texas coast into Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Montana they roamed the limitless land, earning a couple of hundred dollars to take this property that was not even something they owned to its final market place in cities like Cheyenne and Dodge City. I thought that the true American cowboy was the epitome of masculinity. I imagined him riding the rugged countryside, yodeling as the sun went over the horizon and his name would be Gus or Woodrow McCall as in the movie Lonesome Dove. His life was carefree, adventurous and happy. He carried his bedroll, sat by a campfire drinking his coffee and pondered life under the stars. Could life be any better?

Anyway, this is how I saw it. In reality, who was the real American cowboy? Fact or fiction suddenly starts to merge into a portrait of a unique hero of our culture. The “cowboy” was truly just a boy; his average age was only 24 years old. The term “cowboy” came about during the Revolutionary War when the Tories would tinkle a cow’s bell to lure the unsuspecting Patriots into an ambush. It was only later that it became a popular name for Texas rustlers who stole cattle from the Mexicans and after the Civil War it came to signify anyone who tended cattle in the West. I guess that would include rounding up horses as well.

One out of 3 cowboys was actually either black or Mexican. Most were uneducatedorphans, slaves and immigrants who came to seek a living in the west. If they worked an average of 7 years with hopes and some good financial management, they could have enough for their own ranch and their own herd. Most only worked during the warmer months taking handyman jobs in town during the winter months. Some of these adventurous young men never even knew how to ride before signing on as a cowhand.

"In person the cowboys were mostly medium-sized men... quick and wiry, and as a rule very good-natured; in fact, it did not pay to be anything else. In character, their like never was or will be again." Teddy Blue Abbott. “They Pointed Them North”

Exit John Wayne, Gene Audrey and all those romantic figures on the saddle. The average cowboy didn’t sit on his horse, totting his gun, playing his guitar down the range. Even the rough and tumble photos portraying the cowboy covered up a self conscience young man trying to earn a living. Life was not easy on the prairie. The cowboys would have to endure the extreme Texas heat, the bitter winds of spring in Colorado and the early snows of Wyoming and Montana to get their cattle to its final destination. Contrary to popular depiction, guns were not encouragedby the ranchers nor city officials in the in the towns the cowboys passed. Guns were only used to protect and to ensure the safe passage up the trails that became the focal point of many cowboy songs. It was in those songs, and the Old West shows that gave the cowboys a bit of romance.

The model for the American cowboy was the “vaqueros”, a professional breed of horseman who set the style, had mastered the equipment and technique of horses and even set the vocabulary that would later become the trademark of the cowboy. The came with the Spaniards to settle the west. The early cowboy wore typically wool paints, often times with buckskin sown in the seat and inner legs to prevent chaffing and wear from the saddle, no belt, a large wool hat usually with the brim held in place with thorns, no suspenders but tight fitting pants that could stay up while he worked in the saddle all day. Vests with long pockets became an asset for carrying items like tobacco or a small tally book. Northern cowboys often wore long fur lined coats to protect them from the weather. Gloves were a matter of choice. “Chaparreras”, the thick pants the Spanish wore was later simplified to “chaps”. The term “vaqueros”, “vaca” meaning cow later was simplifed to “buckaroos” during cowboy times.

Unlike the flashy and professional vaqueros, the cowboys were generally good natured, striving to save some money for something of their own. Early boots were actually those that soldiers brought home from the Civil War and were with a traditional flat heel. The Spaniards brought with them the mastery of the saddle. A cowboy usually owned his own and the horse was often the possession of the cattle baron. or rancher that the cowboy worked for. The Western saddle is actually a descendant of the 16th Century Spanish saddle that the conquistadorsrode into Mexico. The Spanish saddle being copied from the Moors.

The prommel at the front was curved to prevent the rider from sliding off. The saddle changed when it came to cattle country. The curved was tilted well backward for the rider’s comfort. If the saddle fit properly, not only to the horse but to the horseman, he could easily travel 70 miles a day. Modifications throughout the years were made to the riggings but the major design used in the mission saddle is still prevalent today. Later when chaps and a different style of hats emerged, a large belt buckle had a purpose to protect the cowboy during the rough interaction with the cow. It was easy to lose his balance and the buckle served to save him from busting a gut on the horn.

The cowboy’s canvas was the open and unsettled land of the west. The lush green pastures rose to the Rockies. But along with this magnificent scenery came the extreme weather conditions of hot and cold. Texas was dry and dusty while the Montana territory could be chilling and windy. These elements shaped the character of the cowboy. Writers such as Teddy Blue Abbott wrote stories of the cowboy adventure. His most famous tale “They Pointed Them North” brings to life the saga of the cattle drive from Texas to Montana. The artist Charlie Russell immortalized the cowboy on many of his western paintings. It was thru these men that we catch a glimpse of the real American cowboy.

The cowboy’s horse was his equipment. Most cow ponies were normally a crossbetween a Cavalry horse and a mustang. The cowboys thought it was best to leave the horse to roam for the first 4 years of his life before he would be trained. Then the poor animal went thru a 4 day breaking process to prepare him for his new task. These horses were much shorter than today’s stock, standing about 12 to 14 hands. The lariat was introduced to the cowboy by the vaqueros who used braided rawhide but the cowboys evolved this into a grass rope usually about 40 feet long.

A cowboy’s work was never done. He saddled up at daybreak and tended his herd until sunset. On the open range, predators such as wolves and bear prevented the cowboys from a peaceful nights sleep. While he was on a drive he could hope for a chuck wagon and some decent food to help compensate for the many hours in the saddle. But most of the time as the song goes “eat bacon and beans most every day” was the common food fare along with coffee and a fresh loaf of bread.

The long cattle drives drove boys into men. Four or five months in the saddle, wearing the same clothes, no companionship other than your fellow cowboys and a whole lot of cattle built character. Friendships were important. When the cowboy did get into town he allowed himself the comforts of a hot bath, a shave, a woman, a deck of cards and a good bottle of whiskey. Towns catering to the cattle industry thrived.

The cowboy lived by the golden rule of the Code of the West. Good behavior might entail rules such as never borrowing a horse without permission, never grabbing another horseman’s bridle as it was considered an intrusion on the other man’s control of his horse, never waving at a passing horseman but simple giving a simple node or verbal greeting as not to spook the other man’s horse. A wave was considered bad form. If one man dismounted, another would as dismount as a courtesy. Cowboys were expected to respect the property of the ranch. The cowboy’s code was one of honesty. But like all good things, times were about to change.

Along with good times, the arrival of the cattle drives meant more settlers and of course arguments about land rights. The open range now had limitations and those limitations were protected. There were the fencers and the fence cutters. Barb wire was the downfall of the freedom of the west. With one man’s possessions came another man’s envy. Cattle rustling made its way into the open prairie. Confrontations erupted over fencing, water rights and land boundaries. Gunplay and gunfights became the most popular symbol of the cowboy. Mythology paints a portrait where a man would ultimately have to face life or death for his good name in a dual. The reality was that most gunfights were not between cowboys but the underground of professional gamblers and criminals that followed the money west.

The romance of the cowboy was boosted when a businessman realized he could capitalize the lore of the west. The entrepreneur Buffalo Bill Cody in the 1870s began his Wild West Show featuring prizes for events of skill such as cow roping, target shooting, bronc riding, and a program built around the cowboys. He hoped to attract 100 cowboys to enter but he received over 1,000 participants. It fueled the myth that made headlines around the world.

Riding your horse under the stars, a gentle breeze blowing in your hair. Thinking about the American cowboy brings out something in me that is magical. It was the era of no computers, no phones, no traffic, and no pollution. Whether it is watching the sunset over the mountains or sitting by a campfire singing a song, the cowboys brought to us that romantic lore of the good and honest hero who lended his support to the powerless and weak. Brave, honest and true the American cowboy will forever remain in our hearts and the symbol of America’s past. Although he is gone, in my mind he will never be forgotten.

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