by Kathy Wolfe

Yee-haw! Tidbits has rounded up these facts about cowboys, the heroes of the American West.

Although we tend to think of cowboys as figures of the Old West, they actually had their origins in Mexico. In the early 1500s, the Spanish who were migrating to North America were developing ranches to raise cattle and other livestock. Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes imported horses to begin horse-breeding in Mexico, and by 1553, there were an estimated 10,000 free-roaming horses there.

Mexico’s native cowboys were hired by ranchers to care for the livestock, and became known as “vaqueros,” from the Spanish word “vaca” for “cow. They became proficient in riding, roping, and herding.    The most experienced vaquero was referred to as the Segundo, Spanish for “second,” the one who rode with the trail boss.

Ranching spread north to what is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in the early 1700s. Cattle ranches expanded further when Franciscan priests began establishing missions in California in the 1760s.   

Hocking County Veterans Service Commission

The number of American cowboys dramatically increased immediately after the Civil War ended in 1865. The Union Army had depleted the supply of beef up North, and the demand was high. A steer selling for $4 a head in Texas was worth $40 in the North. There were thousands of out-of-work soldiers with the War’s end, and many joined up with cattle drives to support themselves, along with European immigrants, Native Americans, and freed slaves.

    After making a fortune selling meat to the U.S. Union Army during the Civil War, Philip Armour opened up a meat packing plant in Chicago. Four million head of longhorn cattle were rounded up and cowboys began the long, grueling process of herding them toward railroad depots in Abilene, Kansas, Wichita, Kansas, and Ogallala, Nebraska, to begin their journey to Chicago.

      The cattle were driven just 15 miles each day to ensure that they didn’t drop too much weight before reaching the market. A herd of 3,000 required 8 to 12 experienced cowboys, led by the trail boss. A cowboy made about $25 to $40 per month. A typical drive lasted from as little as a few weeks up to five months.

When not on the trail, cowboys broke horses, repaired fences and structures, did branding, along with other various ranch chores. They slept in a communal bunkhouse, a barracks-like lodge with narrow beds. It was a large open room, with little or no privacy, often referred to by the crew as the doghouse, dive, shack, dump, dicehouse, or the ram pasture.    The wood stove was the center of the bunkhouse, where cowboys gathered to play music or cards. Poles were hung from the ceiling for the purpose of drying clothing.   

Cowboys typically worked 15 hours a day, whether in the saddle or caring for livestock. Out of necessity for protection from the sun, the tradition of wearing large hats with wide brims began, along with bandanas around the neck that could be pulled up to protect their nose and mouth from dust. Leather chaps worn on the outside of trousers shielded their legs from cactus and rough terrain.

In 1865, John B. Stetson founded his now-famous hat company, catering especially to cowboys out west. He designed his high-end felt hats with a dome-shaped crown and a large brim. The hat, known as the Boss of the Plains, served not only as a head covering, but as a drinking bowl for both the cowboy and his horse. By 1886, Stetson was the largest hat brand in the world. And by 1906, the company was producing 2 million hats a year. A Stetson was by no means an inexpensive hat – a new one sold for ten dollars back in the days of the cattle drives.

    As ranchers grazed their cattle on the public lands of the open plains, it was necessary to have a practice that identified which animals belonged to which rancher. In Mexico, ranchers marked their herds with the family’s coat of arms. The Americans devised simpler symbols to be branded into the cattle’s hides, typically when a calf was about 60 days old. When it came time for the roundup and driving the cows to market, the cowboys had the daunting task of separating the cattle by the multiple ranches using the open range.    Branding wasn’t anything new – the ancient Egyptians had been branding since around 3000 B.C.

    Open range grazing was pretty much history by the 1890s, when land became privatized. Ranchers employed the use of barbed wire and the big cattle drives dissipated. The Texas trail drives lasted just over 20 years, with 10 million Texas longhorns driven north between the end of the Civil War and 1890. Cowboys were hired on by private ranch owners and most gave up the open trail.

    It didn’t matter what the person’s name was, the camp cook was typically referred to as “Cookie,” and considered the most important person in the camp after the trail boss. Some cowboys called the cooks “biscuit shooters,” “belly cheaters,” and “bean masters.” Cookie worked longer hours than the cowboys, as he was in charge of setting up and breaking down camp. Breakfast had to be ready when the cowboys arose, and Cookie cleaned up the mess after dinner at night. He was also responsible for locating the North Star each night and turning the tongue of the chuckwagon toward it to alert the cowboys which way to head out the following morning. For his extra efforts, the cook was one of the best paid crew members.

    Occasionally, cowboys would have free time following a drive, and would hold competitions against each other, testing their skills of roping and riding against each other. As the number of drives decreased with fencing on the open range and expansion of the railroads, many cowboys were left without employment. This led to competitions between neighboring ranches becoming more and more popular, leading to the modern-day rodeo. Prescott, Arizona, was the site of the first formalized professional rodeo on Independence Day, 1888, although Buffalo Bill Cody had awarded prize money to competitors at his 1882 Wild West Show. Cheyenne, Wyoming’s Frontier Days were established in 1897, followed by the Calgary Stampede in 1912.