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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Old West Cowboys: Truths and Myths, Part 1

William S. Hart, Tom Mix, John Wayne. Throw in Ben Cartwright, Matt Dillon, and Lucas McCain. For good measure, add two book characters, Tell Sackett and Monte Walsh.

For over one hundred years, thousands of movies, tv programs, and books showcased The Western. But did they accurately portray the facts of the times? The answer is a resounding Yes, but also a resounding No.

I’ll start with the Truths.

A cowboy’s work was hard, very hard.

Some worked on ranches from first light until dusk, rounding up the cattle from the winter and then the summer months. They roped new calves, branded all, and castrated the males. In between they broke broncos, painted the bunkhouse, repaired far-flung fencing, and brought supplies from town.

Other cowboys chose to work the cattle drives, arduous journeys that originated in Texas and went north to the rail depots in Kansas. Twelve to sixteen men had to guide herds of around 3000 cattle, gain control of stampedes, fight off wild animals, beware of rattlesnakes, and even confront rustlers. For all that effort, the cook would feed them meals of mainly beans, and perhaps biscuits if the cook was good. Not exactly a balanced diet. After as long as three months, pay came from the trail boss at the end of the drive. Each cowboy cleared between twenty-five and thirty-five dollars. Minimum wage back then was pretty low.

Cowboys did wear something of a uniform.

Their hats were of utmost importance for protection from sun and rain, and were a huge source of pride as they were costly, worth about two months wages. The cowboy rule was, Never put on another man’s hat.

Sturdy shirts and pants were more necessary clothing, but even more necessary were well-made boots. They sported pointed toes to better slide in and out of stirrups, especially if a cowboy was in the process of falling from his horse. Better to land with a wallop on the ground than to be dragged along, one foot still caught in a stirrup. Other necessities were chaps, to protect legs from bushes and sharp cacti, and bandanas, to protect mouths and noses from dust. After all, those boys weren’t traveling with cattle on nice, paved roads.

Cowboys did carry weapons.

Their favored firearm was the shotgun, although some just used an old musket. These were useful to ward off coyotes, wolves, and other predatory varmits who saw cattle and thought, “Dinner!”

There was a cowboy code.

Since no formal law existed on the frontier, people developed it for themselves. These were simple rules based on the common sense needed to survive in the West. While they were never written down, the ideas were generally respected. A cowboy might think little of breaking formal laws on the books back East, stealing, causing serious injury, even murder, but he would certainly uphold the informal code. Here are just a few:

1. When approaching from behind, give a loud greeting before you get within shooting range.

2. Be hospitable to strangers. Anyone who wanders in should be offered a meal.

3. Know where to draw the line.

4. Cuss all you want, but only around men, horses, and cows.

5. Never shoot a woman, no matter what.

6. Real cowboys are modest. A braggart won’t be endured.

And my personal favorite:

Always be courageous. Cowards aren’t tolerated in any outfit worth its salt.

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