Thursday, August 9, 2012

Daily Life on an Old West Cattle Drive

Texas Longhorn and bluebonnets. 
Photo copyright D.S. Dollman.

Although dirty, stinky, dangerous and exhausting, cattle drives just might have been as exciting as they are portrayed in Western films. For a teenager on his first drive, it could have been the most exciting thing he'd ever done! Nevertheless, work on a cattle drive entailed many hours in the saddle, few hours of restless sleep (as I discussed in my last post, and exhausting, possibly dangerous work chasing and rescuing strays. On most cattle drives there was one cowboy to every 250 cattle, which required the cowboy to be vigilant at all times, all for $30 to $40 per month pay. The cowboy in charge of the remuda was paid $25 a month. The cook was paid between $50 and $75 per month depending on the size of the cattle drive and experience. The trail boss was paid between $100 and $150 a month and was well worth the money.

Texas Longhorn. Photo by D.S. Dollman.

The cook was the first cowboy to rise so he could prepare breakfast (bacon, beans, biscuits and coffee) for the guards who would relieve the night guards while the rest of the cowboys ate their breakfast and prepared for the day. When breakfast was ready, the Cookie, or Old Lady (not a very nice term, but one I've seen often in history books) shouted, "Bacon in the pan, coffee in the pot!" Cowboys were up before dawn to break down the camp, put out the campfire, pack the wagon, choose their horses and prepare themselves before the cattle started moving. They generally slept in a circle around the fire near the chuck wagon. The first ones up were the cowboys replacing the most recent night guard. Night guard lasted two hours, so the relief crew would eat fast so the night guards could come in and get their own breakfast before starting their day.

Chuckwagon, Texas, circa 1900, public domain.

The cowboys would roll their blankets up and pack them in the chuckwagon. The bed roll was sometimes referred to as a Flea Trap, according to Barnard's Story of the Great American West. Blankets were generally quilted wool and a second or third blanket was used to lie on the ground and protect the cowboy from the cold and creepy critters. The ground blanket was an oil cloth. An oil cloth was a strip of tightly-woven cotton threads coated a few times with linseed oil that would harden to produce a sturdy, hard cloth. The blankets and other personal items were rolled up inside the oil cloth, which was tied at both ends then stacked with the other bed rolls in the chuckwagon. (The chuckwagon was invented by cattle baron Charles Goodnight and will be discussed in another blog post--it deserves a post of its own, as do cattle barons and cattle trails.)

It is important to remember that I am discussing cowboys working on a cattle drive here. Although cowboys working the range, or as ranch hands, or traveling, often carried guns and rifles, during cattle drives cowboys generally carried guns only during guard duty at night. They may have owned guns, and had them with them on the drive, but while working the drive these items were stacked in the chuckwagon, too. This is a logical decision--it would be rather difficult and possibly dangerous to cowboy, horse, and cattle, to try and maneuver through a herd with a rifle strapped to your saddle. If a cowboy wore a gun on a drive it was worn high up on the waist. The six-shooter was the cheapest, according to Albert Marrin's Cowboys, Indians, and Gunfighters: The story of the Cattle Kingdom.A six-shooter cost between $12 and $20, weighed four pounds and was often small enough to fit in a trouser pocket--but again, a cowboy on the trail would not wear a gun in his trouser pockets. Can you imagine what would happen if it accidentally fired?

The cowboy's apparel was discussed in a few earlier posts, but generally consisted of wool Long Johns or underwear, a wool shirt, vest--coats restricted movement--jeans, or wool pants leftover from Civil War uniforms, and bandanas. Bandanas were vital, particularly during dust storms. They protected the mouth and nose from inhaling dirt from the trail, but not very well. Cowboys still complained often of sand in their teeth! (Inhaling the dust could be dangerous business. During the dust storms of the 1940s many people died from breathing dust into their lungs.)

The cowboy's hat, often a Stetson or other popular brand, had a broad brim to protect the eyes and tall crown to keep the head cool and for good rain drainage. Cowboys often suffered from vision problems from staring into the hot sun, but the wide-brimmed cowboy hat and bandanas, when used properly, could add many years of good vision to the life of a cowboy. (There were eyeglasses available during this time period. In fact, The Historic EyeWear Company has an article on the styles of eyeglasses available to cowboys in the Old West.)

Cowboys also wore chaps on drives. These were made of leather or wool and protected the jeans or pants from cactus thorns. Cacti such as the Cholla can grow taller than a man with needles over an inch long (trust me, I've pulled them out of the bottom of my shoes with pliers), so chaps were a necessity. The water canteen was another necessity as cowboys needed to keep hydrated during the drive without pausing to run back to the chuckwagon. The cowboy filled the canteen early in the morning when the water was cool and the canteen was covered in leather or woven wool to keep it cool during the ride.

The cowboy's horse of choice was a personal preference, but the most popular breed was the strong, tall quarter horse. The horses did not belong to the cowboy's though. They belonged to the cattle owner. Cattle owners believed the cowboys would not ride the horses hard enough if they were their own. Some cowboys were said to like Appaloosas for their color and there were always mixes in the remuda, but quarter horses were preferred. Remuda horses cost between $15 and $25.

Cowboys often wore spurs, but they were not used to spike at the horse's hindquarters as is often seen in old movies. Spurs were considered "gentle persuaders." In fact, many cowboys would blunt the points of new spurs to avoid injuring their horses. Cowboys on a cattle drive did not ride one horse, though they might have a favorite. They changed horses as much as six times a day and rode them hard chasing stray cattle. Cattle drives averaged 25 miles a day.

In addition to hard work, the cowboy and his horse encountered many dangers on the cattle drive, particularly when crossing rivers. If the leader of the cattle was distracted or disturbed by a tree or brush floating in the river he might turn around, which would turn the entire herd around, causing them to "mill" in the river. The cowboys had to drive straight into the center of the mill, striking the animals to force them back on track or the cattle would drown. In 1879, a herd of 3014 cattle panicked while crossing the Platte River in Nebraska and 800 died. The cowboys could also die in the river, thrown from their horses or gored by horns of panicked cattle swimming in the middle of the mill. A surprising number of cowboys were also unable to swim, according to Western historian Albert Marrin, who claims that most rivers on the cattle trails had numerous graves of drowned cowboys.

The youngest cowboy in the group was generally in charge of the remuda, which could be as large as 150 horses. Remuda comes from the Spanish word remonta, or remount. The cowboy in charge of the remuda was called the Wrangler and would follow along behind the cattle, keeping the horses in line. The word Wrangler, like so many cowboy terms, also came from a Spanish word, caballerango, or "one who cares for horses." Many cowboy terms came from the Spanish because the cowboy profession was started by the Spanish Vaqueros, Spanish and Native American Indians who were trained to watch over the cattle of Spanish Missionaries. Lasso is also from the Spanish Lazo; chaps is a derivative of chaperjos. (The origin of the cowboy profession will be discussed in a later post.)

But, we are speaking of Wranglers now. The Wrangler knew each horse by name and was expected to know immediately if a horse was missing and to track it down. His job was not easy--bandits and Indians often tried to steal horses from the remuda. Horse thieves were considered the lowest of the low and often shot on sight or strung up from the nearest tree. Shooting an unarmed man or shooting a man on the back, however, was against the Cowboy Code, which also included being gentle to animals, small children, the elderly, honesty, tolerance, hard work, and never taking unfair advantage in any situation.

Back to the horses. I've read of two general types of saddles used on the cattle trail. The Texas style saddle appears to be more broad and bulky with plenty of leather while the California style was much lighter and had fancy designs in the leather. Saddles were expensive, but more importantly, they were lifesavers in the desert, and cowboys knew this to be true. A good cowboy would never leave his saddle behind. If his horse was shot beneath him during a battle with Indians he would use the saddle as protection during the fight, then carry the saddle back to camp.

Once the cattle were moving down the trail, the trail boss would take the lead. The column could stretch behind him for miles. On the sides of the column rode the flank riders who were responsible for chasing down strays. The drag riders rode behind to keep the cattle moving forward. Cowboys on the cattle drives often spent 14 hours in the saddle, which explains why so many older cowboys were bowlegged! They also suffered from rheumatism, damage to the spine, and a wide variety of work-related injuries. If cowboys on the cattle trail had Workers Compensation the program would be bankrupt! In spite of its dangers and the injuries to cowboys, the cattle drive was well worth the money for the owners of the cattle. In one cattle drive alone, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving partnered up and made $12,000 in gold.

The cattle did not move in a line, but more of a wedge. Oddly, they seemed to take the same position each day. They knew where they belonged. The more aggressive cattle moved to the front, while the young, weak, or lazy cattle hung behind. Herds averaged between 2000 and 3000 cattle. The largest drive on record was 15,000 animals. That drive left Texas in 1869 at the height of the popularity of cattle drives.

As for the cattle, most cattle drives were rounded up Texas Longhorns. Eventually, though, the customers back East grew tired of the tougher Longhorn meat. It was also discovered that Longhorns carried--but were immune to--a deadly cattle disease called the Texas Tick. Ranchers started adding shorthorns, Herefords, and Brahmans to their herds to provide a tastier choice of meat. These breeds also proved to be immune to Texas Tick.

The cowboys called all the cattle by the same names, though--critters, beeves, and doggies. Sometimes, the cowboys would sing to the cattle on the drives, just as they did at night, calling out, "Get along little doggie," as they moved them down the dusty trail. Cowboy language was rough with plenty of swearing, but never around the ladies, though there were few ladies seen on a cattle trail! Meeting ladies was little more than a dream to cowboys on the cattle drive, a dream unfulfilled until they reached their final destination--the railroad town!


Dr.M said...

Can't wait for the chuckwagon post! :)

Rob Lopez said...

Brilliant article, as always. Looking forward to the spin-off posts.

hondafactorypaintsucks said...

Very interesting read. Thanks for taking my mind off my problems.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Aww. You're welcome. I hope your problems are not too serious. History has a nice way of doing that--just when we think our lives are truly awful, we can read about what it was like for our ancestors! (Sorry you're having a rough time.)

Phil Konstantin said...

Nice article. I helped move some of my dad's horses a few miles, once. I can only imagine how hard staying in the saddle all day was. Thanks for crediting me on my Bosque Redondo photo.

Betty J. Slade said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I'm doing research for a book of fiction, your article was most informative. Thank you.

cristine said...

Thank you for all your knowledge and dedicated work. I went on a cattle drive in Gunnison, Colorado back in 1983. It may not have been like the Old west, but for a New Yorker on her first drive across a 12,ooo ft pass, it was heavenly. Hard, dirty work, but worth it. Your article brought back great memories. Thanks again.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

That sounds like great fun! Most of my work has been with horses, but I'd love to try this some day. Thanks for reading!

Unknown said...

Great article!

Unknown said...

Great article!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the info - I'm finding your blog helpful for the novel I'm writing.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Tess, I have SO many books. I've done so much research! If you have a question you can always post it. If I can't find the answer chances are good that one of the readers of this blog will know the answer or can recommend a good source. I took a break from the blogging for awhile to write a history book about floods in Colorado, but I'm back to work and starting by revising all of my older blogs, so do let me know if you have a question and are struggling to find an answer. My best friend also writes Western romance novels so if I can't find an answer for you, she surely can! I LOVE research!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...