Saturday, August 4, 2012

Night Life on the Cattle Drive and why Cowboys Sing to the Cattle

View of Sandia Mountains from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by D.S. Dollman.

I spent a late evening in the desert with my dogs watching the storms move over the Sandia Mountains, imagining what the settlers must have felt when they stood beside their wagons, staring up at the vast expanse of darkened clouds. As I lie here in my cool room with my odd assortment of exhausted companions at my feet (a chihuahua, two chocolate labs, and a mutt we rescued from the desert) I am thinking of what it must have been like for cowboys on a cattle drive trying to rest after a long day's ride. It's one of my favorite daydreams, wondering what it was like to be a cowboy in the Old West while I am resting in the shade. I have a feeling that cowboys in the Old West would most likely have laughed at the word "rest," particularly in reference to a night on a cattle drive.

New Mexico desert in springtime near Rio Rancho. Photo by D.S. Dollman.

A cowboy's day on the trail started before sunrise, and they rode in the heat of day with full gear--boots, chaps, long-sleeved shirts, everything necessary to protect their bodies and the cattle from the dangers of the land. The actual drive generally ended around five in the evening, or as soon as good bedding ground was located. The bedding ground was selected by the trail boss who looked for plenty of water and grass. This was the reason the drive ended early--to give the animals plenty of time to drink, graze, and rest up for the next day's march through the sagebrush and desert sands of New Mexico, or tall grasses and forestland of Texas. Sometimes I imagine it must have seemed like a battleground for these men, many who had just returned from the Civil War and still wore parts of their uniform, unable to afford proper cowboy apparel until they received their first paycheck.

While the guards allowed the herd to graze until nightfall and the rest of the cowboys completed their various chores, the cook prepared supper. Beef was a favorite of cowboys, of course, but a treat--healthy cattle were too valuable to eat on the trail, though a stray found wandering through the sagebrush or a lame cow was often added to the menu. Generally, though, the cowboys settled for bacon. Bacon rolled in flour and fried in tallow was sometimes referred to as Chuck Wagon Chicken.

When a cow was available for dinner, the cowboys made good use of all of its edible parts. The beef was cut into thick steaks dipped in flour and also fried in tallow, which is a rendered form of fat processed from suet that could be stored for long periods of time. The rest of the cow was used for the cowboy's favorite dish, Son-of-a-Gun Stew. The recipe wasn't complicated, but the results were quite tasty according to those cowboys who wrote about such things. There was a cattle drive cook, or "Cookie," who described the dish and is quoted in Cowboys, Indians, and Gunfighters by Albert Marrin: "You throw ever'thing into the pot, but the hair, horns, and holler."

In Son-of-a-Gun Stew, the cow's tongue, liver, heart, kidneys, brains, and other organs were all chopped into chunks and mixed together then seasoned with salt, pepper, and Louisiana Hot Sauce, which traditionally included hot peppers, vinegar, and more salt, and tasted similar to Tabasco. The final main ingredient was the marrow gut--the half-digested contents of the tube connecting the cow's four stomachs. Son-of-a-Gun Stew was generally left to simmer for three hours, so you can imagine how hungry the cowboys were by the time dinner was served as they meandered about, sniffin' and smellin' that beef! After it was done simmering, more spices were added to according to taste, but after three hours of simmering the flavor was already mighty strong.

Dinner was always served with coffee, and if a cowboy was pouring himself a cup of coffee, he might hear a shout of "Man at the pot!" which means "pour me a cup, too!" Dessert was also served at dinner, and included canned tomatoes; or rice with raisins, which was called Spotted Pup; but pies were served on a surprisingly regular basis, baked with dried prunes, raisins, or apples. If the pie had a meringue on top it was called Calf Slobbers. When the cowboys finished eating they scraped their plates into a pan called the Squirrel Can and tossed their dirty dishes in a bucket called the Wreck Pan to wait for whoever helped with clean-up duties. They then complimented Cookie by telling him they were "Stacked to a fill!"

Chuckwagon on a Texas roundup, 1900. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, public domain.

After dinner, the cowboys fetched their bed rolls from the chuck wagon, if they had a bed roll. If not, they were said to have a Tucson Bed, which meant their back was the bed and their belly was their only blanket. The actual bed roll was often a rubberized ground cloth with one or two wool blankets. The cowboy's saddle served as a pillow. This was not just to save space, it was also a necessity. The cowboy needed to be able to leap out of bed and mount his horse quickly in case of a stampede.

Before they removed their hats and boots for sleep, cowboys often sat around the campfire speaking softly so as not to spook the cattle. This act also served a dual purpose. In addition to providing some much-needed relaxation, it calmed the herd. Sometimes someone would play a slow song on the harmonica or guitar and sing softly, soothing the cattle after their hard day's march. This was particularly important if there were coyotes howling in the distance or the crash of thunder of a nearby storm making the herd nervous, and in New Mexico and Texas there are always coyotes howling and thunderstorms booming in the distance!

The cook was generally the last of the cowboys to go to bed, except for those on guard duty, of course. The last chore for the cook was to point the tongue of the chuck wagon toward the North Star so the trail boss knew his directions when he started out the next day. The cook was the compass for the cattle drive.

Cowboys slept on the ground, and slept fitfully in spite of their exhaustion. They often had creepy crawlies to contend with, such as spiders and centipedes climbing in their hair and ears, or worse yet, a rattlesnake slithering beneath a blanket might bite a cowboy when he woke up, startled.

The night shift guards had a challenging time, as well. Night guards sometimes rubbed chewing tobacco--called a "rouser"--inside their eyelids to make sure they stayed awake to watch for dangers. They were expected to watch for bandits, and Indians, who might steal both cattle and the remuda of horses--the herd of horses that cowboys used to select their daily mounts--and to keep an eye on the skies for bad weather, or the real-life nightmare of prairie fires. Cowboys caught in prairie fires were referred to as Fried Gents, a rather unpleasant term, but the fires moved so quickly that sometimes there was no way to escape--a horrific situation that cowboys and residents of the American Southwest continue to face to this very day. If a night storm brought hail, the cowboys covered their heads with their saddles, and often lost animals to the larger hail storms.

Hail storms almost always started stampedes, and it was stampedes that the night guards feared most. Longhorn are thought to be more restless than other cattle and during long drives they could be real troublemakers. They spooked easily, and took the rest of the herd with them. Famed cowboy Charles Siringo had a rather cruel solution to this problem that would have modern day animal rights activists screaming. He would tie the hind legs of the more restless cattle at night so they couldn't run, or sew up their eyelids to keep them in line. The thread would rot in about two weeks and if the trouble-making cows weren't calm by that time they would end up in Cookie's pot as Son-of-a Gun Stew.

However, as I said before, the more humane method of calming the cattle, and the one used most often, was singing. In fact, cowboys with clear, gentle singing voices that carried well were often the preferred night guards. The cattle liked long, slow, sad ballads--apparently, cows were believed to be a bit melancholy at night. It wasn't actually the words that soothed them, though, but the sound of the cowboy's voice. In fact, some trail bosses refused to hire cowboys that could not sing, which is logical considering everyone was expected to work the night shift at some point.

Apparently, the cattle had favorite tunes. They liked "Green Grow the Lilacs," and "When You and I Were Young, Maggie." They liked "The Dying Cowboy," which must not have been particularly encouraging to the cowboys, and "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." They also were said to have a preference for songs about Jesse James, and the song that told how they "laid poor Jesse in his grave." In spite of the singing, cattle were easily spooked and anything from a skunk to a dropped cooking pan could start a stampede. Some cowboys even believed that cattle saw ghosts and had nightmares.

A stampede at night was a nightmare come true for the cowboys. The herd would start running madly as the trail boss screamed out, "Everybody up!" and the cowboys were instantly awake and running for their horses, their saddle pillows in their arms. The cattle were brought under control with shouts and the firing of pistols near the ears of the leaders as the cowboys tried to bring the stampeding group back around on itself, changing their direction until they ran in a circle, or mill, then stopped.

It was dangerous work, stopping a stampede. If a horse hit a prairie dog hole and stumbled, the cowboy could be thrown into s mass of pounding hooves and instantly killed--one would hope it was a quick death. Cowboy Teddy Blue also tells a horrific tale of the loss of a friend who was found at daybreak long after the stampede had ended. The man's horse was found first with his ribs crushed and hide torn from his body. According to Blue, his friend was a few feet away and "mashed into the ground flat as a pancake. The only thing you could recognize was the handle of his six-shooter." The cowboys were so shook up that they tried to convince each other that the horse and man were killed by lightning, and this was the story they told the man's family. According to Marrin, the worst night stampede on record occurred in 1876 near the Brazos River in Texas when 2700 cattle plunged into a gully and died within minutes.

In spite of these dangers, the cattle drive moved on, always traveling north toward the trains that would take the cattle to their final destination, and the towns with saloons, bath houses, and hotels where the cowboys could finally, after many long, grueling months of riding and roping and sleeping with one eye open, they could take their rest.


  • Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Life Books. Canada:1974.
  • Freedman, Russell. Cowboys of the West. Clarion Books. New York: 1985. 
  • Marrin, Albert. Cowboys, Indians and Gunfighters: The Story of the Cattle Kingdom. Maxwell Macmillan International. 

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