Editor’s note: I’m heading for North Dakota today, which brought all this up…
When I was young, my folks would take us to visit my aunt and uncle on their Ranch in Wyoming. They had a marvelous old house with a steep roof and whitewashed wood siding. It was huge and warm and always filled with the good smells of baking – bread, cinnamon rolls, cakes, that sort of thing. The house, which had withstood more Wyoming winters than I could count at the time, was set in a valley of the North Platte River. It was home to my aunt and uncle, several cousins, and two bachelor cowboys who were my great uncles.
Leonard and Emin Choate were as old as the hills even then, several decades ago. I remember them as tall, ramrod stiff, sun-bronzed and shy – painfully shy around the women and the kids. I was named for Uncle Leonard, a fact of great pride for a kid – imagine being named for a real cowboy!
Born on the Dakota prairie, Emin and Leonard were boys back when Tom Horn was terrorizing Albany County. Horn, one of the most feared gunfighters of the time, was a “stock detective” hired to rid the county of nesters who had the gall to file homesteads on the cattlemen’s range. Horn brought a lot of enthusiasm to his job, so much that he was hung in Cheyenne in 1903. (Even so, he had so terrorized the area that, for years afterward, parents from Dakota to New Mexico would keep their children in line by telling them that if they weren’t good Tom Horn would get them.).
This was the world of my uncles’ youth. It was still the west that I only knew from books, movies, family stories, and imagination. While the uncles were growing up, there was open range to ride, bandits on the loose, and lots of cowboys. Their cousin was sheriff of the wild and woolly county surrounding Fort Collins, Colorado. Men worked at hard, physical jobs for twelve hours a day for bunk, board and some spare change. A fellow who was handy with a horse and could handle livestock could always get a job cowboying.
Cowboys. Our image of the strong, silent, tough John Wayne type in strange duds isn’t so far from reality. Cowboys were a product of the times, and the times were hard.
As a social phenomenon, cowboys were the result of the turbulent 60’s – the 1860’s. After the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of men returned to civilian life to find homes ravaged by war and neglect. These were men, not much different from you or me, but battle-hardened and war-weary in an especially destructive way. They had seen brothers shooting at brothers, and atrocities committed upon their own neighbors. The war was over but serious problems remained, problems compounded by the lack of economic opportunity in the postwar era. The Southern soldiers, of course, suffered the worst; but even in the North unemployment ran high. The vets were broke, restless, and not a little bored; the west beckoned.
However, the Soldiers were not the only cowboys then. Some were teenagers, and some were pre-teens, whose families were torn apart by the war and who needed some kind of work just to survive. Even before the war there were many black cowboys – both freemen and runaway slaves – who were among the first men from the eastern states to come west, some with the early mountain men. Others were of Mexican or Indian descent. Cowboy society was a true melting pot, and for the most part, it wasn’t the color of your skin or your last name that mattered; it was the work you did and the character you brought to the job.
The job for a cowboy comes out of the civil war, just as the cowboy himself did. Postwar Texas was in economic ruin. Its best promise for the future lay with the herds of cattle which, left to shift for themselves, had thrived during the war years. But there was little or no market for Texas beef in the southern states.
But after the ware began an era of tremendous growth and expansionism for the country. Americans considered it their Manifest Destiny to control all the lands to the west coast. They streamed west. The new transcontinental railway had opened more than just new land; it had opened the eyes of an entire nation by showing it that the Great American Desert really was a great place to build a life.
And then there was the gold. The rush to the Black Hills, Deadwood, Leadville, Silverton, and other instant cities generated a need for food and other supplies.
So suddenly, those Texas cattle were worth something, if they could get to market. The great trail drives began.
The Cowboy had found his time and place.
The work was hard, grueling, tiresome, and not at all romantic to those living the life of a cowboy. It was riding long hours behind a herd of half-wild critters bent on getting back to their home range. It was nursemaiding a sick cow, or cutting and hauling hay. It was being alone for days at a time in rough, dangerous country where, if a horse stumbled and broke its leg, its rider might never be found. It was physically tough, demanding work with lousy pay and squalid living conditions. The weak – and maybe the smart – became store clerks or went back east, if they survived long enough to make that decision.
As the cattle drove north, enterprising businessmen developed new cow operations in those far territories. The job of handling cattle on huge ranches was a new concept to the Americans, but the cattlemen in Mexico had been doing it for decades. Their saddles and tools became the mainstays of the industry.
When working half-wild cattle in the open, a cowboy had to be skillful with a rope; so the lariat was developed specifically for the purpose of catching something. And the cowboy needed a little leverage when he had an angry steer at the business end of his lariat; so someone added a small post to the front of the saddle and called it a horn. Similarly, a cowboy was in and out of his saddle all day; he sometimes had to suddenly work hard, fast and furious on foot. His boots had high heels to help keep his foot in the stirrup and pointed toes so he could get out of or in to the stirrup quickly. The brush in the desert country had long and sharp thorns, so Southwestern cowboys took to wearing tough leather chaps to protect their legs.
Expressions unique to the job and area developed, becoming an important part of the cowboy’s vocabulary. It added a tang to his way of speakin’, which some folks would reckon was quaint and colorful. Many words were stolen from the Spanish, then horribly mutilated, such as ‘Calaboose’ (from Calabozo, meaning jail).
Character really mattered then, because a cowboy out on the range counted on his fellow worker. He was part of a team, and his life might depend on what another team member does. If he got into trouble – got thrown by his horse, broke a bone in a bad fall, or otherwise was incapacitated – he relied on his team to rescue him. He had to know his cowboys could be depended upon, could be trusted to do their job.
A code developed – the Cowboy Code – later immortalized by television and movie actors in the mid-20th century. But the code began much earlier, out on the range in the mid and late 1800’s. Nat Love, a black cowboy who was born a slave but went west after the civil war, wrote his Cowboy Code in his autobiography. It was simple. “There a man’s work was to be done, and a man’s life to be lived, and when death was to be met, he met it like a man.”
Music has always been an important part of the human spirit. The men of the cowboy era were no exception. Musical instruments had to be lightweight and portable so the guitar, harmonica, and fiddle became the mainstays.
Cowboys on night herd duty would sing while they circled the herd so that they would not startle the cattle. The songs they sung were soothing and soft, easy ballads that reflected the hopes and dreams and sorrows of their lives. These songs have endured and are now a part of American folk music. The music is much different in kind, and in spirit, from what we call country-western today. The real western music is the Sons of the San Joaquin singing ‘Cool Water’ or Dave Stamey singing ‘Mr. Shorty’. It’s the kind of music one still finds in little backwater communities – places like Show Low, Arizona, Three Rivers, California, or Lame Deer, Montana. Find one of these places where the ranch hands still get together on the Fourth of July – or just about any excuse to have a wingding – and you’ll find not only real western music but a rodeo to rival the best.
Back at my uncle’s Wyoming ranch on the North Platte River, rodeo was an important part of life. The cowboys would still gather from miles around, just as they did a hundred and more years ago, for a two or three day bash with beer from a keg and beef in the barbecue pit. I remember the barn dance, in a real barn with homegrown music. My uncle was on the fiddle, his sons and my father played the guitars; my cousin Mike and I were getting into mischief since we were too young to get into the beer.
The day after one such get-together, I saw something that has stayed with me ever since. I’d awakened early, very early. All the guests were gone, the ranch was quiet, and everyone was sleeping off the largesse of the evening.
A mountain sunrise bathed the barn in golden light and a jay sang about the morning. From the depths of the barn came Uncle Leonard, leading a pair of horses, with Uncle Emin following. With practiced movements the uncles saddled then mounted, doing so with such precise teamwork that even at a tender age I was impressed. Arrow straight, the pair rode down a grassy lane into the glow of the morning. As they disappeared I was overwhelmed with a nostalgic sadness I could not then put into words. With the quirky vision of hindsight and looking back over so many decades, now I think I understand. I was seeing the end of an era.
We don’t need cowboys any more.
The days of the open range are over. The cattle live in pens and the land is being taken over for more profitable uses. Cattle ranching has been exchanged for cattle raising, and the business end of the industry has declared the cowboy an anachronism.
Even so, he’s still around. He always will be, now, a counter-culture hero; he’s a cultural statement. Driving through the western US countryside, sometimes you’ll still see him, a solitary rider silhouetted against a golden hillside, a cowboy going about his business. He’ll never be gone for good. He’s become a symbol of America, the ideal of what a man should strive to be: honest, trustworthy, strong, capable, hard working, and able to overcome any adversity. He personifies the Cowboy Code, which lives on in him.
Boots and hats may someday be museum pieces, romantic echoes of a time when a man was measured by his actions, not his past. Yet, this is our heritage, an aching distant call to open spaces and big sky tackled with true grit. They are roots to be remembered.