Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Charles Goodnight and his Famous Invention: The Chuckwagon

I want to tell you the story of Charles Goodnight, a man who epitomized the Wild American West in every aspect of his life, but like all good stories, it is best to begin in medias res--in the middle of things. And so, I will begin with an explanation of his most famous invention: the chuckwagon.


Charles Goodnight, circa 1880. Photo by Billy Hathor/Public Domain.

Charles Goodnight decided he was going to be a cowboy when he was nine years old. He rode the family's horse from Illinois to Texas following dutifully behind his family's wagon so he could learn what cowboys need to know about horses. That's determination. That's the type of boy he was, and the man he grew to be--determined. He was determined to build a cattle kingdom, and he succeeded. He lost his kingdom, and built another, refusing to give up even when the odds were stacked against him. When there was work to be done, Charles Goodnight was ready to complete the task. It's not surprising that Charles Goodnight was the man who recognized the one thing necessary to the survival of men moving herds on the cattle trails, and not surprising that he would be the man to invent it. In fact, to this day, it still uses the name of Charles Goodnight--the "chuck"wagon.

Charles Goodnight was a cattle rancher, a Texas Ranger, and eventually one of the most successful cattle kings in Texas. Goodnight made a few cattle drives to Kansas after the American Civil War came to a close, but the market was quickly glutted with cattle after the war and Goodnight wanted to try something different to increase his profits. In 1866 he approached his longtime friend, Oliver Loving, and proposed a 2,000 mile drive, which eventually became the Goodnight-Loving Trail extending from the Texas Panhandle, through eastern Colorado and into southern Wyoming. However, when preparing for this adventure Goodnight realized the men would need food and water and someone to prepare the meals, so Goodnight sat at his desk and began to sketch out a plan.

Two-Bar chuckwagon camped at Dry Fork of Elkhead Creek during spring of 1907. 
Photo by J.H. Sizer.

Goodnight had a bit of experience with wagons during his travels with his family and his time with the Texas Rangers. He knew what was necessary for a cowboy to complete a long trip walking alongside a herd of cattle. He made a list of what would be necessary for the trip, then designed alterations to the sturdiest wagon he had worked with in his career so it could carry these supplies. The wagon was a Studebaker, a favorite of the US military at that time due to its sturdy iron axles.

His next task was to figure out how to redesign the wagon so it could carry enough supplies for at least ten men on a drive that might last as long as five months. The bed of the wagon could remain relatively the same. It was used to store the bed rolls, the weapons of the cowboys on the trail and ammunition, lanterns, kerosene, axle grease, rain slickers, corral rope, an extra wagon wheel and a hefty supply of salt pork. Bulk food items were also stored in the wagon bed, including green coffee beans (I'm not sure why they were green, but I'm intrigued now and intend to find out), pinto beans, sugar, salt, dried apples, onions, potatoes, and grain.

Next, Goodnight added a water barrel to the side of the wagon, a barrel large enough to carry a two day supply of water. On the opposite side (to even the weight) he added a heavy tool box for wagon repairs. Then he covered the wagon with bentwood bows and stretched canvas across the top to protect the supplies from the rain.

Now comes the fun part. At the rear of the wagon, Goodnight added the invention that made him most famous--the "chuck" box. This was a hinged box that has been compared to a Victorian desk with numerous tiny drawers and cubbyholes and a lid that unfolded to form a working table space for the cook, complete with a swinging leg.

In the chuck box, the cookie stored utensils and food needed to prepare the day's meals, which generally included flour, sugar, dried fruit, coffee, beans, plates, cups, and cutlery. He also kept items that might be needed for emergencies, such as castor oil, calomel (a white powder used as a fungicide), bandages, needle and thread, and a razor and strop, which was used to sharpen the razor. Other drawers and cubbyholes might hold salt, lard, baking soda, vinegar, and the chewing tobacco and rolling tobacco, matches, and molasses. Larger cubbyholes held the skillets, dutch ovens, pot hooks to hold the pots over the fire, and the very important coffee pot. There was also whiskey on board for serious injuries, which the cook guarded very carefully, and often took a sip or two to make sure it was still good.

Word of the chuckwagon's usefulness spread quickly and soon there were chuckwagon manufacturers across the country. Although some Western films show the Conestoga Wagon used as a chuckwagon, in truth, they were too bulky for use on cattle trails and manufacturers tended to stick with what worked--the military wagon. In fact, Studebaker, the manufacturer of Goodnight's original wagon, soon had a line of chuckwagons ready-made for the trail, along with other companies such as Springfield Wagon, Old Hickory Wagon, the Mitchell Wagon Company and Moline Wagon.

The popularity of the chuckwagon did not disappear with the Old West. There are still quite a few chuckwagon companies, from New Mexico to Montana, that serve authentic cattle drive food and provide musical entertainment, as well. In fact, my family had an authentic chuckwagon dinner when I was a child.

Canadians are particularly fond of chuckwagons. Canada is home to the World Professional Chuckwagon Association, which sponsors chuckwagon races--a very competitive and somewhat dangerous sport--their website is called Half Mile of Hell! The races were introduced in 1923 by Guy Weadick, the founder of the Calgary Stampede, in an attempt to preserve the history of the American West. In addition to the races, participants compete in cook offs, are judged on the authenticity of their wagon construction and setup, the cookie's wardrobe, the food that is served, and even their hospitality.

It would be interesting to know what Charles Goodnight would say if he was told that his invention was still used to this day. I think he would be proud.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Funny Coincidence

I was at a garage sale today at my neighbor's house on Wagon Train Drive. I mentioned to my neighbor that I write about the Old West and she said, "Now isn't that an interesting coincidence for a fan of the Wild West." I wasn't sure what she meant, so she said, "Take a close look at the street signs on your drive home."

So I did. To return to my home, I drove down Wagon Train Drive to Campfire Road, turned onto Western Hills Drive, then drove past Chuckwagon Road, Buckboard Road, and Stagecoach Road, then took a right on Stallion Road to Lariat Road. This is how I find my way home. Seems to be a metaphor in there somewhere...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Few Words on Saddles for the Cattle Trail Cowboy

I've been thinking about the importance of the saddle to the cattle trail cowboy. It seemed logical to me that there must be many reasons the saddle was considered a valuable possession, so I did a little follow-up research in Cowboys, Indians and Gunfighters by Albert Marrin and The Cowboys by William H. Forbis, and a few other books.

One of the more obvious reasons the cowboy's saddle was important is comfort. Cowboys spent most of their lifetime in the saddle, so they were willing and wise to invest in a well-made, comfortable saddle. They did not skimp on quality. A saddle could be purchased for $30, a month's pay, but the top-notch saddle could cost $100, and if you'll recall the cost of a cattle trail horse, the cowboy's saddle often cost four to five times more than the value of the horse! The seasoned cowboy understood the importance of this investment, though. The saddle was expected to last for most of the cowboy's career, or at least 30 years. In fact, there was a saying among cowboys about saddles that signified when a cowboy was leaving the profession: "He's sold his saddle." No saddle, no cowboy.

As you'll recall, the horses on the cattle drive belonged to the owner of the cattle, but the saddle belonged to the cowboy. The price of the saddle was still tied to the health of the horse, though. Remember, part of the Cowboy Code is to be kind and compassionate toward animals. A cowboy with a good saddle could travel 70 miles a day on one horse and the horse would still feel strong at the end of the ride. A poor saddle could destroy a horse's posture, and I suppose the cowboy's too.

Like so much else in the world of the cowboy, the Western saddle also evolved from a Spanish invention, the Spanish war saddle. Spanish war saddles weighed as much as 40 pounds with thick velvet padding on a wood frame. They had pommels in front for the soldier to grab onto during a fight, or tie a rope to, and a high-curved cantle at the back to keep him from sliding off if the horse stumbled during battle. The Spanish war saddle's pommel and cantle was silver, and the saddle also had ornate silver plates descending from the pommel to prevent a sword or lance from piercing the horse beneath the saddle or shoving the saddle from the horse and sending the rider to the ground. The spurs hung much lower than those on Western saddles. In fact, the rider was practically standing on his horse.

The Western saddle evolved around the 19th century in cattle country. Each part of the saddle was created to meet a specific need for the cowboy on the trail. The horn was used for roping. The stirrups were generally broad to help the cowboy balance when riding down steep slopes and much higher than Spanish war saddles so Western cowboys were sitting more than standing during the ride. The wooden frame remained. The cantle remained, but was moved back and tilted for comfort--though modern chiropractors might disagree that this was a wise choice as it gave the cowboy the ability to slump a bit in the saddle. The pommel was changed to accommodate a lariat. The velvet, of course, was traded for quality leather. The silver thigh plates were removed and strings were added in various places so the cowboy could tie down anything he might need during travel.

In the 1830s, the California style saddle was invented, again by the Spanish vaqueros. The horn was slimmer than contemporary Western saddles. The stirrups were made of hollowed wood, but covered with leather flaps, called tapederas, to protect the rider and horse from cactus thorns. In the photos I am looking at, the tapederas appear to be about four inches wide.

In the 1850s, the Texas saddle appeared with changes to accommodate the special needs of cowboys moving longhorn cattle on the trails. The horn was thicker to hold more rope, much of the fancy--and heavy--leather work disappeared, the stirrups were made from steam-bent wood as opposed to the earlier versions of hollowed-out wood, which was an important change as they lasted much longer. Leather flaps, or fenders, were added to protect the cowboy's pant legs from the sweat of the horse during the heat of the day. Temperatures can reach as high as 110 degrees in Texas, sometimes higher, and for months at a time.

The Colorado cowboys created their own version of the saddle in the 1870s. The frame was longer, there was much more leather across the back of the horse, and once again the saddle weighed around 40 pounds. For the Spanish fighting a few hours in battle, this may have worked, but 40 pounds on the back of a horse working the sand and sage in 100 degree summertime temperatures, this saddle turned out to be a curse for the horse, creating saddle sores on their backs.

In the 1880s, the California saddle was revived. At least 10 pounds of leather was removed from the seat and sides. The horn was made slimmer, too, which also lightened the weight of the saddle. There was fancy tooling on the leather, but this proved to be more than decoration as it actually helped hold the rider in place.

There was another important difference added to the California--the double-cinch rig. The rigging rings were used to tie the saddle to the horse with canvas or cords and their placement proved to be critical to the balance of saddle and rider. The original Spanish war saddles had one rig toward the front so the cinch circled the horse's belly. This did not work for cattle trail cowboys as it caused the saddle to rise during roping and the rider could be thrown from the saddle. Saddle makers then tried a three-quarter rig with a strap behind the cantle and another in front of the horn. The side straps were shorter toward the front--thus the name three-quarters. This appeared to provide more stability during long rides--literally, when you look at pictures it does appear more stable--but during roping activities the cinch tended to slide forward causing the saddle to become loose and slide. I can't imagine anything more embarrassing to a cowboy than to suddenly find himself hanging upside down beneath his horse's belly.

The rig was then moved to the center for balance, which proved more stable during roping, but the double-cinch rig proved to be best for the heavy roping tasks required of cattle trail cowboys. The extra cinch in the rear provided more balance, and although it may appear to create the possibility of pulling or chafing on the back belly of the horse, it proved to be much healthier for the horse.

There is obviously more to discuss as far as gearing up a horse for a cattle drive, but I wanted to share what I'd found about the importance of the saddle and its evolution since I mentioned this in my last post and my next posts will return to discussions of the actual cattle drives and the cattle kings who started the movement of beef to the Eastern customers.

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!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

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.

Sources:

  • 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.