I’m painting with a broad brush today as I share these fun facts about the cowboy of the 19th century American West, but did you know that, in the heyday of cowboys and cattle drives, two distinct cattle culture traditions developed side by side?
There were the cowboys of Texas heritage, of course, many of whom were unemployed Civil War veterans who heard that there was lots of free beef on the hoof down in the Lone Star state and a huge demand for it on the depleted tables to the north and east. Then there were the buckaroos who came up via the California vaquero tradition.
Both owe a great deal to their Hispanic forebears in the cattle business, but each transformed the old Hispanic traditions into Americanized styles and systems of their own.
Words and Work
Each tradition had a distinct vocabulary–with some overlap, naturally. Cowhands of the vaquero tradition, for example, would say that a bronco “bucks,” while a Texan would say it “pitches.”
Californians didn’t much use the word “lariat,” and the reata they used for roping cattle was likely made of leather or rawhide, in contrast to the manila or hemp version ordinarily used by their Great Plains counterparts.
Vaquero-style cowboys used a rope and saddle in one way, dallying the rope around the saddle horn after the bovine had been caught. Texans preferred to tie on to the saddle horn before making the throw. Finesse versus brute force? The argument continues to this very day.
The Right Gear for the Job
Owing in part to the differences in vegetation and terrain, the apparel of buckaroos and Texas-bred cowboys differed, as well. Leather chaps were essential to cowhands in Texas where umpteen kinds of thorny brush covered the land of the feral longhorn. Californians, meanwhile, were more inclined to rely on leather tapaderos attached their saddle’s stirrups for protection.
Both knew the value of the right kind of boots–easy in and out of the stirrup–and a good hat, too. And a six-gun wasn’t just for looks. Any given day, a critter on either two or four legs might force a man to use one, if he wanted to live to see another sunrise.
The Texas brand of cowboying spread up the plains on the east side of the Rockies, while cattlemen on the west side of the range tended toward the practices of the old California vaqueros. Eventually, the two schools of handling cattle met and melded–to an extent–up in Montana.
Today, both lineages of cowboying are still to be found in the great American West. Some aspects of the business have been modernized, to be sure. Yet you don’t have to look long or hard to notice that many of the traditions and methods of each school are relied upon to this day, having stood the test of time in a broad and demanding land.
In the Mood for a Colorful Story Now?
If these few facts have whet your appetite for a gripping yarn set in the untamed American West, might I suggest you pick up a copy of my novel, Strong Convictions: An Emmett Strong Western? In it, you’ll find plenty of frontier action and a cast of Old West characters you’ll remember long after finishing the read. You’ll find many of the conventions of a classic Western, rendered with the pacing of a modern thriller. Give it a try–I think you’ll be glad you did.