Monday, June 11, 2012

The Cowboy Spirit

 “As another necessary consequence to possessing true manly courage, the cowboy is as chivalrous as the famed knights of old. Rough he may be, and it may be that he is not a master in ballroom etiquette, but no set of men have loftier reverence for women and no set of men would risk more in the defense of their person or their honor.”
(Texas Live Stock Journal. October 21, 1882.)

“The term “cowboy” was supposedly coined in Texas. When the Civil War began in 1861, the Confederate Army needed every able-bodied man available, so the women, children and slaves were left to run the big cattle ranches by themselves. Suddenly young boys took over the responsibilities of their older brothers and fathers. Because they learned the roping and riding techniques that were necessary for maintaining the herds of cattle, they were called cowboys. Eventually the term was used to refer to anyone who herded and tended cattle, regardless of his age.”

“The cowboy traveled very lightly; every article of clothing and equipment had to be functional, serving a multiple of purposes. His wide-brimmed hat, which evolved from the Mexican sombrero, served as a screen from the blistering sun, a water dipper and as a pillow at night. His long-sleeved flannel shirt and leather vest had plenty of pockets for holding small items, like tobacco, rolling papers and perhaps a harmonica. The colorful bandanna around his neck was used as a towel, a tourniquet or sling in medical emergencies, and a mask during dust storms.” (Helberg,1982: 4)

Instead of shining armor, these “knights of the plains” were dusty and dirty and often smelled bad from long periods of sleeping and working out on the range.  Yet, there was a gentleness and a general sense of moral goodness beneath that tough demeanor. They were often loners who relished the wide open spaces and solitude of the prairie.  There was no need to develop social skills on the prairie.  As a result, relationships were often difficult and conversations tended to be short and stilted.  Yet these same men who found it so difficult to show their emotions and feelings openly were often capable of great tenderness and passion. The same hands that could punch a man to death if pushed to it, could also help birth a newborn calf or gently cradle a baby.

“Altogether cowboys are a large-hearted class of fellows...the constant communication with nature...the days and nights of lonely cruising and camping on the prairie, the uninterrupted communion with and study of self which this occupation affords, tends to make young men honest and noble.” (G. Shields, author, 1886).  These men were fiercely independent and often questioned or rebelled against authority.  They were used to living by their own rules and code of honor. The cowboy’s relative isolation and work environment both contributed to the development of a distinct cowboy culture, based on the frontier values of the American West: self-reliance and individualism with a healthy dose of the blues. 

When there was too little rain for ordinary farming, but enough grass for grazing, cattle ranching became dominant. In the mid 1800’s much of the Great Plains became open range, hosting cattle ranching operations on public land without charge. In the spring and fall, ranchers held roundups where their cowboys branded new calves, treated animals and sorted the cattle for sale. Such ranching began in Texas and gradually moved northward. Before the railroads arrived in Texas the 1870s cattle drives took large herds from Texas to the railheads in Kansas.

Overstocking of the range and the terrible winter of 1886 resulted in a disaster, with many cattle starved and frozen to death. From then on, ranchers generally raised feed to ensure they could keep their cattle alive over winter.  With the end of the great cattle drives, cowboys became hired hands, lived in bunk houses on the ranch and took care of feeding and rounding up the cattle for sale. My grandfather was such a man—small in stature, but larger than life in many ways, and fiercely independent.  It is no wonder that my grandmother, the school marm, was attracted to him.

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