Profile of a Cowboy

The Cow Boy

"The Cow Boy", taken near Sturgis, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota) 1887
John C. H. Grabill, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I remember when the cowboys walked up to my grandmother’s house from the corrals at high noon during branding season, their spurs jingling to the rhythms of their strides, and they stopped by the cistern at the corner of her porch to pour water from a galvanized metal bucket into a blue tin wash basin. They scrubbed dirt and ashes and blood from their faces and hands and dried on a common towel. They came through a screened door into her kitchen and hung their hats, some light gray, some black, all stained with the sweat of hot and hard work and with the red dirt of Texas’ Rolling Plains, and they sat down at the dinner table.


My grandmother fed them fried steak, cream gravy, biscuits, fried okra, corn on the cob and ice tea. I looked at their faces, sunburned red and leathery below the hat line, fish-belly white above the hat line. I watched their hands, the sign of their trade, with bent fingers, blackened thumbnails, scabbed knuckles and coarse and cracked skin.

I listened to them talk about cow punchers or cow hands or just plain "hands" (seldom ever "cowboys") they had known; raw broncs (never "broncos") they had ridden (or tried to ride); rogue bulls they had dodged; cow ponies (sometimes "cow horses") they admired; a legendary cow dog (with one blue eye and one brown eye) they all had loved; catch ropes (never lariats or lassoes) they used; saddle makers and boot makers they favored; good and bad "cow men" (ranch owners or foremen) they had served; Spanish-style spurs (with big punishing rowels) they would never wear; a man’s horse sense (never "common sense"), toughness and honesty they valued; and a hard working ranch woman ("she could work like a man") they respected. Sometimes they teased me a little, calling me "cowboy" and admiring my Roy Rogers cap pistol. They finished eating, said "Thank you, Miz Woodley, that was good" to my grandmother, retrieved their hats and went back to work.

Cowboys eating on trail

Time out to eat - Photo from Bill Kelly's collection


In the afternoon, I sat on the corral fence and watched them rope (never "lasso") calves, in a swirl of red dust, with surgical precision. They tied a calf, wild and bawling, to a snubbing post, worn and polished by years of use, in the center of the corral. One man "throwed" the calf, and within moments, another burned the letter "W," my grandfather’s brand, onto the calf’s left hip, using a branding iron heated to a red glow in a fire in the corner of the corral. I could smell the singed hair and burned flesh. Another man castrated ("marked," he called it) the calf, using the special-purpose blade of a big pocket knife and throwing the testicles ("mountain oysters," he called them) into the fire. One of the cowboys loved the taste of roasted mountain oysters, they claimed. They freed the calf, which ran bawling, its new brand still smoking, to rejoin other calves.

The wagon boss

The Wagon Boss

As I recall it, cowboys made about 75 to 100 dollars a month back in those days, just after World War II, plus a bed and meals at a ranch bunk house, and they were glad to have a job. They furnished their own saddles and gear. They made a little extra money, sometimes, working on Sundays for small operators like my grandfather.



Old Settlers’ Reunion

I remember that during the annual Old Settlers’ Reunion, usually in July, my town had a big rodeo, and the cowboys came in from the ranches to compete in calf roping, bronc riding and bull riding events. We even had a real rodeo clown who came down from Amarillo with his two trained turkey vultures. At least people said they were trained. Mostly, it looked to me as if they just sat on the arena fence and stared soulfully at the crowd.

On Friday afternoon, when temperatures reached for 110 degrees Fahrenheit, they had a big parade right down the middle of Main Street, which had been paved with heavy bricks back in the 1920’s, and the cowboys, dressed in their best boots and their "Silver Belly" Stetsons, rode their shod, clattering horses at the head of the procession. The high school band followed the horses, playing purposefully and marching carefully. The fire truck followed the band. The Old Settlers’ Reunion Cowgirl Queen and Her Court followed the fire truck, riding in a convertible Ford automobile loaned by the local dealership, and the girls waved to people standing along the parade route as if they hadn’t seen them for years.

Cowboys Shooting Craps

Cowboys playing a craps game
Postcard series number: 9235 Became Detroit Publishing Company. New imprint with artist's pallet trademark. Included images with dates prior to 1906.
Scan by NYPL - *

On Saturday night, the town staged a big "street dance" on the brick pavement of Avenue E, just south of the county courthouse. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys or the Light Crust Dough Boys stood on a flat bed truck trailer and played and sang San Antonio Rose and Faded Love (still among my favorite songs). Strong young cowboys, never taking off their hats, danced with strong young women, gliding across the brick surface with astonishing and solemn grace. Hands as rough as the bark of an oak tree cradled hands as soft as the belly of a newborn puppy. Sometimes after an Old Settlers’ Reunion dance, some of the cowboys got a little drunk and had a good fight and spent or gambled away a month’s salary. Cowboys had been doing that for a long time.

Thirty years after the last Old Settlers’ Reunion I saw, I ran into one of those women who had chosen to marry one of those cowboys, and she showed the wear of relentless ranch-wife work, three babies, summer sun, winter blizzards, harsh winds, remoteness and impoverishment. I could see the weariness in her face, the resignation in her eyes, the heaviness in her movements, the carelessness of her dress; the flintiness of her hands. "Don’t you recognize me?" she had asked.

She had been a good woman, and the cowboys respected her.

An American Icon

Cowboys forged the character of their species in a crucible of hardship, a life very different from that portrayed by motion picture cowboy stars Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Randolph Scott and Clint Eastwood. From the back of a pitching bronc, the wiry thickets of the South Texas Brush Country, the dust of a longhorn herd, the thunder of a stampede, threats of Comanche or Kiowa attack, real cowboys defined new standards of romance, freedom, nobility and manliness. Celebrated in song, dance, story and art, they became the quintessential American icon.

Back in the 1970’s, I had friends in France, England, Norway and Algeria who wanted to visit America, not to see the nation’s capitol or the Empire State Building or NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center or Mount Rushmore or Mesa Verde or Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate Bridge, but to see "real cowboys."

The Cattle Trails

Cowboys, many of them illiterate Southern farm teenagers looking for adventure and a little money, built their legend during the great cattle drives in the two decades between the mid-1860’s to the mid-1880’s. They gathered millions of longhorn cows and mustang ponies – the largest movement of livestock in history – from the coastal prairies and brushlands of southern Texas and drove them north, over a network of thousands of miles of trails, which ended at markets in Kansas, Colorado and more northern Midwestern states. The Chisholm Trail, the Western Trail, the Goodnight-Loving Trail, the Shawnee Trail and others entered the lexicon of the American language and folk music.

An 1898 photochrom of a round-up in Colorado by William Henry Jackson (April 4, 1843 – June 30, 1942); Detroit Photographic Co.
"Round up" on the Cimarron, a photochrom print from c. 1898, showing one of the large musters of cattle done in the days before barbed wire, fences, and easy access to transport ended the necessity for the practice. Given the very easily-identifiable mountain in this image, this would be the Cimarron River that is the tributary of the Gunnison River.

A young cowboy, maybe no more than 15 years old, his cheeks smooth, his hands strong and whole, quickly learned the trade of droving. During the day, which began at sunrise, he rode "flank" (beside) or "tail" (behind) the herd, nudging the longhorns along, keeping them together, driving back intruding animals, hearing cows bawl, inhaling the dust. Late afternoon, after an eight- or ten-mile drive, he and the other cowboys began moving the herd to a bedding ground, which, hopefully, offered grazing, a watering hole and a cool evening breeze. Sometime after the sun set, he "night herded" for several hours, singing and humming the soothing melodies he remembered from his First Baptist Church’s hymnal. If he couldn’t remember the words, he made them up. Sometimes he invented new songs, often bawdy and profane. If they were good enough, he might even teach them to other cowboys.



He worried about stampedes, especially when lightning and thunder boiled from a cloud on the horizon or gray wolves howled from the top of a hill. He sensed the danger, knowing that the herd, suddenly in a panic, could stampede with the abruptness and ferocity of an avalanche. He knew that an unlucky cowboy could get trampled. He knew that if he escaped a stampede, he might still see another cowboy who fell to the hooves. He might see a dead man for the first time in his life. He would watch his companions try to think of something appropriate to say at a fresh grave on the prairie. He hoped the wolves would not dig into the shallow burial and scatter the bones.

Clothes and Gear

The cowboy, as soon as he could afford it, bought himself a high crowned, wide brimmed hat, which he would use as a shade, an umbrella, a pillow, a water bucket and a status symbol. He wore a cotton or wool long-sleeved and collarless shirt; a red neck bandanna; dark wool trousers and vest; and heavy leather chaps. He used the bandanna as a mask to filter trail dust; the vest, with its pockets, as a convenient way to carry his draw-string tobacco sack and cigarette papers; and the chaps as armor to shield his legs in brush and cactus country. He wore black high top boots with two-inch heels. He wore a wide leather belt with a revolver and scabbard hanging from his hip.

cowboys by wagons

Cowboys of the N Bar N Ranch during a 300 mile cattle drive moving 7,000 head. Northwest Montana, late 1880s. Photo by Dan Dutro.

He rode a 40-pound, 50-dollar, decoratively stamped "stock saddle," his "throne" and his most cherished possession. Strongly constructed, it served as his first class seat for riding long distances, breaking raw broncs and roping wild yearlings. He often tied a yellow oilskin slicker behind the cantle and hung a canteen from the saddle horn. He used a bridle with a metal bit and leather-strap head stall and reins, sometimes elaborately decorated with silver conchas. He fastened beside his saddle horn a 50-foot long hemp catch rope, which he had "limbered up" by dragging it behind his horse. He carried his spare clothes and possessions in burlap bags, or "gunny sacks," which were transported by the chuck wagon.

Come Night Time

With the longhorns bedded down at the end of the day, the cowboy, if not on night herd, got a chance to take a little rest. He ate a supper of frying-pan bread, beef, canned tomatoes, beans with bacon, and coffee. He rolled a cigarette, if he was dexterous, with one hand, laying the paper on his knee, charging it with tobacco, rolling it with his thumb, sealing it with his tongue. He lit it with a match struck by dragging the head across the leg of his pants.

Some nights, somebody would start to play a harmonica or a jews’ harp by the camp fire, and everybody would gather around the cook’s campfire and start to sing, slow and mournfully. The 15-year-old cowboy smoked his fresh-rolled cigarette and listened to melodies about homesickness, lonesomeness, lost sweethearts, sick mamas, ornery longhorns, loyal ponies and dying cowboys.

Don’t bury me out…on this prairie,
Where the coyotes howl…and the wind blows free…

Other nights, the cowboy would get involved in a card game, and since he had no money, he might bet a promise to ride tail (the dustiest job for a drover) against a sack of tobacco. Sometimes, especially around a holiday such as the 4th of July, he and the other cowboys would dance with each other in the absence of women, their black boots raising miniature clouds of dust from the prairie floor.

He went to bed early. He still had his turn at night herding ahead of him. He had to be up for the day and in the saddle, often on a half-broken horse, by sunrise the following morning. He wrapped his saddle blanket around him like a bed roll. He used his saddle for a pillow. On a cold night, he slept with his bridle to warm the bit to make it more comfortable for his mount in the morning frost. He slept the sleep of the bone-tired cow puncher.

The Cowboy Character

When the 15-year old cow puncher came home from his first cattle drive, back to his family’s farm, his hands marked by bent fingers, blackened thumbnails, scabbed knuckles and coarse and cracked skin, he had learned more than droving. He had found the courage to tolerate the hazing of veteran drovers, overcome the longing for home, beat back the fear of stampedes, accept the risk of swollen river crossings, overcome the pain of little-treated injuries, ignore the fever of a bad flu bug, and fight an overbearing man of twice his years. He had learned the indifference, even the contempt, of the other cowboys for his complaints. He had learned the rough humor of men who saw something funny about a cowboy thrown by a rank horse on a cold morning, stung by a scorpion in his boot, nauseated by a bad hangover after a good night, or soaked in a cold stream on a winter day. He had joined a brotherhood bound by hardship, danger and adventure, which imposed a physical burden so great that few could endure it for more than a handful of years. He regarded strangers with suspicion until they proved their metal. He thought of "Easterners" as pretentious, effete and ludicrously inept "foreigners" among the human species. He treated women, at least the gender, with careful respect, curbing the language of the trail, leaving his gun at her doorstep, removing his hat in her presence, blushing with self consciousness and embarrassment at any perceived miscue. In a small room in hotel in Dodge City, he had learned about women from a woman whose face he could scarcely remember. But that didn’t count.

He came home, his spirit stirred by the currents of restlessness. His father, knowing he would soon leave again, this time for good, felt a sense of pride tempered by anticipated loneliness. His mother, knowing that he would soon leave again, this time for good, felt a fearful sense of loss intensified by anticipated loneliness. He went to a big celebration, and he danced waltzes, two steps, schottisches and polkas, and a girl he used to know asked him where he learned to dance like that. He never told her.

On the trails, in the bunkhouses, many cowboys learned the art of spinning a good yarn, a skill which they continually polished so they could entertain the people around them. John Young, an old cowboy out of the brush country of Southwest Texas, told this tale to J. Frank Dobie a long time ago: "On Christmas Eve a group of us young people drove down in buggies to attend a Christmas tree [a Christmas celebration] on the Picketwire [ranch]. In the group was a cowboy named Fred Davis. Fred decided that he would put a little horse of his named Big Enough on the Christmas tree for his girl. I need not add that he was pretty well ‘lit up.’ He led Big Enough inside the room and tied him to the tree and put a label on him. Then somebody lighted a firecracker. Big Enough must have thought that the firecracker was a six-shooter; he had heard six-shooters before. He left, dragging the tree after him. Some of the boys jumped on their horses and followed him for a mile before they could catch him. The girl accepted the horse all right—but not the man…"

There are a lot of good books about cowboys. Among the best are J. Frank Dobie’s A Vaquero of the Brush Country, J. Marvin Hunter’s The Trail Drivers of Texas, Andy Adams’ The Log of a Cowboy, and, my favorite, Philip Ashton Rollins’ The Cowboy.

Text by Jay W. Sharp, some photos from Bill Kelly collection.


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