"Cowboys do not walk well," Teddy Roosevelt remarked, "partly because they so rarely do any work out of the saddle, partly because their
chaperalos or leather overalls hamper them when on the ground; but their appearance is striking for all that, and picturesque too, with their jingling spurs, the big revolvers stuck in their belts, and bright silk handkerchiefs knotted loosely round their necks over the open collars of their flannel shirts." Ah, yes; the American cowboy. We all have a decided idea about what those symbols of the west looked like—a meddling of images from John Wayne flicks, Lone Ranger episodes, and sepia-toned images of the real thing in history books. But did cowboys actually look as we imagine?|
Roosevelt, who was clearly enamored of the American cowboy, described these heroes of the West as having "bronzed, set faces, and keen eyes that look all the world straight in the face without flinching as they flash out from under the broad-brimmed hats. Peril and hardship, and years of long toil broken by weeks of brutal dissipation draw haggard lines across their eager faces, but never dim their reckless eyes nor break their bearing of defiant self-confidence." Roosevelt was so impressed, in fact, that he recruited mainly cowboys to serve in the First United States Volunteer Calvary in the Spanish-American War. He dubbed them "The Rough Riders," an apt name borrowed from the group of cowboys in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. And it was those very Rough Riders who first ingrained the image of cowboys as Stetson-hat wearing, chap-donning legends in the public's mind—an image that was later mimicked in dime novels, film, and television.
The term "cowboy" as we know it today didn't come into use until the 1880s. Before that time, the word referred to Revolutionary War Torries who tinkled cowbells in order to lure patriots into the shrubbery in order to ambush them.
Later, the term described Texas bandits who stole Mexican cows. Those who did what we think of as a cowboy's job were simply called cattle herders or drivers—or, occasionally, buckaroos.
The earliest cowboys were not American at all, but Mexican vaqueros. Working in the Southwest where thorns and hot, dry weather prevailed, they wore a very specific costume that looked undeniably Mexican, but influenced later American cowboys considerably. The Mexican armas (pieces of leather that hung from the saddle and protected the legs) were adapted to the vacqueros' chaparreras, or chaps. Vacqueros also wore spurs and hats with wide brims.
Still, when the American cowboy was reaching his heyday just after the Civil War, he rarely wore anything so stunning. His army uniform usually sufficed—hat, boots, and all. Only gradually did the clothing we so associate with cowboys—ten gallon hats, woolies, decorative boots—come to be known.
At first, wide-brimmed Mexican style hats were worn by cowboys, but these were soon exchanged for hats with more modest brims, which, while still providing shade and protection, didn't fall off as easily. It wasn't until 1866 that the king of all hats, Stetson's "Boss of the Plains," began to catch on.
John B. Stetson came from a family of hat makers. Working in their New Jersey No Name Hat Company shop, Stetson developed consumption and traveled west in search of fresh air and sunshine. When Stetson and his traveling companions ran into summer storms in Colorado, they were forced to create makeshift tents out of rawhide. These, while keeping the rain off, did not provide warmth. They also stank so much the men wondered if they'd be better off sitting in the rain. But Stetson inspired their awe by making tents of felt.
The other men were so impressed that, with some left over felt, Stetson made a large hat that harkened back to the Mexican sombrero, yet was somehow distinctly new. This his companions laughed at, but when a cattle driver passed by one day and offered to buy it, Stetson was $5 richer.
After his excursion west, Stetson moved to Philadelphia and opened his own hat company. At first he tried to manufacture ordinary bowlers and other "town" hats. Yet it wasn't until he recreated the hat he'd made on the western plains that he found success.
Early Stetson hats sold for anywhere between $5 and $30, depending upon the quality of the felt; those were high prices for cowboys who might make just $30 a month, but cowboys didn't mind. From the very start, they felt the need for a Stetson.
Not only were American cowboys becoming the dandies of the West—eager to look rugged and unquestionably costumed for their trade—but Stetson's hats were also eminently practical. They warded off hailstones and branches, offered protection from the sun and wind, and could be used for carrying water (hatbands were not merely ornamental; they helped keep the hat's shape while wet). A good Stetson lasted for years, even a lifetime. Stetsons were so well made that in 1924, when a Montana road crew accidentally dug up the 1882 grave of two bandits, they found the outlaws still wearing their hats, still in good condition, with the Stetson imprint intact. Though the Ten Gallon Hat worn by most movie star cowboys wasn't created until after 1900 (it only held about 3 1/2 gallons, anyway), Stetson hats became such a part of the 19th and 20th century cowboy's mystique, etiquette even allowed them to wear their hats at indoor meals—unheard of for any other man.
Bandannas often supplemented the cowboy's hat. For years they'd been worn by men working outdoors, but cowboys made that piece of cloth their very own. Not only did "neckerchiefs," as they were called, shade the neck from sun and wind, but they protected the mouth and nose from dust, and were frequently worn inside the hat crown, as insulation again sun and rain.
CHAPS AND LEVI'S
"I grabbed my hat and jumped for my horse, forgetting to put on my chaps, and I spent half the night chasing the cattle through that thorny brush," one cowboy said in 1883. "When daylight came...we hadn't lost a head. But I was a bloody sight...my knees was worst of all."
Chaps were worn by cowboys everywhere, and with good reason. Not only did they prevent injury to the legs, but they were protection from the wind. "Woolies" (chaps with hair left on them) were worn by cowboys in cold areas, but hide chaps, chaps of bear, wolf, pony, sheep, or angora pelts were all worn throughout the west.
Cowboys also sometimes wore pants with buckskin sewn over the seat area, to prevent wear; for the sake of comfort in the saddle, they also wore belts instead of suspenders. Since a cowboy's pant pockets couldn't easily carry things while riding, American cowboys adopted vests with pockets. Pants were usually of wool, with tight waists to help keep them up without suspenders, and looser legs. It wasn't until the 1890s that Levi Strauss's denim pants became popular among cowboys—about the same time they were advertised as being able to shrink to fit.
"Cowboys and men who were much in the saddle usually contented themselves with the favorite navy revolver, Colt's .45, the peacemaker," John Barrows wrote of the 1880s cowboy in his book A Greenhorn in Old Montana. "This was loosely housed in a heavy, open-top leather scabbard, looped upon a cartridge belt. This was often supplemented by a Winchester model '73 carbine, slung in its leather holder under the right knee." One detail isn't correct here, however, proving Barrows really was a greenhorn. Colt's Navy revolver was only .36 caliber, and its Army revolver was a .44. The Colt Peacemaker was altogether another weapon.
the Peacemaker was a popular choice, though it was more frequently known as the Single Action Army revolver or Frontier Six-Shooter. It was available in every pistol caliber then known, but the .45 was most popular. The Winchester '73 was also a very handy choice for cowboys, who carried their ammunition on a belt; it was available in the same calibers as the Colt, making it possible to carry one type of ammunition for both weapons.
The wide-spread adoption of guns by cowboys coincided with the great longhorn cattle drives after the Civil War. Longhorns were dangerous (they were bred to be wild so that they could defend themselves against predators), but certainly perceived and real threats from Indians and outlaws stealing cattle must have weighed in.
The first cowboy boots were merely army issue, but it wasn't long before shoes especially adapted for the work of the cowboy appeared. In the late 1860s the first real cowboy boot appeared, with a reinforced arch and a higher heel, which was more comfortable in the saddle (though not on the ground), and didn't slip out of the stirrup easily. Later, pointed toes were developed; these made getting into the stirrup a bit easier, and—more importantly, since the most common death among cowboys was dragging by a horse—made it easier for the foot to slip out of the stirrup.
Custom-made boots were favored, and at $50 a pair, soon became another point of pride, like the Stetson hat. Self-respecting cowboys wanted narrow feet (only "groundlings" had wide ones), which only encouraged manufactures to create boots with tapering toes.
By the 1880s boots with decorative stitching appeared. Still, real cowboys wore their pants over their boots; only "mail order cowboys," 20th century dude ranchers, and movie starts tucked their pants in to show off a peacockish set of boots.
Spurs were also important to the cowboy look, and could be either plain and practical or highly decorative. According to period accounts, cowboys rarely took off their spurs. In fact, a popular joke among camp cooks was to tie cowboys' spurs together as they slept and then suddenly shout "Grub!"
Cowboys influenced so much of America; its heroes (like the Rough Riders), its famous authors (where would Louis L'amour be without cowboys?), its movies and stage shows—even its outlaws (Bill Doolin, Butch Cassidy, The Logans, Black Jack Ketchum, Harry Tracey, and many more were all cowboys before they became outlaws). But the influence of American cowboys goes even further. People who've never even been to the United States usually have a good idea of what the American cowboy was all about, and many famous foreigners were greatly influenced by our cowboys.
Perhaps the best example of the latter was England's Oscar Wilde. After the success of his book Poems, Wilde came to the United States to lecture in 1882, dressed in velvet knickers, big, flowing collars, and bow ties. When he left, he'd adopted the cowboy's high boots, a neckerchief in place of a tie, and a cowboy hat.
Wilde was determined to bring the cowboy look back to his homeland, but the American cowboy could not be reproduced. He was decidedly American, and in America he would stay.
(c) Copyright 2000 by Kristina Harris