Although we’ve read about and seen movies of the Old West, many of us are unsure what the cowboy’s job entailed on an early day ranch other than the obvious of working the cattle. Maybe you’ll learn something new. I did.
The cowboy’s job began just as the first rays of dawn were breaking and he didn’t crawl back out of saddle until after dark. The days were long and the work was hard. But the cowboy loved his life. It was in his blood. He didn’t “work” for the ranch; he “rode for the brand” and he was very attuned to the animals entrusted in his care and had deep loyalty to the rancher who employed him.
But let’s get back to daily life.
Upon “rolling out” of the sack, a few of the men would saddle their mounts and round up the scattered band of ponies that had wandered near and far, grazing during the night and herd them into the corral while the cook set about making breakfast. The outfit would fill their bellies then carry their saddles and bridles to the corral and mount up. (On cold days the compassionate cowboy would warm the bit for a second before putting it in the horse’s mouth. I’m sure it was appreciated.) Once mounted, the wrangler would get to the business of checking the herds and looking for signs of trouble. The cattle required constant care and vigilance.
Daily chores in addition to riding herd on the cattle:
Keeping horses shod and in good physical shape
Repairing saddles and wagons
Mending ropes and harnesses
Cleaning their guns
Skinning carcasses of any cattle that died and drying hides
Riding fence and repairing any downed ones
In general, doing whatever the foreman asked, be it painting and fixing up or putting out bait to catch or kill any predators that threatened the stock.
Simply put, when he was on the time clock, the cowboy was at the beck and call of his employer.
Life was much easier in warm weather. Spring and fall saw roundups and trail drives. Once the cattle drives were a thing of the past sometime in the 1880’s, the cowboys drove cows to the nearest railroad shipping point. A note of interest: The biggest year for Texas cattle drives was 1871 when more than 700,000 cattle were driven up the trails from Texas.
In the mountainous areas, the saddle wranglers would herd the cattle twice a year to summer or winter ranges for better grazing. They used the high country in summer because it was normally a little cooler. The low country was preferred in winter as it wasn’t usually as cold. Of course, on the plains things were a little different but they still rotated the cattle to different pastures year round to keep them well fed and watered.
Part of the cowboys’ duties was to inspect the herds to see what shape they were in. They also directed the cattle away from any patches of known loco weed. This was called “outriding.” In addition, the outriders “rode sign” to determine if any cattle had strayed too far from the herd and if so to turn them back. They looked for bogged down steers or horses, laid traps for coyotes and wolves, and kept their eyes open for signs of rustling. And the outriders “blabbed young calves that were too old to be nursing their mothers. This involved clipping a board onto the calf’s nose. It allowed the animal to graze but not to nurse. Usually, this was only done in the case of a lusty calf with an emaciated mother. It allowed the mother to gain weight.
Outriders also kept on the lookout for diseased or injured animals. When they found any, the cowboy either inspected and treated the animal or destroyed it.
Mother Nature brought her own set of problems. Lightning and prairie fires were the most feared. But there were also gullywashers that could trap scores of cattle in flash floods; tornadoes and cyclones; and drought and freezing temperatures that could devastate entire herds. The bottom line was protecting and saving the cattle. They were money on the hoof.
Winter brought some of the cowboys’ hardest work. They lived in “line camps” which were outpost cabins situated on the far reaches of the ranch. And the punchers who wintered there were called line riders. The difference in line riders and outriders was the fact that line riders had a specific area to patrol whereas outriders roamed everywhere. The line rider’s main job was looking after their herd. They made sure the cattle had food and water and protected them from hungry coyotes and wolves. Whatever it took to get the herd through the freezing winter months that’s what they did. It was lonely boring work for the line rider and they were always grateful for springtime when they could rejoin their fellow cow punchers.
To sum it up, the cowboys’ job consisted of doing whatever they could to make the ranch run smoothly and turn a profit.
According to the book “The Cowboy” by Philip Ashton Rollins, in the late 1800’s top hands earned $40.00 a month. Lesser hands were paid $25.00 and upward. Foremen earned $10 to $40 over and above what the top hands drew. And they were all given free room and board. That wasn’t much money for what was expected of them.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at the American Cowboy. I’m curious about why we think the cowboys’ life was and is still so romantic and glamorous. Or is it simply that it’s hard dangerous work so the men have to be tough as nails to survive on the unforgiving land? I’d like to hear your thoughts about that or the weather. What’s it like where you are? I feel like a yo-yo where I live.