The Cowboys

A good trail boss could make or break the success of the drive. He must have experience with cattle, horses, and men, plus know the country, the rivers, and the weather. He selected his own crew, so he had to be a good judge of character to weed out those who might become quarrelsome, have a nervous breakdown, or panic in emergencies. The trail boss and point riders ate before the others. The trail boss rode ahead to check on grass and water and choose a place to stop for the night. If the water had dried up, he had to push the herd faster so the next closest water could be reached. He checked horses frequently to make sure none were missing. A couple of veterans were Jim Dobie and Ab Blocker. Trail bosses also needed to be adept at getting the cows across rivers. They had to be herded slowly, otherwise they would start milling halfway across and many might drown. The Red River was the most hazardous because upstream storms frequently caused floods that wiped out herds and men. The Cimarron was also tough becaue the bottom was quicksand and cattle got stuck in it. Some streams had poisonous gypsum deposits that killed cattle. The trail boss always had to be prepared for the unexpected. Trail boss Tom Snyder was able to keep a herd of stampeding longhorns from destroying an entire town. The trail boss also had to deal with the "inspectors" who demanded so much money per head for his services.
The cook was the next highest paid after the trail boss. A good one was very important since good meals kept up the morale. The chuckwagon was his castle. Charles Goodnight is usually credited with inventing the chuckwagon. In 1866, he rebuilt an army wagon on which he fitted a "chuckbox" across the rear as a cupboard. Each chuckwagon had a water barrel and a cradle underneath that held firewood or buffalo chips. It was usually stocked with non-perishables, such as cornmeal, beans, bacons, molasses, and coffee. Early runs used fresh buffalo, antelope, and wild turkey. At night, the cook made enough sourdough biscuits to last a day. Some cooks were former cowboys who had been hurt and could no longer ride. In the early years some were ex-slaves or Mexicans. The cook usually served as doctor and nurse too, fixing everything from aches and pains to broken bones. He also acted as barber at times. Perishable food was usually only available if it was picked up at Dodge City or other layover. Red, navy, and pinto beans were usually carried since they were cheap and easy to get. The chuckwagon also carried the men's gear. Most cooks had nicknames, such as "Cookie."
An estimated 35,000 to 50,000 cowboys rode the herds with about one-fifth being black or Mexican. Many of them trained white cowboys, since just after the Civil War, more black and Mexican cowboys existed. Most cowboys were in their teens or early 20s. They would fight with guns but never with fists. They were very independent. They worked hard and were frequently exposed to danger. There were few comforts on the road and at times it got very lonely.
They came from the east, midwest, and south to work on Texas ranches and to drive the trail. Many were ex-rebel soldiers who maintained that attitude on the trail. There were also a flood of renegrades from both north and south that went to Texas. This is how Texas got a reputation for lawlessness and violence. Rustling rose steadily during that time. A few cowboys even came from the United Kingdom. Becoming a cowboy became almost a passion among eastern college men and some actually became quite good at it.
Their usual gear consisted of a bridle, saddle, rawhide lariat, spurs, boots, heavy leather chaps, hat, tarp, buffalo robe, and blankets. They were lonely and lived in harsh conditions, but always kept their humor and joked about anything. They didn't make much money but enjoyed the way of life. They were reserved around strangers. They did not tolerate meannesss, cowardice, dishonesty, or chronic complaining. They were generous and hospitable. They frowned on others who mistreated women.

-Copyright 2000 by Beth Gibson