Before I started writing western historical romance eons ago, I didn’t know too awfully much about a cowboy’s job on an early day ranch other than the obvious–working the cattle. In case you’re bitten by the curiosity bug, I’m going to try to enlighten you.
It was certainly nothing romantic or glamorous. Still isn’t. It’s very hard work.
The cowboy’s job began just as the first rays of dawn were breaking and he didn’t crawl 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 loyal to the animals entrusted in his care and to his employer.
Here’s some insight into 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
- Gentling horses
- Branding Cattle
- 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. Whatever his orders that’s what he’d do.
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 flat plains they had no need to shift the herds.
Part of the cowboy’s duties was to inspect the cattle to see if they had enough food and water. They also directed them 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 rest 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. Sometimes 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, they 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 cowboy’s 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.
The bottom line was that the cowboy’s 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’m curious about why we think the cowboy’s life was and still is glamorous. Why are we so attracted to men who ply that trade? I suspect it’s due to the hard, dangerous work in less than tolerable circumstances. Or maybe that the men have to be tough as nails to survive on the unforgiving land. Or that they carry such a deep love of the land and consider themselves caretakers.
We do like these qualities in our heroes. And the women too. I’d like to hear your thoughts. What’s the appeal?