Frontier Living: Cowhands

Yesterday I walked over to my branch library and applied for my Los Angeles library card.  I couldn’t leave without perusing the bookshelves, and there in the “973” category of the Dewey decimal system I found an illustrated book for adults called Frontier Living.

Call me “easy to please,” but I thought this was terrific!  (I also loved the fact that the 1961 copyright pre-dated zip codes; the book was published in “Cleveland 2, Ohio.”)

I’ve been sampling the book and will share with you a little of what I have learned about the Old West.


It turns out “cowboys” is a term they never used for themselves.  “Cowhand,” or simply “hand” was the common term.  As the railroads began to bring an increase in population, these hands added some other nomenclature to describe their jobs, somewhat in jest.  A “cowpuncher” described the fellow who used a long pole to urge cows up the runways to the cattle cars.  A “cowpoke” used a similar pole to encourage animals that were lying down to stand up.  This was temporarily life-saving as an animal lying down could easily be trampled by the rest of the herd.

Hands were also sometimes called “buckaroos,” an Americanized version of the Spanish word, vaquero.

Bill Pickett, an African-American cowhand, was featured on this site just a couple of months ago.

Western Style

Until Buffalo Bill Cody popularized the frontier lifestyle with his Wild West show, the cowhand hadn’t a clue that he was making a fashion statement that would be emulated a century later.  (See the story on “The True Inventor of Blue Jeans.”)

Cowboy hats are as iconic as blue jeans. The first felt hats with flat crowns were likely copied from the Mexican poblano.  The broad brim provided a degree of sun protection, important I the West.  John Stetson began creating hats in 1865. Stetson used a waterproof lining that could double as a water bucket.  The hat could carry a half-gallon of water but eventually acquired the nickname, the 10 gallon hat.  Stetson could used his hat to whip his horse, and at night, he crumpled it up and used it as a pillow.

Leather or canvas jackets were the outerwear of choice because you could still ride in a jacket; something you couldn’t do as easily in a coat.  If the weather was warm, a vest was handy as they often had pockets to hold small items—something missing from 19th century shirts.

Leather chaps were to protect the cowhands from thorns in the tall grass that they often walked and rode through.  The Mexican vaquero used leather flaps on his saddle to cover his legs, but cowhands’ chaps may have been copied from Native Americans who wore long leather leggings, often fringed down the side, to protect the front of their legs as they walked in grasslands.

The bandana, knotted in front or behind, could keep a man’s chin warm on a cold night or strain dust out of the air when the cows were on the move.

While some boots were definitely made to be fashion statements, the basic shape with the tapered toe made it easier to slip one’s toe into the stirrup.  A good horse didn’t need to be spurred so spurs were primarily decorative.

Buckskin gauntlets were also worn or carried by most cowhands; the sometimes fingerless gloves were helpful in protecting hands from the fast-moving rope.

I’ll report on more from the book over the next few weeks.

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