The Cowboy

The reign of the cowboy lasted less than a few decades but occurred at a juncture in American history to create fodder for generations of books, film and song that propelled the ordinary cow chaser of the late 1800s to mythical status. The cowboy was seen as the last frontiersman and the open range as the last American frontier. These ingredients set the stage for the making of an American folk hero who will forever epitomize individualism and freedom in the nation’s imagery.

Cowboys were a diverse group of adventurous young men. Many were disillusioned Civil War veterans or sons of farmers looking for a new start. Some were freed slaves while others were the descendants of the ‘original’ cowboys, the vaqueros of Mexico.

A cowboy who ‘hired on’ to trail a herd of cattle north was paid about $1 per day for his services. Cowboys with some trail experience were generally assigned the job of ‘point men’ and it was their job to keep the cattle in the lead moving in the right direction. Some cowboys rode 'flank' or to the sides of the herd and kept the long column from spreading out over the prairie. The most inexperienced riders or ‘greenhorns’ spent the day riding drag, choking on dust and pushing the slower cattle at the very rear of the herd.

A drive averaged between 1,500 to 2,000 head of cattle with seven to 10 cowboys making up the crew. For about $125 per month pay, the trail boss oversaw every aspect of insuring that the herd and the cowboys made it to the end of the trail. It was the trail boss who hired and fired the cowboys, scouted water and grass along the way and saw to it that the tally was correct. Toward evening, cowboys on a trail drive would gather the cattle into a tighter bunch and push them off the trail to graze. As the sun set, the herd was hazed to an area the trail boss had selected to bed the herd down for the night. Cowboys who were to ‘ride night herd’ would rope their night horses from the remuda and saddle up for their turn at watching over the herd. The night herders would slowly ride around the herd in opposing circles singing soft lullabies to calm the cattle and get them to lie down.

Oh, say little doggies, when will you lie down
And give up this shifting and roving around?

My horse is leg weary, and I’m awfully tired but
if you get away, I’m sure to get fired
Lie down, little doggies, lie down
Hi-yo, hi-yo, hi-yo!


The Bunk house exhibit

Life’s small luxuries
A cowboy working on a Texas trail drive might live outdoors for months at a time, with little if any ability to carry items for personal comfort. The end of the trail drive era brought changes, however, and cowboys who worked on a large ranch would typically live in a ‘bunk house’ where they could wash, shave, read, smoke, and play cards with their fellow workers.


The items in this display include a German ‘Durko’ brand straight razor a ‘Wright and Whilhelmy’ razor strop, shaving mug, playing cards and ‘Pocket Edition’ holder, eyeglasses and case, pocket watch and chain, and the book ‘Plain Facts for Young and Old’, by John Harvey Kellogg, a sex education book first published in 1877 ( all from the collection of R. Hunter; and a Patterson’s Tobacco Company box, Durham tobacco pouches and LLF rolling papers from the Chadron State Foundation. The parlor table is the property of the late Barb Marcy.



The distinctive gear and garb of the American cowboy can be recognized world-wide, thanks in part to Hollywood cinema producers. Not just theatrical props, items such as the Stetson cowboy hat, colorful silk bandanas, spurs, quirts and ropes served practical purposes for the open range cowboy of the northern plains.

Credit for the origin of the well-known broad-brimmed felt cowboy hat is given to John B. Stetson, a Philadelphia hatter’s son who came up with the idea while residing in Colorado in the 1860s. His ‘Boss of the Plains’ hat, with a four inch brim and four inch crown sold for $5 in the 1870s and quickly became almost synonymous with the cowboy image. This Stetson hat, from circa 1920, is property of K. Moreland.

(I See By Your Outfit, Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains by Tom Lindmier and Steve Mount; High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyo.)

A bandana, or neck scarf, was possibly the most versatile item of a cowboy’s clothing. It protected him from dust in summer and cold in winter, absorbed sweat in extreme heat and could be used to grasp hot items around a campfire, as a bandage for wounds, or a blindfold for a skittish horse. Most bandanas were made of cheap cotton or silk and typically were printed in a bright solid color. This red silk bandana is property of R. Hunter.

A rope, quirt, bridle bit and spurs were all needed for the cowboy’s work of riding horseback and tending cattle. Ropes might be made of rawhide leather, horse tail hair, or various kinds of fibers including maguey (agave) and hemp. Each type had specific characteristics and uses. The cow tail rope and bridle bit are property of Stockman’s Sales and Service.

The quirt was used to urge a horse to greater speed while riding, while spurs have been used by horsemen throughout the ages to control their mounts. The pairs of spurs here are property of R. Eaton. Information on the history of spurs.

More about types and uses of ropes.



Cowboys wore chaps or leggings, to protect their legs from brush and weather while riding. They were typically made of leather. Like many other items of cowboy gear, chaps originated with Mexican ‘’vaqueros”. The word comes from Spanish las chaparreras, or chaparejos.

Originally chaps were part of the saddle and covered the horse’s chest as well as the rider’s legs. By the 1870s chaps evolved into the style in the photograph, known as ‘shotgun chaps’ from the resemblance to the cylindrical barrels of a double barrel shotgun. Later variations include ‘batwing’ chaps and Angora, or ‘woolie’ types favored by northern cowboys because of their increased warmth.

These shotgun chaps are the property of F. Jungk.



Leather cuffs like these were worn on the wrists, apparently to protect the cowboy from rope burns. They seem to have been developed in the last decade of the 19th century, and may have been more of a fashion trend than a practical piece of cowboy gear. This set of cuffs, decorated with brass studs in a star pattern, are the property of R. Hunter.

(I See By Your Outfit, Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains by Tom Lindmier and Steve Mount; High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyo.)

The Saddle…A cowboy’s home on the range.

A saddle was essential to the work of an early cowboy on the High Plains, who would often spend all day horseback herding cattle on a trail drive, checking on the welfare of the herd, searching for strays or gathering cattle. The cowboy might use his saddle as a pillow when 'bedding down' for the night.

This men’s riding saddle was made by noted Miles City, Montana saddle maker Al Furstnow and is property of C. and P. Wright. More on Furstnow saddles.

The origin of the American stock saddle, like many aspects of cowboy heritage, traces back to the Mexican vaqueros. Their saddles were built on a ‘tree’ (foundation) of wood covered with rawhide and then further layered with a leather covering. Saddle styles were quite varied, with regional differences and adaptations for individual needs and tastes.


For a working cowboy, the saddle, like other personal items, was a utilitarian item, but a little style was part of almost every piece of gear. While saddles were available from general mercantile stores and even from catalogs, many cowboys preferred to buy from local saddle shops.

(I See By Your Outfit, Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains; by Tom Lindmier and Steve Mount; High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyo.) More on the history of the western saddle.

Mounted Deer

Wildlife on the prairie

Wildlife was plentiful when the first Europeans arrived in North America, and trade in hides and furs was among the earliest interactions they had with the native people who inhabited the continent. The earliest cowboys on the High Plains encountered the massive herds of bison that were a principal resource of many tribes of American Indians in the region but by 1889 the introduction of railroads, commercial hunting on a huge scale and diseases combined to drive them to near extinction. Other species of large mammals fared better during the settlement period, however, and early-day cowboys working on the open prairie frequently encountered herds of deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope which would sometimes provide an alternative to the beef that was the mainstay of their diet. The hunting traditions that began in the early days of open range ranching continued to play a role as the prairie grasslands were settled and fenced. Wild game provided a supplement to, and variety for, the diet of cowboys and homesteaders alike. Today’s ranchers can also find economic advantage from the wildlife on their grazing lands by hosting hunters who need access to open rangelands to enjoy the sport. This mule deer was harvested on the Pine Ridge in Nebraska in 1954 and is from the taxidermy collection of the Chadron State College Wildlife Management Program, which includes animals from around the world.

JA Ranch in Texas Photograph by Erwin E. Smith / Courtesy Library of Congress

The Chuckwagon

While on the trail, cowboys ate their meals, or ‘chuck’ out of a specially fitted wagon called a chuckwagon. The chuckwagon had a sloping box at the rear as wide as the wagon with a hinged lid that lowered to become a cook’s worktable. The box contained shelves and drawers for holding supplies and cooking utensils. The rest of the wagon held the cowboys’ bedrolls and a supply of harness and tack repairs. Cooks often were hired for their ability to drive a team of horses and not their cooking skills. Cowboys ate on the “6’s”-6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. The fare was usually the same for every meal, baked beans called ‘whistle berries’ by the cowboys, hard biscuits and plenty of coffee to wash it down. Cooks were known by many names but ‘Cookie” or “Old Lady” were the most popular. The wage for driving the chuckwagon and cooking for a drive was $50 per month.