Home On The Range

September 1, 1997 by Kim Taylor

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines cowboy as a “boy in charge of cows; a man in charge of grazing cattle on a ranch; one who is boisterous or undisciplined, or recklessly unscrupulous in business.”

You can take your pick, but if you want a different view of the working cowboy read what Kathy Leslie says about her father-in-law, a cowboy who ranched near Maple Creek, Sask., until his death in 1995. “Jim Leslie was not a man to waste words. He understood the language of the heart. At one time or another he touched family and friends with his quiet ways and deep insight. His life was a reflection of the good, solid values that he stood for, whether he was riding out to check the cows during calving, or reading a bedtime story to an adoring granddaughter…. Peace and contentment were evident in Jim and living on these prairies taught him the art of co-operation and a deep understanding of the luck of the draw. He knew good and bad, success and setback, joy and sorrow. Here was a man so intimately connected with nature and his environment that he seemed a product of the hills and trees he loved and the endless sea of grass…. His favorite horse was always a trusted friend, and if ever a neighbor needed a helping hand, Jim was there.”

The popular image of the cowboy–immortalized mostly by Hollywood–has him chasing rustlers, slugging it out in a saloon or being carted off to Boot Hill. The Spaghetti Westerns took it a step further and presented him as a dark, unshaven drifter who chomped cigars and killed unruly outlaws without blinking. Kinder motion-picture portrayals show him branding cattle, mending fences, riding on an open range at sunset or playing the harmonica in front of a campfire. For those of us who love Hollywood westerns, but don’t know the difference between a headstall and a hobble, these latter silver screen images make it easy to romanticize about life on the open range. But what about some of the real history that’s behind the Canadian western cowboy? Where did he come from and what were his best years on the range? What did it take to become a successful cowboy and what did he value most? Will his lifestyle vanish or survive during the next 100 years?

Our focus here is on the cowboy who worked the range as opposed to the cowboy who competed at rodeo exhibitions. The former is often described as “the working cowboy” and to discover his origins we first have to take a look at the history of ranching in Canada. Naturally, this livelihood began in areas where geographical and climatic features provided grassland for livestock operations. Out west, cattle and sheep ranching started during the 1850s when livestock was brought into the British Columbia interior from the western United States. Many of the American cowboys who helped drive the beef cattle north had acquired ranching and herding techniques that originated in Mexico where Spanish colonists introduced horses and cattle to the New World during the 1500s. In the U.S., cattle were in abundance by the time the Civil War ended in 1865. Beef prices in the American east made it worthwhile for American cowboys to trail their herds hundreds of miles north to meet the early railway lines that provided access to these new and expanding U.S. markets. The foothills country of southwestern Alberta became the heartland of the Canadian ranching frontier and today it remains the centre of Canada’s beef cattle industry. The country is ideal for grazing because it features wide-open grasslands and sheltered valleys with crucial waterways. Another natural benefit are the chinook winds that melt snow off the hills.

In the summer of 1874, 25 head of Texas cattle were trailed from Fort Benton, Montana, to a mission station at Morley, west of Calgary. After that, cattle herds began trickling into the Canadian prairies, competing with the Indians and the buffalo herds that roamed the vast, open grasslands. Around the same time, the presence of the North West Mounted Police helped establish a small local market for cattle. Policing also brought security for open or unfenced cattle ranging.

During the early 1880s, thousands of head of cattle were imported from the U.S. to fulfil new grazing lease terms provided through the Dominion Lands Policy. One of the stipulations was that there had to be one cow for every 10 acres under lease. This encouraged large-scale ranching on the Canadian prairie where the Turkey Track, the 76 and the Matador were among the largest ranches in Saskatchewan. The 76 also had headquarters near Nanton, Alta. The Oxley, Bar U, a7, Walronde and other distinguished outfits in Alberta were also claiming large lease agreements, parcels of 100,000 acres and up.

The 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s were the peak years for ranching and the Canadian cowboy’s way of life. There were no barbed-wire fences, and the cattle grazed upon the rolling hills of the prairies. Cowboys flourished as large ranches became established. For many young men and some women, including some of the Americans who helped trail the cattle north, the Canadian west was an opportunity for adventure. Many natives also found work on the nearby ranches and became noted for being natural horsemen.

A British-Canadian orientation to ranching on the frontier came with the arrival of Englishmen who were attracted by the publicity given to North American cattle ranching. “They typically described themselves as ‘gentlemen’ and came generally from the landed classes, with sufficient capital to establish their own ranches,” notes The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Canadian ranchers were assured of access to eastern markets when the Canadian Pacific Railway was extended to the prairies in the 1880s. The arrival of the railway certainly made ranching more appealing, but it brought with it a new threat: Open settlement. This was perceived at the time as a major threat to the cowboy’s way of life because it brought with it barbed-wire fences and “sodbusters”. The pressure on the Canadian government for open settlement became great, and in 1892 the government put ranchers on notice that all old grazing leases restricting homesteading would be canceled.

The cattlemen argued that the ranching areas were far too dry for cereal agriculture. They also understood the value of controlling the springs, rivers and creeks, and persuaded the government to set these aside as public stock-watering reserves. Consequently, this made prime areas inaccessible to open settlement, and so the golden years for the cowboy continued.

During this time, the larger ranches usually hired a crew known as the cow camp crew. Each crew featured 10 to 12 cowboys, a cook, a foreman and a wrangler. The ages of crew members varied from late teens to mid-50s with a few hired hands in their 60s. Line camps, which were log cabins situated a long distance from the ranch headquarters, were common on the big spreads. During the spring, summer and fall, cowboys would make periodic trips from the line camps into town, mostly to pick up supplies. The cowboy’s grocery shopping list was pretty basic back then, namely flour, dried beans and apples, tea, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper, and bacon. During winter, one cowboy was usually left at the line camp to tend to the cattle and repair worn out equipment. Time was also spent braiding with horsehair or rawhide because ropes, headstalls, quirts and hobbles were all useful to the cowboy’s way of life. A headstall is part of the bridle that fits round a horse’s head; a quirt is a short-handled riding whip with a braided leather lash; and hobbles are leather straps used to tie together a horse’s legs to prevent it from straying.

It was a solitary existence and winter comfort depended on how well the cowboy could operate a wood stove. Winter also meant unemployment for those who were let go by the ranch. In order to survive, a cowboy in this stuation would have to “ride the grub-line” to find odd jobs. He would often work for his supper and for a warm, dry bed.

Job opportunities returned in the spring when new calves were born. Cowboys were also busy with roundups, branding and breaking colts. Summer was spent out on the range where the welfare of the cattle was paramount to the survival of the cowboy’s livelihood. Fall started with roundups again, but this time the ranches would join together to gather and sort out anything that was to be trailed to the nearby railway and shipped to market before winter.

One of the most severe prairie winters occurred in 1886-87 when snow came early and fell in abundance. Many cattle became trapped in coulees or deep ravines that year because there hadn’t been enough time for ranches to complete their roundups. That is why during the early summer months that followed, ropes and branding irons were set aside and haying became the biggest priority. Ranchers wanted to make sure they had enough hay in storage in the event they had to bring their herds off early due to another early winter.

Most successful cowboys and cowgirls have learned the value of providing cattle with the right amount of care, including plenty of grass and fresh water. They also understand the importance of protecting the vital waterways from the damage that hundreds of hooves can cause. The unsuccessful ones forget or ignore the creature comforts and necessities, and consequently lose cattle through neglect. Over the years, the main threats to livestock have been wolves, lightning storms, prairie fires, Indians and a skin disease called mange or “scabies”. Livestock infested with the parasite would lose hair and die of exposure. And so protecting the herd from any kind of danger was–and still remains–the cowboy’s main concern.

Spring and fall roundups are without a doubt peak seasons for the cowboy. On the first day of a roundup, the cowboy gets up before dawn and is usually greeted by some of the best perks associated with this line of work; the aroma of sourdough hot-cakes and freshly brewed coffee. After or during breakfast, the roundup boss usually gives his orders for the day and soon the cowboys are spreading out to comb the range. The cowboy will ride 50 to 70 miles in a day and change horses twice, possibly three times. After gathering the cattle, he leads them to water and then lets them graze until dark. Night herding is another critical job because it helps keep the cattle from straying.

The cowboy’s biggest fear during a roundup is a stampede. A hundred years ago this fear helped give rise to the singing cowboy because it’s believed that harmonious tunes keep the herd calm. This led to the old savvy saying: “Any cowboy can carry a tune, but the trouble always comes when he tries to unload it!”

By far, a cowboy’s two most valued possessions are his horse and his saddle. Especially during the heyday years, a cowboy’s horse was his partner–the heart of his job. Ranches usually provided the horses, although most cowboys preferred to ride one they owned. Experienced cowboys would often use a specific horse for a specific job, whether it was roping, branding, night herding or gathering. It is also true that a capable cowboy can make any job look easy on a mediocre horse, yet a less experienced cowboy can make the simplest job look difficult on the best horse. This harmony and partnership between the man in the saddle and his horse has often been described as poetry in motion, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether man and beast are sorting a pair from the herd or darting through the sagebrush to rope an unbranded calf.

A hundred years ago a cowboy would have paid $35 to $40 for a custom-made saddle. At that price, it generally would have cost him three to four months’ pay. Today, the base price for a custom-made saddle is between $3,000 and $3,500.

The cowboy’s apparel has maintained both function and style throughout the years. Versions of it have certainly been popularized by fashion designers and clothing stores, but the thing to remember about the clothes worn by cowboys is that each item lent itself to the practical side of ranching. Boots in the early years were made from horsehide or mule-skin, and did not have much eye appeal. The narrow toe was designed to fit into the stirrup and the boot was loose fitting at the top to make it easier for the cowboy to kick it off if it became caught in something while riding. The long stovepipe top also protected his legs against brush or poisonous snakes, and a metal shank provided arch support and comfort when long hours were spent riding. The high underslung heel prevented his foot from slipping through the stirrup and provided extra grip when roping a bronc on foot.

The western shirt was also designed with safety in mind. For example, the double layers of the yoke protected the cowboy’s shoulders from the burning sun and a tapered body prevented excess fabric from getting caught on something. The shirt also featured snaps as opposed to buttons because snaps come apart easier when the shirt gets caught on objects, such as a steer’s horn. Wide cuffs gave protection for the wrists and also prevented the sleeves from sliding down the cowboy’s arm, possibly interfering with his work. Bandannas were used to shield the cowboy’s neck from the sun, wind and cold. They were also pulled up over the mouth and nose to keep out the trail dust, and often tied around the hat to keep it from blowing off in a strong wind.

Chaps originated in Spain after cowboys there decided they didn’t want to suffer any longer from the sharp branches of the chaparro tree. At first, Spanish cowboys simply folded animal hides over their saddles to protect their legs. Eventually, they discovered that it was easier to just cover their legs with hides. Angora chaps are often referred to as “woollies” and are made from the hide of Angora goats. A pair of Angoras on today’s market can cost a cowboy up to $1,500. Shotgun chaps cover the legs from hip to heel. They help save the legs from brush and thorny bushes, and the fringed edges repel the rain and snow. Chink chaps cover the legs from hip to mid-calf and are quite popular in areas where heat is a factor, but protection is a must.

From Hollywood we get the impression that guns were only used to shoot people. But out on the range, it was more common for the cowboy to use his gun to kill a wolf that threatened livestock. They were also used to put a weak and dying animal in the herd out of its misery.

The hallmark of a cowboy, of course, is his hat. A variety of crown heights, brim widths, styles and colors have been available over the years. The type worn usually reflects the character of the cowboy wearing it. His hat was part of him whether he was out on the range or two-stepping around the dance floor. He used it to fan a fire, water a thirsty horse or salute a pretty lady. The high crown kept his head cool and the brim provided shade in the blistering sun and protection from the wind and rain.

During the late 1800s cowboys worked from dawn until dusk for $10 to $30 a month with food and a bunkhouse supplied. Their wages were often spent on their first trip into town after the cattle had been trailed to market. A shave, bath, haircut, and a new outfit usually came before a stop at the local saloon for a game of poker and a bit of socializing.

The romanticizing of this lifestyle attracted many men who were not up to the task. Years ago they were called “Greenhorns”. Today they are referred to as “Drugstore” cowboys. For these would-be cowboys, the glamor often dissolved with the sweat. All too often, their time of employment on the ranch was brief. The real cowboys know how to do all the jobs on the range and the ranch. The more experienced ones say that the slower a cowboy works, the faster the job gets done. It is also true that the really good cowboys can think like a cow. This is called “reading stock” and those cowboys who master it are highly respected by their peers.

One of the biggest turning points for the cowboy’s way of life occurred after Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals were elected in 1896. The government was committed to unrestricted settlement and it began auctioning off the stock-watering reservations. Homesteaders rushed into southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and when the winter of 1906-07 came without the chinook, livestock losses numbered in the thousands. Buoyant beef prices and the return of dry weather helped ranches during WW I. The weather was also responsible for slowing down the rate of settlement.

And so the lifestyle of the Canadian cowboy continues on the western prairie, despite the droughts, low beef prices, disease and wars. Although it is continually threatened with the changes of an advancing world, cowboys hold steadfast to the traditions their forefathers have handed down. Some of them hang onto the simple things that make the work and lifestyle so enjoyable. Others have put aside many of the traditions to make room for horse trailers, four wheelers, electric fences, solar pumps and, of course, computers. They may have selected different pathways, but preserving a seemingly lost way of life is still a common goal for all cowboys.

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