People think only men rode on cattle roundups, but the two Cooksley sister in Wyoming prove that theory wrong.
Elsie and Amy Cooksley were born in England in 1900 and 1903 respectively to a father who rode with the hounds. From the age of four, they learned to ride bareback. Their father fixed little jumps for them and they rode with reins in one hand and a pail of water in the other. When they mastered the jumps without spilling water, they had good balance. I'd say so, wouldn't you?
They were crazy about horses and rode every chance they could. In 1906, they moved to Pennsylvania. Mr. Cooksley delivered milk, then invested in a dairy herd. Elsie and Amy helped milk and feed the cows but still rode whenever they had a chance..
Looking for a less populated area, the family moved to Sheridan, Wyoming in 1914. They all took jobs until they could study the way of the land. Mr. Cooksley worked on a ranch, Mrs. Cooksley cooked, and the sisters worked as domestics. After a year or more, Mr. Cooksley bought two adjoining ranches. Elsie and Amy’s brother worked had been working in Parkman, got married, and didn’t join the rest of the family, so Elsie and Amy had to work as sons. And they did everything from driving farm teams to plow, rake, harrow, and all the other farm chores as well as riding watch over the cattle.
The girls wore simple trousers tucked into their tall boots, long sleeved shirts, and wide hats. Mr. Cooksley and his neighbors turned their cattle and horses out onto open range and everyone kept watch on his own stock. Because a couple of neighbors had been picked up for rustling, Elsie and Amy kept close guard on their cattle and knew where they were all the time. They always carried a branding ring and whenever they found a calf from one of their cows without a brand, they would brand it. They’d leave home after breakfast and ride all day.
Elsie said, “We were the only girls that ever rode with the roundup. I don’t know why unless due to the fact that Dad sent us out to take care of our own stock and we got started doing it.”
They took their own little teepee for sleeping. The cowboys accepted them as equals because they were good at their jobs. In fact, once the wagon boss came and asked their father if he could borrow the girls. Their father said no, he needed them to shuck grain, a job they hated. The wagon boss said he was cursed with a crew of green youngsters. He offered to send two of them to work the grain if he could borrow the girls to help him. Their father agreed, and the girls were delighted to be out riding.
To earn extra money in hard times, the girls once skinned cattle that had died in the harsh winter and sold the hides. They also broke horses.
The sisters said on a roundup they ate breakfast at four am, lunch/dinner at ten am, supper at four pm, and moved camp before they went to bed. Half would hold the herd while the other half ate. Then they’d change horses and go to work. They rode with the roundup wagon for four or five years, two roundups a year. Elsie said that none of the cowboys ever swore or said anything off color where they could hear.
Amy said there were a lot of dances in those days and people often rode ten or fifteen miles even in subzero weather to attend a dance. They’d dance all night then change horses and work all the next day. If they left from home, they’d tie their dresses, stockings, and shoes behind the saddle and change when they arrived at the dance. If they were riding from a roundup, they’d wear their trousers. Sometimes the hostess would provide dresses for them, but they had to wear their boots.
Elsie married John Lloyd and Amy married True Chubb. True died in 1971 and John in 1981 after a lengthy illness. The sisters continued to work their adjoining ranches as widows. They raised sheep (quite a change from cattle) and also guided hunters—only once unless they liked them. Lloyd and Chubb, as they were called by the hunters, would not let a bad sport or bad hunter return a second year.
Amy said, “You know, everyone says we’ve led such an interesting life. But it wasn’t unusual to us. We just did it. That’s what we had to do, so we did it.”
The book from which this information was taken, COWGIRLS: WOMEN OF THE AMERICAN WEST, AN ORAL HISTORY by Teresa Jordan, was first printed in 1984. At that time, widows Elsie and Amy were still operating their ranches in Wyoming.
What amazing women!
The book mentioned above is a great book for those of us who love the history of the Old West. I hope each of you will have the opportunity to read the entire story as well as the others, and to see the amazing photos. Since I had no permission to use them, I didn't, but there are fabulous photos of many women of the American West.
COWGIRLS: WOMEN OF THE AMERICAN WEST, AN ORAL HISTORY, by Teresa Jordan, 1984, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, pp 2-10.
Google commons for cattle and sheep photos