Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Look of The Old West

     In spite of television and movie westerns, do we really know today how cowboys truly looked? Movies and old westerns certainly weren't very accurate. That's why we turn to books.
     The trail drivers--the first cowpunchers--began down in Texas in the brasada, the brush country between the Nueces (deadline for sheriffs) and the Rio Grande. According to the book, The Look of The Old West, the only way you can really know what that area was like is to go there yourself and get good and scratched up by those thorns. I'll take the author's word for that.
     The Spanish and Mexicans, and later, the Anglo-Saxon Texans, had chivvied their longhorns and thorn-scarred caballos into those thickets, so that, by the end of the Civil War, the place was busting with beef, some as old as 10-12 years. Most had never been branded. All a man needed was rope and a running iron, often improvised using a cinch ring and a couple of sticks to hold it. Although no law to speak of existed in them there parts, there was no guarantee someone wouldn't show up and hang you, claiming to won the beeves you were making off with. Prices in Texas ran around $5-10 a head, and the cost of moving them north only about a dollar a mile, so a man could make some money selling them up north for $20-30 a head.
Cowboy gear
     That's how men, many of them ex-Confederates, began going "cow hunting." They drove or "choused" their string of cowponies and hunted the beeves down, wearing a brasadero rig.
     What did that consist of? Well, the hat or sombrero was small enough not to get torn apart by branches and thorns. It generally had a barbiquejo or bonnet string (chin strap) worn neither too loose nor too tight. A man couldn't risk getting accidentally hung or dragged from his horse by the briars.

     They wore bandannas around their necks, close wrapped so the fabric wouldn't get caught on those thorny bushes. But these weren't worn to be romantic. Most collars back then looked like hell and left a lot of neck exposed. The bandanna helped dress up the shirt and protect the skin.
     Shirts were hickory or linsey-woolsey, maybe wool in winter. Over this was worn a tough leather or duck brush jacket. Because of these jackets, the wearers were sometimes called "brush poppers." They also wore "pants," quite likely Levis, never overalls. Over the pants they wore chaps. 
     Boots were no doubt calfskin, knee-high, either square topped or mule eared. Toes were square. Tops might have had a decorated band, maybe blue or red on black boots, yellow on brown ones. High, curved arches, wooden-pegged. Two-inch heel, straight or under-slung, meaning they sloped inward. Spurs were a financial investment, $10 and up in price. Likely Texas-style, hand-forged with rowels not more than three inches across, plain and heavy. Add janglers, little bell-clapper bits to clink against the rowels, making cheerful noises, and our cowboys were "well heeled." Spanish and Mexican spurs, "Chihuahuas" as they were called, had huge sharp rowels, with heelbands and shanks more Texan than Californian.
     Let's talk chaps, pronounced "shaps," American short for chaparrejos or chaprreras, meaning leather breeches in Spanish-American. Chaps resembled Indian leggings, with no seat. Each leg was separate, laced together in front or held together with a whang. These started in Mexico as a sort of skirt or apron, big flaps of tough leather called armas that fastened over the front of the saddle and hung down on each side. Mounted, a man would tuck them over his legs like a robe. Unmounted, the armas stayed on the horse.
     The first chaps to be put on the man himself were armitas, little arms, like leather aprons hanging from a belt around the waist. Over time, these were made longer, nearly touching the toes. They were clumsy and difficult to get in and out of. By trail-driving days, cowboys had adopted the chaps we're more familiar with now--leather legs reaching from the waist to the spurs in front, open in back over the seat. There were also wrap-around, open-leg chaps, which hooked or buckled together like armitas.. Later, chap makers cut away the lower part of the inside leg, curving it so it didn't catch on stirrups. These were called the Cheyenne leg. Cowboys up north preferred the warmer, stovepipe type.
     So that, briefly, is what a cowboy would have looked like, back in the day. Of course, you could always find a pack of cigarette makings in his shirt pocket, and maybe a gunbelt and six-shooter at his waist. In in-climate weather, he'd don a slicker, usually yellow, which he kept strapped to the cantle when not in use. Slickers were voluminous, with wide, long skirts, and a slit and gores in the back to allow for riding horseback. It covered the saddle as well as the man and cost about $4. Stiff  as rawhide in cold weather, but sticky when it warm. Usually, it closed with big buttons and a fly front. A few men from the Southwest preferred ponchos instead.
Charlene Raddon’s first serious attempt at writing fiction came in 1980 when a vivid dream drove her to drag out a typewriter and begin writing. She’s been writing ever since. Because of a love for romance novels and the Wild West, her primary genre is historical romance. At present, she has five out of print books published in paperback by Kensington Books, and more recently published as e-Books by Tirgearr Publishing.
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  1. Remember how the cowboys dressed in the 1940's-50s old black and white westerns? It's funny now, but when I was 10-11 years old, I adored how they looked in those white ten gallon hats and goofy looking boots. Oh, my little heart pitter-pattered in my skinny little chest.
    Lash Larue--he wore a black hat! And he was gorgeous.
    Great information here, Charlene, although we authors still use a modern, movie version of how our heroes look and dress.
    I enjoyed this very much. It's a valuable lesson.

  2. Great article, Charlene. I really enjoyed it.

  3. Hi Charlene,
    Great post, very interesting. I have to admit I prefer the cowboys on TV to the real life ones. Much more romantic.



  4. Great history lesson, Charlene. We need to be reminded how the Old West really was!

  5. Thank you, ladies. Glad you enjoyed the blog. I agree, the movie versions were more romantic, but I try to make my books as accurate as possible without spoiling the image. Life is so much better in books, isn't it?

  6. All that dime-store cowboy gear does make me laugh. Real work requires practical clothing. Different regions of the country have varying weather and terrain, so different requirements. Good post, Charlene!

  7. Great post, Charlene. I live in a part of the country where we see working cowboys. They don't much look like the movie type unless you see a realistic movie. The guys we see are dirty (on a workday), with run down and dirty boots, worn jeans, dirty Stetson hats and sometimes chaps. On Sunday or dress occasions, they wear western cut suits with starched white shirts and a nice Stetson.

  8. Yep, Jacquie, life is better in books.

  9. Caroline, any of those working cowboys near you good looking?

  10. Super info here, Charlene. Definitely a post to refer to for using details accurately. So glad you included the proper pronunciation of chaps. Here in the suburbs, folks think I'm mispronouncing it when I saw shaps LOL.

    The thing I try NOT to remember about cowboys is the infrequency that they bathed or changed clothes. Yikes.

  11. You'd have to extend that horror over non-bathing to just about everyone back in the old days, Tanya. Most only bathed once a week, Saturday, to be clean for Sunday.


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