Sunday, June 26, 2011

Life on the Trail and in the Cattle Town for an American Cowboy

Note: This writeup first appeared in the Dickinson County Historical Society's newsletter, the Gazette.

July 23 marks the National Day of the American Cowboy and people throughout Kansas and other states will be gathering together to celebrate this national icon.  Abilene is no exception, as Old Abilene Town will be holding many festivities to celebrate the day.

When students visit the Heritage Center, many of them wonder why cowboys were rowdy when they reached a cattle town.  This may seem like a simple question, but there are many different answers.  Life on the trail for a cowboy was difficult, and this affected their behavior in cattle towns greatly.

Life for a cowboy (or drover as they were often known) was difficult before they even left the ranch.  Many men and boys that drove cattle lived together in small shacks on their employer’s property.  These buildings had very few furnishings, small bunks for each inhabitant, and not many luxuries.  Many cowboys plastered up newspaper along their walls to keep warmth inside their cabin, and offer themselves a little reading material.

Once a drover was out on the trail, conditions were worse.  Most cowboys slept under the stars while on the trail, which as itself would not be too hazardous except for the risk of rattlesnakes and stampeding cattle.  Stampedes were a constant worry no matter what time of day or where the herd was located.  Prairie dog holes and other ground agitated by animals were another problem, as horses could trip into these easily, possibly throwing the rider to the ground.  For these reasons, strict discipline along the trail was enforced to prevent injuries to the men and cattle.  A cowboy always had to be on guard for problems along the path.

Another hazard was encounters with Native Americans.  Since many tribes had lived throughout the land that the Chisholm Trail passed through, many cowboys met Native Americans along the trail.  A typical encounter simply entailed the trail boss paying a fee for his herd to pass through the Indian land.  Fees were typically under ten cents per head of cattle, or entailed the trail boss allowing a tribal group to have two to three cattle.  Occurrences of fighting between the two groups did happen, but these skirmishes were few and far between.

When a drover arrived to a cattle town such as Abilene, he was ready to relax and “cut loose.”  These men and boys had spent roughly three months on the trail though, so they did not always have the best of manners when they arrived in town.

Once the herd arrived and were sold and ready to ship east, the cowboys were paid for their work.  Most cowboys went about spending most of their wages within the next few days.  A drover would typically pay a visit to a local barber for a haircut and shave, clean himself up, and buy new clothes and boots to wear.  Most cowboys would also treat themselves to a fancy meal served by their hotel (such as the Drover’s Hotel), and spend the rest of the evening using his money to gamble on card games and drink his weight in whiskey.  During the evening, some drovers would feel inclined to visit a brothel and spend their money on the wares of that business.

After spending evenings filled with gambling, booze, and debauchery, tensions flared and fights broke out over card games and other matters.  Before Abilene’s “no firearms ordinance” in 1870, many people were armed, and weapons may have came out during brawls.

Overall, cowboys were likely rowdy for the simple reason that they could be.  Compared to the standards of law enforcement in the big cities of the east, there was a general sense of lawlessness on the plains.  In Abilene’s case, it became a cattle town in 1867, seeing a large influx of people, but had no official law enforcement until 1870.  There were several reasons cowboys behaved the way they did, and their experiences on the trail and in the cattle towns greatly contributed to that behavior.

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