The Cowboy’s Dream

#amwriting #cowboysongs

A common theme in cowboy songs is the hope of heaven. This particular song is sung to a Scottish air virtually everyone is familiar with: My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. A very early (1935) and abbreviated recording of the song by The Sons of the Pioneers features Roy Rogers on vocals and yodel. It can be heard here.

The Cowboy’s Dream

Last night as I lay on the prairie,
And gazed at the stars in the sky,
I wondered if ever a cowboy
Would drift to that sweet by and by.

CHORUS: Roll on, roll on;
Roll on, little dogies, roll on, roll on,
Roll on, roll on;
Roll on, little dogies, roll on.

The road to that bright, happy region
Is a dim, narrow trail, so they say;
But the broad one that leads to perdition
Is posted and blazed all the way.

They say there will be a great round-up,
And cowboys, like dogies, will stand,
To be marked by the Riders of Judgment
Who are posted and know every brand.

CHORUS

I know there’s many a stray cowboy
Who’ll be lost at the great, final sale,
When he might have gone in the green pastures
Had he known of the dim, narrow trail.

I wonder if ever a cowboy
Stood ready for that Judgment Day,
And could say to the Boss of the Riders,
“I’m ready, come drive me away.”

CHORUS

For they, like the cows that are locoed,
Stampede at the sight of a hand,
Are dragged with a rope to the round-up,
Or get marked with some crooked man’s brand.

And I’m scared that I’ll be a stray yearling,
A maverick, unbranded on high,
And get cut in the bunch with the “rusties”
When the Boss of the Riders goes by.

CHORUS

They tell of another big owner
Whose ne’er overstocked, so they say,
But who always makes room for the sinner
Who drifts from the straight, narrow way.

They say he will never forget you,
That he knows every action and look;
So, for safety, you’d better get branded,
Have your name in the great Tally Book.

Note: if you’re interested in seeing more traditional cowboy songs, John A. Lomax anthologized many of the lyrics in Cowboy Songs & Other Frontier Ballads, published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1938. It’s available for download from the University of Nebraska.

Tuesday #Trivia: Union Suits and Linens

#amwriting #history

Thanks to the movies and mid-20th century TV, when we think of men’s underwear in the Old West, we usually picture the union suit, a garment that looked like a cross between a onesie and today’s longjohns, with buttons up the front and a flap in the back to accommodate nature’s needs.  But union suits weren’t always a single piece — it was possible to buy shirts and pants separately.  They also came in an above-the-knee length (for the especially hardy).

Union Suit Advertisement Sears & Roebuck catalogue

Union Suit Advertisement
Sears & Roebuck catalogue

Less well-known were garments called “linens”, from the material they were made out of.  Linens could be long, though they were usually knee-length or shorter.  They had buttons or grommets with laces, and some had wide waistbands.  Even more obscure was a cotton garment with buttons and ribbed legs that’s quite similar to the recently-popularized “boxer-briefs”.  From my research, I believe these were among the first to be considered “drawers”.

Tuesday Trivia #26: Little Bighorn

June 25, 1876. Not quite the “massacre” we learned about in school.

Gall, Leader of Sioux Forces

Gall, Leader of Sioux Forces

So many myths surround this battle, not the least of which is that all of the US Cavalrymen died, George Armstrong Custer among them, and that only Custer’s horse survived. Most of the misconceptions are based on wife Elizabeth Custer’s memoirs, which painted quite a different picture from other contemporary sources.

The battle actually resulted in 268 deaths of US Calvary troops out of 700, and 168 Native American deaths out of an estimated 1,600 to 1,800 warriors. The horse Comanche belonged to another of the officers who died at Little Bighorn, Captain Myles Keough.

Do you ever wonder why, when the white man lost, the battles were labeled massacres, but when the white man won, it was always considered a victory, regardless of the number, age, or sex of the Native Americans who died?

Tuesday Trivia #25: The Sod Shanty

So you’ve left your home somewhere in the east and staked out your forty acres on the plains. The government is gonna give you a mule. And all of a sudden, you’re a farmer, living off the bounty of the land. Sounds like a great life, right?

What you might not have realized before you got there was that there’s very little building material on the plains. But you’ve got a wife and two kids, some chickens and maybe a goat or a pig, and you just can’t stand around all day out in the open. For one thing, Indians. For another, cattle ranchers. Both are now your natural enemies (not to mention rain, snow, sleet, heat and tornadoes).

One thing raw farmland does have a lot of is dirt. And grass. And that’s what you’ve got to build your house with. If you’re lucky, your field will have lots of medium-sized rocks in it and you can start building with them as a base. Or if you’re really lucky, there’s a hill on your 40 acres that you can burrow into, and then you’ll only have to build the front of a house. (Just don’t forget the chimney pipe!)

Dirt floor’s fine for now, so you’ll start by pacing off a one-room home.  And that’s where you start stripping off the grass. You’re gonna want strips about 4” deep and between 2 and 3 feet wide*. It’s gotta be nice and wide because thinner strips wouldn’t be stable when you stack ’em. And that’s just what you do: stack ’em up to make the walls of your house.

Taller grasses can be cut into thatch to make a weather-proof roof (the kids can lash them together), though you’ll have to create some sort of support for it – maybe woven willow branches or the boards from your wagon. Maybe add a window made of oilcloth or canvas. And what you wind up with looks quite a bit like this:

A Little Old Sod Shanty

A Little Old Sod Shanty

The best thing about the sod shanty is that it’s pretty well-insulated: it keeps cool in summer and warm in winter (at least compared to the weather outside). The worst thing about it is scent of poverty it gives off. But someday, maybe, when the farming starts to pay off and you have six more kids working the fields – someday you’ll maybe build yourself a real wood cabin.

But for right now, it’s “the little old sod shanty in the west”.

*My note: The strips are very similar to the sod we use today for lawns.

Tuesday Trivia #23: Patient Sustenance

Warning! This post examines the history of feeding tubes;  if you’re easily grossed out, it might not be for you!

In one of my novels, a woman falls into a coma after the birth of her child.  I needed to know what specific methods there were in the 1880s for nourishing a comatose patient.  What I found surprised me.

Before the popular acceptance of feeding tubes (the type that were forced down the throat), nutrition was given to comatose patients via enema.  The most common preparation at the time of my stories was a mixture of beef broth and whiskey!  President Garfield lived on that limited diet for 79 days after he was shot.

But the history of feeding tubes goes back to the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations, where a bladder attached to a reed was used to feed patients.  In the US, the most common conduit was a hollow bone, specifically whalebone.  A major development as far as patient comfort was concerned was wrapping the bone in eelskin.  By the 1870s, these bone-and-skin contraptions were replace with flexible leather tubes, again affording the patient more comfort and allowing the tube to go as far as the esophagus.

It’s interesting to note that another device was used for patients who could swallow but didn’t want to eat.  It looked like a teapot with an extra-long spout and might be filled with a mixture of milk, egg, beef tea and wine thickened with arrowroot.  It was commonly used in mental hospitals at the time and also, according to one source, on “fasting girls and spoilt children who, when ill, refuse food”.

Hmmm … if I had a dollar for every time … all I can say is I’m glad my mother didn’t know about this!

Tuesday Trivia #22: The Round-Up

In most of the Old West, the ranchers managed two yearly round-ups. A spring round-up was done to identify and brand the new calves in a herd, and castrate any male calves that were not needed for reproduction (these cattle were called “steers” and often outnumbered the females).

It was a big job to get cattle from the open range to the railhead or directly to market. Round-ups for this purpose were usually done in the fall and could take several weeks. The cowboys might live out on the range for that entire time, accompanied by a ramrod (boss), a chuck wagon and possibly a cook. In addition to food stores, the chuck wagon carried their water and emergency medical supplies.

However long it took, a cowboy would draw his wages at the drive’s destination. Many would then find themselves unemployed until the following spring. Since the work load was so light in the winter, particularly in the northern territories, only a few favored cowboys were actually employed year-round. It’s no wonder that most cowboys were young, unmarried, and tended to drift from one town to another.

Tuesday Trivia #21: African-Americans in the Old West

History tells us that at least 15%, and possibly up to 33%, of cowboys in The Old West were African-American. Among them was William Pickett, who invented the trick we now call bull-dogging — catching and throwing a steer — though Bill’s habit of biting the cow’s lip to control it is no longer practiced. (Not too surprising, imho.)

Nat Love

Nat Love

Probably the most famous Black cowboy was Nat Love (above), aka Deadwood Dick, who wrote an autobiography of his years riding herd in a number of Western states. Love claims to have met many of the most famous Wild West figures, including Billy the Kid.

Ned Huddleston was known as the Calico Kid; he trained horses for the Wild Bunch and later became an outlaw himself, changing his name to Isom Dart.

On the other hand, Bass Reeves, who served as a scout and guide for the US Marshalls in Arkansas and the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), was one of the first Black lawman; he became a Deputy US Marshall in 1875.

Stagecoach Mary_Fields

Stagecoach Mary

And lest we forget the women, Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary, was the second woman and the first African-American woman to be hired as a mail carrier by the US Post Office. When the snow in Montana was too high for her coach and horses, the 6-foot-tall Mary would deliver the mail on snowshoes.

Tuesday Trivia #17: The Chisolm Trail

Every fan of Western lore is familiar with the Old Chisholm Trail. The Chisholm Trail originally ran from the Red River in Texas north to Kansas City, Kansas. It was established by Jesse Chisholm, a mixed-blood Cherokee trader, who scouted to find the best locations for his trading posts.

Jesse ChisholmJesse Chisholm

The trail’s fame, however, lies in its usage as a cattle trail to get Texas beef to the railroad stockyards in Kansas, where instead of $4.00 per head (in Texas), the ranchers could be paid $40.00 per head. It led to the great boom in cattle ranching not only in Texas, but New Mexico and Arizona as well.

There’s a legend that Billy the Kid rode for Jesse Chisholm. Although Chisholm did eventually get into cattle ranching, the legend is false. Billy rode for John Chisum, one of the powers behind the Lincoln County War in New Mexico.

Tuesday Trivia #15: The Pony Express

PonyXprss2

When we think of the Pony Express, this iconic picture of a horse and rider is usually what comes to mind. But there’s a serious flaw in that thinking.

The bag slung over the rider’s shoulder would have flapped in the wind, and could have panicked a horse. The Pony Express “bag” was actually a leather blanket designed to fit over the cantle and horn of a special light-weight saddle. The bag was called a “mochila“, and it looks like this when paired with a saddle:

Mochila

It lay flat against the horse, held down by the rider’s legs, and had four pouches that the mail was carried in. Another benefit of the mochila was that it made transfer to a fresh horse quick and easy. The mochila was designed by Israel Landis of St Joseph MO.

Other interesting facts & legends:

Facts:

–  The Pony Express operated for only 19 months in 1860 and 1861, and the original route was from St. Joseph MO to Sacramento CA.
–   It had 184 stations placed 5 to 25 miles apart.
–   35,000 letters were delivered.
–   After the telegraph made its way as far as Salt Lake City in March of 1861, the Pony Express operated from Salt Lake City to Sacramento.

Legends:

–   Buffalo Bill Cody was a Pony Express Rider.
–   The Pony Express want ad read: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.

Both of these legends might be true, but we have no way to substantiate them.

Whoopi-ti-yi-yo

This is another one of those cowboy songs I learned very early on: I can’t begin to tell you how many verses I’ve heard to it. I’m including only the ones that are most popular, the ones I’ve heard recorded by more than one source. A “dogie”, of course, is a cow.

Whoopi-ti-yi-yo

As I was out walking one morning for pleasure,
I spied a cow-puncher all riding alone;
His hat was throwed back and his spurs was a jingling,
And as he approached he was a-singin’ this song,

Refrain

Whoopi-ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
It’s your misfortune, and none of my own.
Whoopi-ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
For you know Wyoming will be your new home.

It’s early in the spring we round up the dogies,
We mark ’em and brand ‘em and bob off their tails;
Round up our horses, load up the chuck-wagon,
Then throw the dogies upon the trail.

Refrain

Your mother was raised away down in Texas,
Where the jimson weed and sand-burrs grow;
Now we’ll fill you up on prickly pear and cholla
Till you are ready for Idaho.

Refrain

Notes: Since both my maternal and fraternal grandparents lived two hours away (in opposite directions, no less), and in the days before cars were equipped with anything more than a radio, it was critical for the seven of us children to be happy in the car. One of the tricks my parents had was teaching us these songs, and then letting us make up our own verses as we went along. It was so much fun, I’ve adapted it to my manuscripts, and let my fictional Donovan family do it as well.