The Colorado Trail

#cowboymusic #amwriting

Here’s a wonderful cowboy song with one of most popular themes, the girl he left behind. There are several versions out there, some with more or different verses, but my favorite is this short and sweet one by the Norman Luboff Choir. You can listen to it here.

The Colorado Trail

Eyes like the morning star,
Cheeks like a rose,
Laura was a pretty girl,
God almighty knows.

Weep all ye little rains,
Wail, wind, wail,
All along, along, along
The Colorado trail.

Stars fading in the sky,
Day’s gonna break.
Sun will be arisin’ soon,
Everything will wake.


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.

Red River Valley

This is a song whose roots are clouded by history, though two schools of thought prevail.  The first is that it originated in upstate New York as “The Bright Mohawk Valley”, and moved West with the pioneers.  The second is that it originated in the Red River Valley of Canada and moved south from there.  In either case, by the 1880s, it was well known to cowboys (who would have assumed it referred to the Red River in Texas), and the most commonly-heard verses follow.

Red River Valley

From this valley they say you are going,
I shall miss your sweet face and bright smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened my pathway awhile.

I’ve been thinking a long time my darling,
Of those sweet words you never would say.
Now all of my fond hopes have vanished,
For they say you are going away.

Then come sit by my side if you live me.
Do not hasten to bid us adieu,
And remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loves you so true.

I have promised you, darling, that never
Would words from my lips cause you pain;
My life will be yours forever,
If only you’ll love me again.

There never could be such a longing
In the heart of a poor cowboys breast,
As dwells in this heart you are breaking
While I wait in my home in the west.


Do you think of this valley you are leaving,
Oh, how lonely and dreary it will be?
Do you think of the kind hearts you are breaking,
And the pain you are causing to me?

They will bury me where you have wandered,
Near the hills where the daffodils grow,
When you’re gone from the Red River Valley,
For I can’t live without you, I know.

Perhaps the most popular recorded version of this song is by Gene Autry. You can listen to it here.

Or, if you prefer the Smothers Brothers, their version is here.

The Old Chisholm Trail

Tying in with this week’s Tuesday Trivia, I hereby present:

The Old Chisholm Trail

Come along, boys, and listen to my tale,
I’ll tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm trail.

Come-a-ti-yi-yippy, yippy-yay, yippy-yay,
Come-a-ti-yi-yippy, yippy-yay.

I started up the trail October twenty-third,
I started up the trail with the 2-U herd.

Oh, a ten dollar hoss and a forty dollar saddle,
And I’m a-gonna punch some Texas cattle.

I’m up in the mornin’ afore daylight
And afore I sleep the moon shines bright.

It’s cloudy in the West, a-looking like rain,
And my danged old slicker’s in the wagon again.

No chaps, no slicker, and it’s pouring down rain,
And I swear I’ll never night-herd again.

Oh, it’s bacon and beans ‘most every day,–
I’d as soon be a-eatin’ prairie hay.

I’m on my best horse and I’m goin’ at a run,
I’m the quickest shootin’ cowboy that ever pulled a gun.

I went to the boss to draw my roll,
He had it figgered I was nine* in the hole.

Goin’ back to town to draw my money,
Goin’ back home to see my honey.

With my knees in the saddle and my seat in the sky,
I’ll quit punching cows in the sweet by and by.

*Nine refers to nine dollars; this cowboy had drawn more in advances than he had earned.

This song has at least a dozen more verses, and it’s very easy for children to learn. With this one, and other simple ditties like it, each cowboy would select the verse that he liked best and sing it (or even make up his own verse), while all joined in the refrain. It was usually sung with the refrain after every verse, but usually recorded with the refrain after every 2 or 3 verses.

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


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:


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:


–  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.


–   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.


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.


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,


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.


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.


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.

Tuesday Trivia #12a: A Cowboy and his Outfit

“I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy …”

These words from Streets of Laredo are not as transparent as they may seem to be. Our modern interpretation of “outfit” refers basically to the clothes we wear, and can be stretched to include belt, shoes, hat, and (for a woman) handbag.

But would clothes distinguish a cowboy from a farmer? or a rancher? Remember that clothing was in limited supply in the Old West. Many cowboys wore Mr. Levi Strauss’ blue jeans, but striped pants and corduroys were also common and, after the Civil War, so were army twills. Shirts were made of muslin, cambric, flannel and corduroy — sometimes even gingham. And while high-heeled boots would have distinguished cattlemen from farmers, they wouldn’t always distinguish the rancher from his cowhands.

To a cowboy, his “outfit” included not only what he wore, but his saddle & saddlebags, bridle, rope, bedroll, rifle & guns, most of which were always with him. It could include even his horse. In short, it meant all of his personal possessions, and that’s the outfit we’re seeing reference to in the song.

But there’s another definition of outfit in the Old West, loosely meaning comrades-in-arms. Whether it was the cowhands of the Bar-X ranch, or the outlaws of the notorious Hash Knife gang, the “outfit” was defined as a cowboy’s friends and associates. For better or ill, a cowboy carried the reputation not only of himself, but of his outfit as well.

I Ride an Old Paint

This is one of the first cowboy songs I ever learned. It’s simple and it’s sung quite slowly, making it an ideal introduction to Old West music, particularly for children.

I Ride an Old Paint

I ride an old paint, I lead an old Dan,
I’m goin’ to Montan’ for to throw the hoolihan.
They feed in the coulees, they water in the draw;
Their tails are all matted, their backs are all raw.

Ride around, little dogies, ride around and slow,
For the fiery and snuffy are a-rarin’ to go.

O, when I die take my saddle from the wall,
Put it on my pony and lead him from his stall.
Tie my bones to his back, turn our faces to the west,
And we’ll ride the prairies that we both love best.

Ride around, little dogies, ride around and slow,
For the fiery and snuffy are a-rarin’ to go.

Notes: A “paint” is a pinto pony; an “old Dan” is an old mule; and throwing “the hoolihan” (or “hooley-han”) describes a certain method of back-handed roping.