C 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins
As romantic as it sounds, a day in the life of a cowboy has always been a hard one. “We ate breakfast about 4 a.m. and wrangled our horses,” said 96-year-old cowboy George Hennessey of Arizona in 1974. “Sometimes we’d circle for 20 miles in a day, bringing the cattle in. Generally, we got a little rest in the afternoon. We’d come in at night in time to get the herd together and hold it overnight. Then everybody would stand three hours guard at night.” Hennessey worked for the famed Hashknife brand, a well-traveled icon of the cattle industry of Arizona and other places during the late 1800’s. In New Mexico, Frank Jones purchased some Arizona cattle bearing the brand and decided to register the Hashknife at his Watrous ranch. The brand can still be seen on the ranch’s 1913 barn from Interstate 25. The brand was also established in Oregon by a former Hashknife employee during the early 1900s.
Cowboying goes back a long way. The beef industry was especially important during the gold rushes of Colorado beginning in 1859. A year later, famed cattle baron Charles Goodnight brought cattle north through New Mexico and into southeastern Colorado. The Goodnight-Loving Trail and many other paths became well-worn highways of history, with millions of cattle stamping down the hard, dry dirt during summer and struggling through snow during winter.
The average cowpoke around the turn of the last century could make between $25 and $40 per month, but the work was tough. Many were young; New Mexico cowboy Ralph McJunkin left school after fourth grade to work on his father’s a ranch. But not everyone had what it took. A good rider, one who could work alone under a blazing sun or in freezing snow, made a good candidate. Working 15-hour days was typical. Loneliness was a given, since many hands spent weeks out on the range.
A comfortable bedroll was important to the boys, who were expected to roll up their bedding and toss it on the wagon each morning. One man recalled how cowboy Homer Creswell “always rolled his bed looser than anybody, just wadded it up loose as a goose and stuff was always spilling out of it.” The men also had to carry a gun. “We were gathering some of these wild cows and sometimes you had to shoot one to keep it from hooking your horse,” Hennessey explained. A good rancher supplied his hands with up to three circle horses, three cutting horses and two night mounts.
Although cowhands spent much of their time on the range, they also shared a common bunkhouse on the ranches that employed them. Eight to ten cowboys were usually kept on the payroll. In addition to herding cattle, cowboys also staved off wolves, rounded up strays, looked after the horses, and made repairs to fences and line shacks. Most men worked April through November calving, keeping the herd together and rounding up cattle as needed. During the winter months, crews of two men and a wagon spent their time looking after the herd and branding.
The success or failure of any ranch came twice a year at roundup, when it was time to sell the cattle. Up to 25 men could be needed as the cows were herded to stockyards, where they were inspected as buyers came to make their bids. Demand set the price, which was important since many ranchers bought their winter supplies on credit, at high interest rates. “It was likely they sold their souls to the company store,” commented one rancher’s daughter, Ruth Wallace. “Our father used to say if they had one good year out of seven, we would be lucky.”
At the end of the day most cowboys relished the chance to rest up. Some spent the evening hours singing songs or playing a guitar or harmonica. But after roundup or payday were the times the men looked forward to the most. Stories are many about cowboys galloping through some town or another with their guns blazing, or partying the night away at a saloon or brothel. Trinidad, Colorado’s location along the Santa Fe Trail, for instance, made the town a central location for cowpokes and cattlemen where bathhouses, saloons and plenty of wild women were on hand for entertainment.
The men also could eat a good meal after months of chowing from the chuckwagon with a rather repetitive menu. Dry biscuits known as hardtack, beans, jerky and coffee were regular staples. Those lucky enough to dine at the ranch fared much better. “Mama did the cooking for the cowboys and took care of them as her own,” said Ruth Wallace. “I learned one thing, when a cowboy came riding through to ask him in and cook a meal for him. That was the way of the west.”
The career span of a cowboy largely depended on whether he made enough money to start his own ranch and how long he was physically able to mount a horse. Longtime cowboy Frank Wallace had no use for cars and trucks. His daughter-in-law, Amy, remembered telling him, “that car isn’t a horse, and when you come to a bush or tree, unless you turn it, it is going to go right over.’” Colorado rancher Joseph Schneider was known to yell “Whoa!” and start cussing before jumping out of the vehicle. George Hennessey’s sentiment towards retirement likely rang true for many. “I think I’d enjoy myself a hell of a lot better if I was out on the range,” he said.
Trucks and other modern technology have changed ranching in many ways. For many cowboys, however, the work remains just as grueling and long as it ever was. Love for the job still comes straight from the heart. “You gotta want to be a cowboy, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut,” Arizona cowboy Pat Hughes once said, over 70 years ago. “And, by Gawd, don’t think you know it all the first year. Hell, I been cowboyin’ all my life and I’m still learnin’.”