In Cowboy I was mostly writing to draw attention to an essay that I thought captured some of the essence of the America I know. Ennis and NI pointed out that the essay (and by extension) my post seemed to reflect the Hollywood view of the cowboy as a White, AngloSaxon, Protestant figure, and that reality was different.
It's funny that you really don't know what you're assuming until the assumption is challenged.
This is one image of one kind of cattle country in California. Yes, California looks like that.
And here's the country that is behind it, toward the ocean:
Yes, California looks like that, too. The distance from one to another? Maybe four days' ride by horseback. I've never done it.
One of my earliest accomplishments was learning to roll cigarettes for Uncle Dewey who batched it out on the Carrizo plains (The "ed center" was Dewey's house). I sat in front of him on a good horse as we went to gather the cattle at Pozo. I was probably five. I don't think there's a photo anywhere, but we'll keep looking. Here's a painting I love, that reminds me of Dewey (and the other men I knew who were born before WWI).
(The image is Remnant of Another Time, painted by Gordon Snidow, who in my view has a genius for portraiture. Like a lot of cowboy artists, he also produces more glossy work (including a commercial series for Coors.) You can see more at Gordon Snidow or write for a catalog: 1011 Hull Road, Ruidoso, New Mexico 88345, For Phone Orders, call (505) 258-5776 - Visa / MasterCard
To anybody who has been around ranch life at all in California (real ranch life, not hobby ranching), the vaquero
legacy is right in front of your face, on your hackamore (and how you handled your horse), on your chaps, on how you train your horse. I grew up surrounded by the works of Jo Mora; I think his style influenced my aesthetic preferences.
If you're in Denver, don't miss Black American West Museum & Heritage Center more here. The Black Cowboy of Texas is there. And don't forget Oakland's Parade, usually the first weekend in October. Big List o Links
Africana Online has a great page of cowboyiana Bill Pickett may be the most famous of the black cowboys, but Deadwood Dick--Nat Love--was born a slave and became a cowhand. There are black cowboys working today, and singing, too
. Country soul is where it is at.
It's actor Steven Williams and Living Historian Madison "Nat Love" Walker at a Single Action Shooting Society meet.
Once Rodeo got started as a spectacle (the Wild West shows and and beyond), the "romantic" cowgirl wa not far behind.
One of the famous cowgirls was Bertha Blancett, who performed in Wild West Shows in the US and Australia, and competed in many rodeos. She was an all-around cowgirl at the Pendleton Round-Up from 1911 to 1918, where she successfully competed with the best riders of her era. In 1914 , she was the champion in the Cowgirl's Bucking Contest. As a bronc rider, Bertha set herself apart from most other cowgirls by riding "slick", never hobbling her stirrups.
Things loosened up after WWI--the heyday of the romantic rodeo cowgirl--but closer to town, there were more rules and rigidity. The photo below is a Sunday afternoon, in Kansas about 1879.
A lot of the later mythmaking about the West idealized the role of women. (most of these are from the OldWest Art Gallery.)
Zane Grey Novel Cover Illustration, circa 1920, by W. H. D. Koerner; A halo formed around her head by the canopy of the covered wagon, shows Molly Wingate, the heroine of the Oregon Trail. She was the protagonist in the novel, "Covered Wagon."
Rodeo Rider, 1908, Oil on Canvas, 30 X 20 in., by W. Herbert Dunton: A Women Performer with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Extravaganza. Some art historians-critics remarked about her "Gibson Girl" look
The reality looked a little different.
Women doing the branding
I'm not convinced the photo above depicts an actual event--it sort of has a "staged" feeling, but you can see that there's a lot of work and no shade.--it's from the Doing history archives at the Hewit Institute of the University of Northern Colorado
Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women, an exhibition of black-and-white prints by New Mexico/Montana photographer Barbara Van Cleve, examines an aspect of traditional Western life in a sequence of 80 images. The exhibition is on view in the Photography Gallery in the Draper Museum of Natural History (720 Sheridan Avenue, Cody, WY 82414) and runs through August 8, 2004.
The western expression "Hard Twist" refers to the old time Manila-hemp, tightly twisted lariat rope - hard twisted. The term also refers to a small, compact, physically strong person with resilience, rather like rawhide, which expands and stretches when wet or shrinks and tightens up when dry but almost never breaks.
According to photographer Barbara Van Cleve, Wyoming rancher Melody Harding is the definition of a "Hard Twist" - a "five foot four inch mass of muscle and sinew, like rawhide that is dried or cured. Gentle with all animals and feminine in the best sense of the word."
Van Cleve states, "The notion that the West was settled by men and has persevered in the idea that ranching and cowboying are the exclusive domain of men. The same pioneer spirit and gustiness that compelled those early women migrants to follow their husbands and eventually settle the West is embodied in today's women ranchers."
This is a distance-learning course on Contemporary Women Ranchers.
Speaking of other kinds of cowboy, many of the cowboys were lifelong "batchelors". Life was different then--same-sex friendships could be pphysically more intimate, while not being sexual. But maybe they were. and don't forget Boston marriages. Now there is a Gay Rodeo circuit, and of course, its queen is a lesbian. (Check out the Roughstock Pictures. Brokeback Mountain, about two cowboys who love each other, is in production (but it's modern, not mythic or historical).
Real history is harder to find, as Patricia Nell Warren points out.
With our millennial world so dependent on microchips, it is easy to forget that those horse-and-buggy days of ours even existed. When I tell people that the word "punk," used today in men's prisons to denote a young male sexual partner, was common in old-time ranch lingo because of sexual relationships among cowboys, people are always astonished. "I didn't know that!" they say. I grew up on a ranch in the 1940s, and heard my father, who could remember when there were few fences in the West, grumbling about this or that good-looking young "punk" on the ranch...and his meaning was always clear. Our ranch roots are forgotten by us -- in fact, straight historians today have chosen to deny the quiet presence of homosexuality in that old-time cowboy life. We live in a highly mechanized age when agriculture no longer hires vast armies of unmarried men on horseback, so it is all too easy to "not understand."
Men or women, black or white, Anglo or hispanic, it was (and is) a hard old life. Really look at that photograph. The two men have a horse to get from feral to rideable. They don't have the luxuries of the East or of Europe to start the young horse slowly--he's off the range, and has to go to work. There's no roundpen, to start him off slowly. It's just the men and the trained horse. The cowboy on the left has roped him, and the horse is backing up to keep the rope tight. But he's still fighting--of course. He could put a lot of hurt on the cowboy on the right, who has to get close enough to "sack out" --rub the horse with the blanket--as a way of desensitizing the horse to future handling.
One of the songs that expresses some of the hardness is here, David Bromberg's version of Spanish Johnny (which the writer, Paul Siebel is based on a poem by Willa Cather). I love the Bromberg version....it's just missing the whistle of the wind through the bunkhouse walls, or the murmur of the campfire.
Click here to hear David sing Spanish Johnny. It's 4 1/2 minutes long.
Those other years, the dusty years
We drove the big herds through
I tried to forget the miles we rode
And Spanish Johnny too
He'd sit beside a water ditch when all this herd was in
And he'd never harm a child but sing to his mandolin
The old talk, the old ways, and the dealin' of our gang
But Spanish Johnny never spoke, but sung the song of Spains
And his talk with men was vicious talk
When he was drunk on gin
Ah, but those were golden things he said to his mandolin
We had to stand, we had to judge, we had to stop him then
See the hand so gentle to a child had killed so many men
He died a hard death long ago before the roads come in
And the night before he swung he sung to his mandolin
Well, we carried him out in the mornin' light
A man that done no good
And we lowered him down in the cold clay
Stuck in a cross of wood
And a letter we wrote to his kinfolk
To tell them where he'd been
And we shipped it out to Mexico, along with his mandolin
The old West, the old time,
The old wind singing through
The red, red grass a thousand miles—
And Spanish Johnny, you!
He'd sit beside the water ditch
When all his herd was in,
And never mind a child, but sing
To his mandolin.
The big stars, the blue night,
The moon-enchanted lane;
The olive man who never spoke,
But sang the songs of Spain.
His speech with men was wicked talk—
To hear it was a sin;
But those were golden things he said
To his mandolin.
The gold songs, the gold stars,
The world so golden then;
And the hand so tender to a child—
Had killed so many men.
He died a hard death long ago
Before the Road came in—
The night before he swung, he sang
To his mandolin.
by Willa Cather