Old West History Archives

Old West Cowboy Boots

“I can tell by your outfit that you are a cowboy.”

Old West Cowboy BootsNext to his hat, a cowboy’s footwear has traditionally been the most important symbol of his identity. Here are some little known facts about Old West Cowboy Boots:

Prior to the end of the Civil War, cowboys wore heavy-soled boots of virtually any style they could find.  Often his boots were made on the same form for both the right and left foot.  Although they eventually conformed to the foot, this wasn’t the most comfortable way to make a boot.

With the beginning of the cattle drives, and the cowboy having to work cattle and ride a horse for months at a time, he started realizing he wasn’t wearing the best boot for the job.  So, when he got to Abilene and the other cattle towns, the cowboy got together with boot makers and came up with what has come to be known as the cowboy boot.

Early boots were called “stovepipes” because they were black, about fourteen inches tall and had level tops.  The 1870’s cowboy had three choices: boots off the shelf, boots made by a local boot maker or custom made mail order boots.    

The Old West cowboy was very vain about his attire.  He was willing to pay as much as a month’s wages for a pair of custom boots that were designed more for looks than comfort.

Although the northern cowboy and the southern cowboy dressed differently, they did agree on their boots.  The exception was how the boot was decorated.  The Texas cowboy wanted a lone star or crescent on the front of his.  The northern cowboy’s boots were heavily stitched.  And their tops were rarely less than seventeen inches high.

Boots had square or rounded toes. (Pointed toes are a modern design.)  The soles were thin.  Supposedly, to better feel the stirrup.  Besides, a cowboy never walked very far.  The heels were “underslung.”  A small foot was desired, and the underslung heel provided a size ten foot with a size seven footprint.

The heels were 2 ½ inch to as much as 4 ½ inch high.  This prevented the boot from hanging up in the stirrup.  In addition, the heels made it possible to “dig in” when working cattle.  The tall heel also added a couple of inches to the height of a cowboy, who tended to be on the shorter side.

In the 1890’s, following the cattle drive era, performers in Wild West shows started wearing highly decorated boots.  Then came the movie cowboy.  Boots were no longer designed for protection against the elements and critters, or for riding and handling cattle, but for show and tell.  And to tell it best, they always added a pair of jingling spurs! You can read more about cowboy boots in the Old West by grabbing this great book HERE.

Cowboys Go On Strike

Cowboys Go On StrikeIn the late 1860’s and the 1870’s a cattle rancher’s life was simple.  He lived in a small cabin, and worked along side the cowboys on his ranch.  A cowboy respected his boss, and he would give his life for the rancher and his cattle.  As they phrased it, “They rode for the brand.” No one would have thought that cowboys go on strike.

By the 1880’s things were changing.  Ranch owners were now living in large homes or were absentee landlords…They were often Eastern, British or Scottish investors.  They had ranch foremen to work with the cowboys.  When these “foreign” owners did come out west, they brought with them customs unfamiliar to the cowboys.  The gap between the cowboy and the owner became wider and wider.

During the spring of 1883, the cowboys from three ranches in the Texas panhandle were rounding up strays together.  And, one evening while setting around a campfire, the cowboys were doing their usual griping about working conditions, when they decided to do something about it…to go on strike.

Their demands were simple.  Among them, a cowboy’s income would increase from $30 to $50 per month.  A cook would get $50 per month.  And the head of an outfit would get $75 per month.

Unfortunately, for the cowboys, they quickly drank and gambled away their strike fund, and the area was full of drifters looking for a job.  So the strike didn’t last more than a couple of weeks.  Some of the cowboys went back to work.  Others left the area.

This strike ended up being just one more nail in the coffin of the Old West cowboy as ranchers set up rules to confine even more their traditional activities.

Bat Masterson and the County Seat War

Bat Masterson and the County Seat War: In October of 1887 a vote was held in Gray County, Kansas to determine the county seat. The winner was Cimarron. But some of the key citizens of Ingalls weren’t happy with the outcome. And they took their case to the courts. For over a year the courts did nothing.  
Finally Asa Soule, from Ingalls, decided to take the situation into his own hands. He figured that as the crown or miter was the authority of a king, the records of a county were the authority of a county seat. So, on January 11, 1889 he deputized a group of men with the objective of stealing the county records. These lawmen weren’t novices. They included Bill Tilghman, Neal Brown and two of the Bat Masterson brothers, Jim and Tom.  
Early Sunday morning the group rode quietly into Cimarron. Neal Brown and the two Mastersons started carrying out the records as the others stood guard. Unfortunately for them, an alarm was sounded, and guns started firing. The three record carriers were caught inside the courthouse. The rest got away with the records. More than two hundred armed men started shooting at the courthouse. In the process, one citizen was killed.
For more than 24 hours the men were trapped inside. Then mysteriously a truce was called and the three men were allowed to leave town unscathed. What happened? Well, Bat Masterson heard about his brothers’ plight, and he telegraphed Cimarron stating, that if either of his brothers were hurt he would “hire a train and come in with enough men to blow Cimarron off the face of Kansas.”
Oh yes, four years later another election was held and Cimarron again won.  
Bat Masterson & James Masterson

Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife

During the 1860’s and 70’s Dull Knife was one of the leading chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne. Early on, he realized the need to be at peace with the United States. But, what he saw happening worried him. For instance, in 1864, a group of Colorado militiamen attacked and killed a peaceful Cheyenne village at Sand Creek.
Although Dull Knife didn’t personally participate in the Little Big Horn, some of his warriors did. This resulted in their village being attacked the following winter while camping along the Powder River in Wyoming. Because of the loss of lives and supplies, he surrendered in the spring. 
In 1877, Dull Knife and his people were relocated from their homeland in Wyoming to the area that is now Kansas and Oklahoma. Not able to hunt on their traditional lands, and unable to live on government rations, a year later Dull Knife and his tribe started on a march back to Wyoming. Although Dull Knife had told everyone that his return was a peaceful one, the army looked upon them as renegades, and attacked them at every opportunity.
Again, they were captured and held at Fort Robinson in Nebraska. But, Dull Knife was determined, and he and about a hundred of his village escaped from Fort Robinson, and headed to Wyoming.
On January 22, 1879, Dull Knife had his last confrontation with the army. Although Dull Knife escaped, his remaining followers accepted their fate and returned to Fort Robinson. Dull Knife found refuge at the Sioux reservation with Red Cloud.
Four years later the government allowed the Northern Cheyenne to return to their traditional homeland.  But Dull Knife was not with them. He had died a few months earlier.

Alexander Todd Strikes “Gold” in 1849

Orlando RobbinsAlexander Todd got gold fever. But when he got to California he realized he didn’t have the physical stamina to work the gold fields.
However, it didn’t take Alexander long to see a need and fill it. The gold miners yearned for word from home. But the nearest post office was in San Francisco. It was a two-week trip there and back, and the miners couldn’t leave their claim that long.
So, on July 14, 1849 Alexander Todd started charging $2.50 to take a letter to the San Francisco post office. There was a $1.00 fee just to inquire if a miner had a letter at the post office, and $16.00 for each letter he brought back.
On his first trip some merchants wanted him to deliver $150,000 in gold to a company in San Francisco. He gladly did it, for $7,500.
When Alexander handed the clerk at the San Francisco post office the long list of names, the clerk showed his entrepreneurial capability. He swore Alexander Todd in as a postal clerk so he could search the stacks of letters himself. Incidentally, the clerk charged Alexander 25 cents for each letter he found.
That didn’t bother Alexander because he had discovered another way to make money. He bought a stack of old New York newspapers for a dollar each… which he sold for eight dollars back at the gold fields.
For his trip back to the gold fields Alexander bought a big rowboat for $300, and charged people to be transported back to the gold fields… and incidentally, they did the rowing. At the end of the trip he sold the boat for a $200 profit.
Alexander Todd made a fortune using what was to become known as goodold American ingenuity.
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