Charles Russell is credited with first saying that “cowboys were white Indians.” Part of what made them so was their tendency not to stay in any one place too long and the fact that they traveled light. Not counting his horse, a cowboy’s material possessions in the late 19th century, wouldn’t weigh 150 pounds. I’ve known modern day cowboys who could say the same thing. Old time buckaroos still call their stuff their “40 years gathering” and the vaqueros called it “impedimenta.” Note the derivation of the word, they considered such things as a house, boat, bank account, spouse, kids, etc,. as impediments.
The few clothes the cowboys owned were of the best quality they could afford and were highly functional. Not only did they cover up their misshapen and scarred bodies, they served a purpose. The cuff of their Levis was their ashtray and their Stetson could be used to water their horse, at least according to early advertising.
I went to the same college as six time World Champion cowboy Tom Ferguson and often when I saw him in the animal science building he wasn’t wearing a belt or a buckle, and I’m sure he’d won several by then. Tom was merely following in the tradition of many old time vaqueros and cowboys. If you look at old photos of cowboys they are often without belts, but you’ll see a wild rag around their neck. This piece of flashararity could be used for lots of things besides keeping your neck warm. It was used as a cowboy’s table cloth, napkin, wash cloth, dish rag, towel and tourniquet. It could shade the sun, compress a wound, tie up the legs of a calf, replace a broken spur strap and if things got real bad, it would hide your face when robbing a bank.
The cowboy’s tack had all the functionality of a Swiss Army knife. His bedding was also his suitcase, saddle blankets could be used as covers if it got real cold at night, and the saddle was both the cowboy’s workbench and his pillow. His toolbox was a rope and a pair of fence pliers.
I’ve seen a cowboy make a temporary, attractive, and quite usable pair of hobbles out of his leather gauntlets and spur chains, and on most old saddles you’ll find the saddle strings will be whittled off; probably used to sew up a cow’s prolapse, serve as a tourniquet or to connect two strands of barbed wire.
Contrary to the Hollywood image, most vaqueros and buckaroos never carried guns but if they did they were more often used to hammer in a fence staple than they were to shoot at someone. For the most part, they also didn’t carry watches or ink pens. I learned why on my first cowboy job. There was one guy who always had a pen tucked under one button on his shirt, so it was half in and half out. One time after the horse he was riding finally got fed up with his heavy hand, the cayuse went to pitchin and with every buck the guy yelled, “OUCH.” When he finally got bucked off, or to hear his version, when he finally stepped off the horse, he opened the front of his shirt to reveal several round holes in his belly and inside each one was a blue dot from his Parker T Ball Jotter.
Old time cowboys weren’t the only ones who were resourceful. My buddy from South Dakota, Russell Wyatt, just sent me a letter and in it he told me about his 33-year-old grandson who did two tours of duty in Iraq and is now a professional farrier in Dallas. One day he was called by a lady who lived on a Texas ranchette to shoe her two horses. While he was busy shoeing one, she went to fetch the other from a small pasture. Russell’s grandson noticed that she didn’t take a halter, lead rope or bridle and he remembers briefly thinking, “How’s that gonna work?” When he was finishing up on the first horse he looked up briefly and saw a sight I bet he never saw in Iraq. Here came the lady with the other horse and she was leading it with her bra!
I must say, that was either a very small horse or one VERY well endowed woman! ❖