Saturday, December 3, 2016

American Cowboy

Here's a fun look at the American Cowboy from a London publication. The excerpt below comes from "The Statist: a journal of practical finance and trade, Vol. 21 ©1888

Feb. 4, 1888

The British duchesses who have been worshipping at the shrine of Buffalo Bill, to the great amusement of their Republican sisters in America, will be grieved to hear that the cowboy, of whom their pet is a glorified representative, is fast becoming a departed glory. He is passing away into the land of shades and traditions ; the place which he made so hot and so lively during his brief but eventful reign will soon know him no more. Civilisation, that fell destroyer of all that is true and beautiful and simple in nature, has overtaken him, and ordered him to move on. Like Jo, he had no convenient place left to move on to, not even a Tom All Alone's, and he is being gradually pushed over the edge of the poetic prairie into oblivion; in the ruder language of the political economists he is being " improved off the face of the earth." Even on the Mexican frontier, which used to be his happiest hunting ground, he has got notice to quit; his part is played out, and new actors are taking possession of the stage.

The cowboy was an essentially ephemeral being. He was the product of a transition state of things in the Far West, and with it he necessarily takes his departure. In the order of development he came on between the buffalo hunter and the farmer, filling up the period which was too early for the one and too late for the other. Fifteen or twenty years back, when the buffalo had been driven west of the Rio Grande, herds of some wild cattle took his place. They were for the most part a legacy from the old Spanish settlers of Texas and New Mexico. With very little care they increased and multiplied and replenished the boundless prairie. But as yet they were of little value ; there was an unlimited supply, but no demand, the nearest markets of any importance being hundreds of miles away. Moreover, the idea of eating prairie cattle had not yet occurred to Eastern beef consumers. Two events changed all that. First, the railways began to push Westward into the ranche country, and to offer practicable transport to Eastern markets. Next, Chicago started its now enormous industry of beef packing—that is, of boiling meat in tins. It created a demand for ranche cattle, and threefourths of the tinned meat shipped from Chicago is now prairie fed. Farm-fed steers are generally distributed to Eastern and Southern markets as dressed or fresh beef.

The cowboy came in with tinned meat, which made ranching a commercial success. It gave value to the mobs of cattle which ranged the prairie, feeding on free grass and with no mark of ownership but the brand on their shoulders. They became worthy of care and attention, and to that end the cowboy appeared on the scene. Adventurous spirits, attracted by the wild, free life, with a fascinating dash of danger, took to the prairie. The Mexican "greaser?," who had previously done all the trading that was needed, found themselves swamped by ex-miners, prodigal younger sons, University men who had broken loose, and desperadoes who had left a bad record behind them in the East. Many men took to it from sheer love of adventure, but more of them drifted into it as a last resource. It was a business quickly learned and requiring very little capital to start in. The outfit consisted of a picturesque sombrero, a woollen shirt, buckskin trousers, and jack-boots—a free and easy combination of the Mexican costume with the Colorado miner's.

But the cowboy's proudest distinction was not his sombrero or his lasso ; it was his revolver. On the prairie he had, of course, to go armed for the Indians, who were still on the war path. The last of them have now been cleared away, and even the once formidable Apaches in Southern Arizona have ceased to be a terror to the settler. On the capture of their chief, Huronymo, about a year ago, the tribe was broken up, and most of them removed to Florida, where they are safely secluded somewhere in the Everglades. But in the cowboy's early days the Mexican frontier right along from Western Texas to Southern California swarmed with scalpers, and any white man who might meet them unexpectedly had to be pretty handy with his firearms. Most of the cowboys were. Pistol shooting came next to poker in their calendar of human accomplishments. They practised it both drunk and sober, but especially drunk. Out on the prairie little harm came of it, except to themselves ; but when they descended on a town accidents were apt, indeed they were pretty sure, to happen.

After a round up, or when he had cattle to ship East, the cowboy always had a blow-out of his own peculiar kind. It generally began with whisky, and ended with promiscuous pistol shooting. Blood was shed, of course ; but as the Missouri man who had " busted " for half a million said of his liabilities, that was a mere detail. There is, ve know, a prejudice against pistol practice in towns as Iwing dangerous; but the cowboy had completely emancipated himself from that weak notion. His pistol was his plaything as well as his protector; it spoke for him when he had no longer a tongue of his own ; it gave vent to his humour, and when a happy thought entered his drunken head he fired it off with his revolver. Endless are the stories of his mad freaks which linger on the frontier. It was a favourite joke with him to make a man stand up against the wall, and fire a bullet on each side of his head, finishing off with a third through the crown of his hat. Sometimes the human target would submit to the operation voluntarily for the sake of the whisky with which the cowboy would be sure to fill him ad libitum during the rest of the drinking bout; more frequently the victim stood up under compulsion, trembling and shaking in his shoes all the while.

There were many sorts and conditions of cowboys, as of other men. Some were vain, and in their cups wished to show off their shooting; some were brutal fellows, who liked to see harmless, unarmed people run from them in terror; others were humorous dare-devils, who would do anything for the mere fun of it. They had a strong sense of the grotesque, and would quite unexpectedly order a man to do something he had no special aptitude for—to sing or dance, or make a stump speech, or even to pray. One night a drunken cowboy marched into the telegraph office in a Western Texas depot, and ordered the clerk to kneel down at once and say his prayers. " But I don't know my prayers," said the trembling clerk. "Oh, don't you just," replied the cowboy, pointing his six-shooter at him; " this will teach you, I guess.' Without further argument, down dropped the telegraph man on his knees, and surprised everybody around by the spiritual unction he worked up. It was an even chance whether the cowboy, when he was done, put a bullet into him or took him to the bar and stood drinks all round. The incident ended happily with drinks, but this telegraph clerk was never allowed to forget his cowboy's prayer.

The success of Buffalo Bill's Show is generally attributed in the West to the passion of cowboys for the circus. They would ride scores of miles to attend one, not so much for the purpose of seeing as of taking part in it. Their greatest delight was to join in the public procession, and to do the lion's share of the whooping and shouting. They would also ride into the ring, and show off some horsemanship of their own. The other spectators thought themselves lucky if a pistol or two did not go off in the excitement. Once a ranchman had driven down sixty car load of cattle to a Texas railway station, and his cowboys were busy loading them when they heard that a circus was coming along. They knocked off work, went out to meet the circus, and rode back with it. After the public procession they assisted at the performance, and honoured the clown's best jokes with pistol salvoes. During the night the cattle stampeded, and only fifteen car loads out of the sixty could be started. A new roundabout had to be made to recover the rest.

The cowboy had his own notion of politics. He judged a candidate a good deal by first impressions, and personal appearance went a long way with him. He had a strong antipathy to snobbishness either in dress or manners. Woe betide the stump orator who ventured before a cowboy audience with a silk hat on his head. Ten to one it would have a shot hole through the top of it before he had been three minutc3 on the platfonn. One venturesome wearer of a bell-topper was warned beforehand of this weakness of his cowboy auditors, but he said he would get on with them all right. Sure enough, he had hardly seated himself when the expected shot was fired. He quielty took off his hat, looked at the hole in it, smiled gratefully at the sportsman, and put it on again. His coolness captivated the boys, and his speech delighted them. After the meeting they insisted on conducting him in triumph to the nearest hat store, and buying the best sombrero for him there was in it. The cowboy had his good points, but like many other an exuberant genius he made the world rather hot for him. It has cooled down very much of late on the Texas frontier; a cowboy nowadays causes no more commotion in a saloon than Buffalo Bill would produce in a Belgravian drawing room were he to return next year to the scene of his late triumphs. He has had his day and ceased to be heroic in the slightest degree.

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