In contrast to much of what Hollywood has constructed, the real cowboy lifestyle was far less glamorous and happy than you may think. Of course, there were some smiling faces among 19th century cowboys, but the gunslinging frontier hero you may picture is a Wild West myth.
Cowboys in the old American West worked cattle drives and on ranches alike, master horsemen from all walks of life that dedicated themselves to the herd. Cowboy life in the 1800s was full of hard work, danger, and monotonous tasks with a heaping helping of dust, bugs, and beans on the side.
A cowboy’s day and night revolved around the herd, a constant routine of guarding, wrangling, and caring for cattle. When cowboys were out with a herd or simply working on a ranch, they had to be on watch. With a typical watch lasting two to four hours, there was usually a rotation of men. This gave cowboys the chance to sleep for relatively short spurts, often getting six hours of sleep at the most.
Cowboys slept on bedrolls, an easily transportable mattress of sorts made out of feathers, canvas, or waterproof tarpaulin. Out on a drive, cowboys slept on the same bedrolls they used at the ranch. Bedrolls were likely full of lice and bedbugs wherever they were used.
Cowboys out with the herd wore the same clothes day in and day out. While wrangling the herd, cowboys in the back were naturally surrounded by a giant dust cloud stirred up by the animals, but dirt was pretty inescapable from any vantage point.
When cowboys were done with a cattle drive or came to a town, they made their way to a much needed and enjoyed bath. They may have also purchased new clothes and blown off steam at the local saloon.
Life at a ranch could have been less dusty, but not always. Some ranches had elaborate mansions but cowboys spent their days and nights in bunkhouses and other outbuildings. These were modestly better than being out on the range but a lot of cowboys preferred to sleep out under the stars even when they had the option of a roof over their heads.
The language of cowboys was full of task-specific phrases - and a fair amount of cursing. Much of the cowboy lexicon came from the vaquero tradition, but there was a lot of slang, too.
Cowboys used metaphorical phrases like “above snakes” or “hair case” to indicate being alive and a hat, respectively. They also used Native American words as they interacted with individual tribes.
Cowboys had words for their guns, their horses, the types of work they did, and their gear. A rope could be called many things based on what it was made of and what it looked like. For example, a long white and black horse hair rope was called a “pepper-and-salt rope.”
Cowboys wore hats, chaps, boots, and other hardy clothing to keep themselves safe on the trail and in the harsh elements. Hats varied by region but generally they had brims to keep the sun out of cowboys’ eyes. The taller the hat, the more shade it could provide.
Chaps were worn over pants to keep cowboys’ legs safe and American cowboys wore bandanas around their necks they could pull over their mouths and noses to keep the dust out.
Cowboy boots were designed with narrow toes and heels so the cowboy’s foot would fit securely in a stirrup but still have the ability to move should the rider need to dismount. Made of leather, they were sturdy and had spurs attached so a cowboy could prod his horse along. Boots were tall, going up the lower leg of a cowboy for protective purposes.