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Saturday, 22 December 2012


Studio Cowboys

 “Get off your horse and drink your milk.”
Attributed, incorrectly, to John Wayne

Here’s some statistics to get your head around. The number of cowboys, which is to say men that worked with cattle, who were black has been estimated to be around 50%. Since no one in the 1870s kept data the actual figure is unknown but we know it was high. In Arizona Territory many more are reckoned to have been Mexicans and Native Americans. It suggests that if you drove cattle to Abilene in the 1870s and you were a white man whose first language was English, you were somewhat unusual. It tells you something else; it must have been a rotten job wages wise; how many ranch owners were that enlightened that they’d pay a recently freed slave or an Apache the same rate as a white man? We haven’t even considered what it was like to ride tall in the saddle for eight or more hours a day. People who have had to do that will tell you it makes such everyday activities as sitting in a chair painful. Reading between the lines, it becomes apparent that cowboy wasn’t a long term career choice. Assuming that you weren’t thrown from a horse, suffered heat stroke, snow blindness, TB, snakebite, fever, typhoid, syphilis or smallpox, you’d want to get out of the business by your mid twenties. After that you either had no choice, were pushing your luck or you were a sucker for punishment. So how did what’s beginning to sound like the worst job a man could ask for become so mythologized? How is it that barely had the sun set on the range so to speak than men were lining up at photographers’ studios to look the part of a ruthlessly exploited, prematurely aged and poorly educated labourer?

There are cabinet cards and tintypes of office workers dressed as cowboys but the fashion seems to have really taken off at the turn of the century, when the real photo postcard first appeared. That coincided with the publication in 1902 of Owen Whistler’s The Virginian, which cultural historians mark as the birth of the cowboy legend in literature.  1903 marked the release of Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which was the first western movie but more properly the first serious dramatic film made in America. This was also the era of Theodore Roosevelt, the closest to a real cowboy America ever had as president and a man who believed New York’s flaccid inhabitants could learn a few things from the cowboy’s simple, direct philosophy. His favourite artist was Frederic Remington, who we’ll get to later. America stood at the cusp of world power and it needed foundation myths. Forget Columbus, the Pilgrim Fathers and Valley Forge. America was born in the Wild West, and there were still a lot of people around who had lived through it. 

One thing to bear in mind: in the real Wild West a man either wore chaps or he carried a six gun; he didn’t do both. Only cowboys – men who worked with cattle – wore chaps, to protect them from the thorns as they rose through the brush, and while a rifle had its uses if you wanted to guard the herd from coyotes or wolves, strapping on a revolver was pointless and only added to the health risks in an already hazardous job. For sure there were times during the Montana sheep and cattle wars when cowboys could expect a bit of violence on the range but mostly it was kept to the towns, where they turned up, crawled out of the mess of rags they’d been wearing for the last few weeks and went off to a bar for a few drinks, and maybe a fight. The fact that guns might be drawn and someone carted off to Boot Hill didn’t mean he was in his sheepskin chaps at the time, though wearing a set into a bar in Tombstone or Abilene would have helped get him there. 

Reading about the legendary outlaws one soon notices a few patterns. Some, like Jesse James and Clay Allison, were veterans of the Civil War and if it’s too late to find out for sure it is still worth wondering how many emerged from that conflict so psychologically damaged that perpetuating the violence made sense. Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Longley were sociopaths who needed no justification for killing a man other than they didn’t mind doing it. A few – and I don’t know why this should be surprising – started their gun-fighting careers as lawmen, which didn’t mean they were on the side of good, merely paid by it. A glance at Wyatt Earp’s life story is enough to know he was familiar with the concept of moral ambiguity long before it became a literary term.

Speaking of Earp, the people in these photographs might not have been aware of how much they owed to the man. He was still alive when most of these were taken and was earning a living as a consultant to Hollywood. The producers wanted the truth but they weren’t too fussed by facts and here was a man who could tell them exactly what it was like to stride down the sun baked main street of Tombstone, fingers just above the Colt poking out of his holster, ready to draw against one of the toughest gunslingers west of the Pecos. Best of all, no one was alive anymore to contradict him. His only rival for Hollywood’s attention was Emmett Dalton, on the straight after years in jail, and he wasn’t about to cast aspersions on Earp’s grasp of the truth when a little fabrication made them both look good. The Wild West that Hollywood concocted in the 1910s and ‘20s came pretty much straight out of Earp and Dalton’s mouths, or imaginations. 

It seems there were a considerable number of shootouts at high noon, enough to give them a legitimate place in the folklore, but what we know about most of them is that they were spontaneous and often ended in a no contest on account of both players missing with their shots. Famed gunfighter Doc Holliday once drew on a man in a saloon and shot a bystander in the toe. Not only did the bystander risk lead poisoning from the bullet, there was a strong chance he’d die on the operating table when the bullet was removed. Holliday of course could not in all fairness notch that kill on his gun though he probably did.

Another myth of the Wild West was the crack shot, the man who could shoot from the hip and plug his opponent straight through the heart. Gun experts agree that for that to happen the gunslingers had to be about four feet apart or lucky. In the 1890s one circus sharpshooter explained how he got so accurate shooting a playing card that had been flicked in the air. Beforehand he would remove the lead bullet and fill the casing with buckshot then replace the bullet with a papier maché substitute. When he drew and fired the papier maché exploded into dust but one of the pieces of buckshot was sure to hit the card. The hard part was spinning the revolver and putting it back in the holster in one smooth move. 

The sad reality of the Wild West was that you were more likely to die at a dentist’s hands than a gunslinger’s. And if you survived the dentist’s chair there was a strong chance you’d emerge on to the street with the beginnings of a pernicious drug habit. Again, the figures are a little vague but it seems a high number of cowpokes were addicted to morphine, invariably as a result of visiting a dentist, though if they broke a wrist falling from a horse and needed some quick attention that could do it too. It doesn’t seem right, does it; stepping into a Tucson saloon and realizing the unfriendly silence is because everyone’s too doped up to do much else besides stare into their whisky glass. 

Another man the people in these photos owe something to is Frederic Remington. It’s common for art critics and historians to brush him off but if you’ve ever felt the lure of the West it is impossible to hate him. Give him his due. He heroized the cowboy – he was probably responsible for the notion that the Colt revolver was part of the cowpoke’s stock-in-trade - but in fairness the figures in his paintings are rarely the loud, swaggering John Wayne types. They look more like the men here, out of place and sorts. Remington was New York born and bred and only went west during the dying days of the frontier. Suffice to say he never saw a Pony Express rider in action and the closest he got to trouble with Indians was when he turned up to Wounded Knee a few days after US soldiers had massacred 150 men, women and children, most of them unarmed. He nevertheless believed that old story about the ethos of individuality, self reliance and fundamental justice, what we’d call true grit, being the source of America’s greatness and the answer to its problems. Give the West the boy and it would give you back the man. He was deluded of course. By the time he died in 1909 America’s success was much more dependent upon the millions of office workers who kept the government’s wheels turning, the kind of men who escaped the tedium by pretending for a few minutes they were cowboys.

America didn’t own copyright on the cowboy. Studios, often found at fairgrounds and carnivals, that offered the Wild West experience sprang up all over the world and it would be remiss here not to mention Karl May, the German author who recreated the image of the cowboy for millions of Europeans. Einstein and Hitler claimed him as their favourite author when they were boys. Though he died a century ago, Wild West re-enactments based on the Karl May vision have been hugely popular in Germany since the 1950s. In Eastern Germany during the Cold War they took on a particular slant. If the cowboy represented American capitalism, it was logical, and permissible, to sympathize with the Indian. Thousands of East Germans spent their wages on outfits and their weekends dressed as Tonto. The irony was lost on everyone. This postcard was taken in Turkey. You can see a few details are amiss, the hat for example is wrong, but the checked shirt and vest are close enough.  You don’t need to know much about America to know what a cowboy is. With his holster strapped over his chaps he is the epitome of the rugged individual, the man who stands tall, in or out of the saddle, the embodiment of freedom. When the Village People wee deciding on their costumes, you can bet which was the first they thought of.



  1. Great article. Makes a lot of sense, but would totally depress most of my Sunday cowboy neighbors. Thanks for writing such an informative story and for the wonderful pictures.


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