Hardly anything is as iconic as the American cowboy. Even today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the world who doesn’t acknowledge that the cowboy hat is a symbol of America and the Western world.
There’s just something about a cowboy. He sits tall in the saddle, sometimes facing danger, often times alone. He is one man, brave and true, fighting against nature, injustices, and outlaws. Is it any wonder that he has become a folk hero? A half-real, half-legend icon of the American West.
I live in the land of cowboys. (Lucky me!) It’s nothing to be at a diner and someone come in with spurs jangling, jeans half-tucked into the shafts of their boots, bandana, hat, the works.
But there is more to the cowboy than sometimes meets the eye. And this all-American symbol is actually a mosaic of many ancient cultures as well as the Spanish. Their dress may be easily identifiable, but it is also extremely practical.
Buckaroo is thought to be a variation on the word vaquero (pronounced ba-‘kero) which is a derivative of the Spanish word for cow. So let’s take a look at how the ancient and the Spanish came together to give the world something so uniquely American that it is known the world over.
The Cowboy Hat
In the early days of the Old West it was the bowler hat rather than the slouch hat, center crease, or sombrero that was the most popular among cowboys. Seems strange to think about, but the bowler was less likely to blow off in the wind. By the 1870s, John Batterson Stetson had changed all that. In 1865 he created the very first Stetson hat.
Stampede strings were added to prevent the hat from blowing off when riding
fast. They were long strings typically made from leather or braided horsehair. Usually, the string ran halfway around the crown, then through a hole on each side. The ends were knotted to hold them in place and secured under the chin or around the back of the head to keep the hat in place or from blowing away completely.
Cowboy hats protect the top of the head from the heat of the sun and shade the cowboy’s eyes from the sun's glare. They keep rain off the cowboy’s face. But they have other uses as well. They can be used to wave to a friend, smack a slow horse on the rump and are useful as a cup to scoop up water or folded over for a pillow.
The Bandanna Handkerchief
Though some might believe that the bandanna is just for show, they actually have many practical uses. Bandannas come in a variety of bright colors to make the cowboy more visible in bad weather. They block the hot sun to prevent sunburn and can be used to wipe sweat from the brow. They keep the dust out of the mouth and nose during dust storms and warm the ears in cold weather. They are also used as washcloths, tourniquets, and blindfolds to lead horses out of burning barns.
There is a classic style to the cowboy boot. Heels are best if they are two inches high and angled. They need a tall shaft that reached at least to mid-calf and ‘mule ears’ which are the loops at both sides of the shaft to help a cowboy pull them on. The boots are pull on, traditionally with no laces. A smooth leather sole is best and most cowboy boots are designed with a narrower, rounded toe.
All of these feature serve to help the cowboy work safer and better.
The angled heel and narrow toes are used to help the cowboy ride. The toe and the slick sole give the cowboy easy insertion into the stirrups. While the angled heel help him stay in the saddle by pushing against the stir-ups and holding the foot in place.
There was a high risk of the cowboy
being unseated by his often-times unpredictable horse. When this happened there was a chance that the cowboy’s foot might get caught in the stir-up and he would be dragged. But the smooth shaft of the boot allowed for the foot to slip out and the cowboy to remain on the ground while his horse galloped away.
The shaft also protected the cowboy’s lower leg and ankle from brush and thorns. While dismounted, the shaft helped protect from rocks and rattlesnakes. The high tops also helped prevent the boot from filling with mud and water, during wet weather and creek crossings.
Cowboys could spend as much as a month's salary to have their boots custom made. The only cowboys who wore ready-made boots were either greenhorns or those who saved their money in order to have a new pair made.
The stock saddle’s design traced all the way back to the Moors of North Africa, having come to the American cowboy by way of the Spanish and Mexicans.
There are two main types of chaparejos, or chaps: the skintight shotgun chaps and the wide batwing chaps. Different styles developed to fit the local climate, terrain, and hazards. The time of actual appearance of the garment on American cowboys is uncertain. By the late 1870s, however, most Texas cowboys wore them as the cattle industry moved north.
A well-known tool of the American cowboy, a lariat is also referred to as a lasso, riata, or reata (all from Spanish la reata). It’s a loop of rope designed as a restraint. The looped end was tossed around a target and tightened when pulled.
Lassos are not only part of North American culture. Huns are recorded as using lassos in battle to ensnare their adversaries around AD 370. And relief carvings at the ancient Egyptian temple of Pharaoh Seti (built c.1280 BC) show the pharaoh employing a lasso.
The collarless shirt and trousers the cowboys wore were nondescript and made of flannel or wool. A vest was also worn. It added some protection against the cold winds and had a number of useful pockets which were used to store things like tobacco and cigarette papers.
Cowboys often stitched buckskin across the seat and down the inner thighs so the pants would not wear out from rubbing against the saddle all day long.
But even with the practicality of their everyday dress and the borrowed items from so many cultures, the American cowboy is undeniably just that—American. An icon of justice and bravery. How can you not love that?