“Cowboy life in days long-gone-by was far from a high paying profession.”
Yet, according to early West historian, Daniel Baker, “It was a job, and doing anything for wages wasn’t that readily available following the Civil War.”
Being a cowboy at the turn of the previous century, before and after, sure wasn’t romantic as silver screens portray.
“It was a hard, dirty, often unappreciated profession,” Black said. “I have read that cowboys typically earned $25 a month on a cattle drive. On the ranch it would have probably been less.”
Reading Charles Siringo’s autobiography, Black learned about a “Texas cowboy in 1874 getting $35 a month including railroad fare back home.”
However, another cowboy worked on a Texas ranch for $15 a month in 1873.
Most cowboys did not own a horse, generally only a saddle and bridle. “One accounting book from 1881 describes a saddle and bridle being sold for $18,” Black said.
“A horse was loaned to the cowboys from the rancher’s or trail boss’s remuda while on the job,” Black explained.
Horse prices varied hugely by age, weight, sex, location, color, breed, and other personal characteristics of the horse.
In 1874, a “bad-tempered male horse was sold to a stranger for $30,” Black said. “But a year later, another horse was purchased for $25.”
Horse trading was a profession in those early days, too. “A Texas rancher bought an ‘old mare’ from a cowboy for $20,” Baker noted. “The mare was traded for a ‘pony’ that brought $45 within a few days.”
A trader named Charles Word is claimed to have bought his choice out of several hundred horses from Mexican dealers for $18 a head.
In 1875, a Texas rancher paid $55 for a three-year-old “California pony,” intending “to make him into a racehorse.”
A “fifty-dollar horse” was won in an 1876 horse race bet. Dispute arose when three men claimed they owned the horse and that the bettor had only borrowed it. However, the men eventually agreed to return the horse for $20.
Cowboys did have guns in the Old West, but seldom, other than lawmen, were they used shooting at each other. “Guns were cowboy tools to hunt wild animals for food and for shooting destructive wolves and rattle snakes,” Baker clarified.
Guns were not nearly as high priced as nowadays. “I’ve seen a late 19th century advertisement for an Iver Johnson hammerless revolver selling for $5.50,” Baker said.
In 1868, a St. Louis, Missouri, gun owner got “$10 from a Texas rancher for a fancy little ivory-handled five-shooter.”
A congressional report from 1880 said that revolver ammunition for the Army cost $18 per thousand rounds. “That would be 1.8-cents per cartridge. Although if you were not purchasing in bulk, I imagine the price would be much higher,” Baker noted.
Working cowboys in the late 19th century were far different from portrayed in silver screen movies. (Daniel Baker photo)