Breaking

The cowgirls of the West in rare photographs, 1860-1930

 


Before anyone ever heard the word "cowgirl," there were women who headed west. Most traveled with their families on covered wagons as early as the 1840s.

They moved from crowded eastern cities to settle in western states such as Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Some wagon trains eventually went even further to California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

After the Civil War, more and more people sought new life in the West. For nearly thirty years, from the 1840s to the late 1860s, the largest migration occurred in the country's history.

The Homestead Act of 1860 mandated that 160 acres of land could be claimed by men as well as women as long as they were twenty-one and unmarried.

Although males far outnumbered females in the early years, by 1870, there were 172,00 females over the age of twenty in the West, compared to 385,00 males.

Whereas in the past most women lived within the traditional rules of society, leading ladies had to adapt to survive the harsh conditions of their travels and new surroundings.



Many started doing things previously only done by men. Wives, widows, mothers and daughters were helping to settle the western plains in the fields and fields.

Some of these housewives learned to ride horses, to ride cattle and other animals, and to master the skills of gunning when needed. Nanny Alderson, a Montana settler, believed that "the new country offered more personal freedom than the old one."

A new freedom for women that developed into the leading way of life included a change in wardrobe. In those days, women rarely wore pants, and they used to sit next to them while riding horses. Their skirts kept them from riding like men, and in any case, it was not considered "woman-like" to do so.

An early pioneer woman advised not to follow the customary dress and riding style when traveling west: "Saddles should be discarded, women should wear hunting frocks, loose pantaloons, men's hats and boots, and men's shoes should be worn." Must ride as is," she wrote.

The act of settling the new frontier was prompting many women to abandon (or at least for some time) the narrower, traditional way of dress.



Ranch woman and photojournalist Evelyn Cameron wrote about her transition to buckroo life in Montana and Wyoming in the 1880s. “For the last few twenty years, there have been cowgirls on Western farms who, for the purpose of similar duties, are the female counterparts of cowboys, riding on equal horses, which they do really skillfully.

The elimination of the side saddle was naturally the first step towards the creation of the cowgirl… I was determined to ride. With a split skirt, I found it a simple operation to mount in a cow's saddle. First in Montana the prejudice against any divided apparel was so great that I was warned to abstain from riding the streets of Miles City, lest I be arrested!'

In 1840, pioneer Sally Skull was one of the first women in Texas to have her own farm, Circle S, which she kept with wild horses and cattle brought across the border from Mexico. His nickname was Mustang Jan and his horse was named Redbuck. Dressed in men's clothing, she carried freight from Texas to Mexico during the Civil War. A marker in her memory says that "she was a sure shot with a rifle brought to her saddle or two pistols tied to the waist."

Some female pioneers pretended to be men so that they could live like cowboys. In 1867, Joe Monaghan traveled west from Buffalo, New York. To reach his destination safely, he put on a pair of pants, a vest and a hat, and introduced himself as a male. After settling in Idaho, he found that he liked doing farm work.

Partly enjoying male privileges such as voting, and partly fearing the consequences of revealing her true identity, she kept her disguise. It was only after Joe's death in 1904 that he pretended to be a man.



The farther west the farm went, however, the harder it could be. Independent women often faced suspicion and harsh judgment from their neighbours. Ellen Watson of Sweetwater Valley, Wyoming, had a similar fate. Called Cattle Kate, she was accused of stealing animal rustles in 1889. Local cattle traders, greedy for his land, killed him before he could defend himself in court.

The Cheyenne Daily Reader described the doomed woman: "Sturdy physique, she was a daredevil in the saddle, worked with a six-shooter and skilled with a lariat and branding iron ... Bronco for mounts, and such Looks never get tired across the border." A century later, historians found that Cattle Kate was falsely accused of the crime and was innocent.

The origin of the cowboy tradition comes from Spain, beginning with the hacienda system of medieval Spain. This style of animal husbandry spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula and was later imported to the Americas. Both regions had a dry climate with sparse grass, thus requiring large amounts of land to obtain sufficient forage for large herds of cattle. The need to cover a greater distance than a man on foot could lead to the development of the equestrian vaquero.

Barbed wire, a novelty of the 1880s, allowed cattle to be confined to designated areas to prevent overgrazing of the range. In Texas and surrounding areas, the increased population required ranchers to clear off their personal lands.

In the north, excessive grazing emphasized open range, leading to insufficient winter forage for cattle and starvation, especially during the harsh winter of 1886–1887, when hundreds of thousands of cattle died in the north-west. This led to the decline of the cattle industry. ,

By the 1890s, barbed wire fencing was also standard in the Northern Plains, railroads were expanded to cover much of the country, and meatpacking plants were built close to major ranching areas, leading from Texas to Kansas. In the U.S. long cattle drives to railheads had become unnecessary. So, the era of open range is gone and large animal campaigns ended.





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