Lone Hand Western - Old West History

Chuck Wagons and the Trail Drives

A day in the life of a Cousie

Chuck Wagon history and chuck wagons in the old west. 

The work day for the cousie began with the jangle of the alarm clock before the first light of dawn.  In the dark, he lighted his lantern, built a fresh fire on the previous night's white ashes and hung the large coffeepot on a pothook suspended from the pot rack placed over the fire pit.

An unwritten law of the range prohibited any man from complaining about another's cooking, but woe be to the cook who didn't get the men's meals done on time.  Knowing this, every cook worked under pressure.  As soon as the fire blazed along his trench he set the heavy Dutch ovens and their lids where they would heat.

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Into each he dropped a hunk of beef tallow.  Next he began cutting the steaks, and "building" his biscuits in a big dough pan on the chuck box work table.  Immediately above it was a cupboard holding tin ware cups and plates, knives, forks, spoons, salt, coffee, dishrags, towels, soap, etc. 

History of the chuckwagon.

After the beef was salted, the cook slipped them into a hot Dutch oven.  He then pinched biscuits off one end of the newly made loaf of dough, rounded each one between his palms, dipped it in melted tallow and placed it into a bread oven.  When the bottom was filled, he set the lid in place and shoveled hot coals around and over it.

When the grub was ready to serve the cousie would give a shout to summon the cowhands to breakfast.

The men headed for the wash basin and scrubbed their hands and faces and passed around the all too wet towel to dry off.  A common comb may have been used to arrange messy hair.  (Sounds a little too cozy).

Each man helped himself to a plate, cup and tools.  The men got in line, grabbed their grub, plunked down somewhere and ate their meal.  

As each man finished, he flipped the dregs from his coffee onto the ground and dropped his dirty dishes into the "wrecking pan"  - a big dishpan set aside fir this purpose.  To neglect placing dishes in this pan was the ultimate no-no

As soon as the men saddled up and left the cook washed and dried the dishes.  The bed rolls were tossed into the chuck wagon or a bed wagon, (hoodlum wagon).  The Dutch ovens were wrapped in burlap bags and stowed away with the pot racks in the boot.  An assortment of hooks and hangers on the side of the wagon accommodated and other things that needed to be stowed away.  The team was hitched to the wagon and the move to the next camp would be under way.  Along the way the cousie would collect any combustible material he could find and store it in the "possum belly" under the wagon.

When the new bed ground was reached the cook would dig his fire trench, set up his pot rack, get the coffee going and get started on dinner.  A good cousie changed the monotonous diet by preparing soup and stews which were eaten in relish despite some rather vulgar names for the concoctions.  A really imaginative cook occasionally stirred up pastries with dried fruit or put up some beans to soak, though beans on the high plains were not to common  as it took too long for them to cook.

Old westchuck wagon history.

Evening was the time of day to kill a beef.  The carcass was halved with the cooks axe and each half was hung from an erected wagon tongue, where the meat chilled during the night, and was ready to be eaten in the morning.  During the heat of the day the meat was wrapped in tarpaulins.  At night the beef was hung out again to chill. 

After washing the dishes, filling the water barrel and dragging wood the cousie could finally relax and enjoy what was left of the evening. 


Why a Dutch oven?

It has been claimed by at least one writer that the Pilgrims, who spent some years in Holland before departing for America, brought "Dutch ovens" with them and used them aboard ship.  The idea of using this utensil on a wooden ship in the middle of the Atlantic ocean is an interesting thought and warrants study in itself.

The manufacture of the kettle was common in colonial New England and its design has remained constant to this day.  The standard pattern for the Dutch oven has been said to have been perfected by Paul Revere.  Some of his models had a detachable frying pan type handle. 

The best modern day manufacturers of Dutch ovens are Wagner Ware and Lodge Manufacturing.  Both put out a good oven in a variety of sizes suitable for the re-enactor.  But by all means spend time scrounging through your local antique stores, flea markets and auctions.  Many fine period  specimens remain floating around, and under the right circumstances, can be purchased for less than their modern day counterparts.  I recently found a circa 1800s #10 oven  buried in a dusty corner of an antique store and talked them down to $45.00.  It is now promptly displayed with my wagon.  Griswold, Wagner and Erie are company names to look for in period cast iron.  If you find any examples you may as well grab them.  More and more people are collecting cast iron and prices are starting to sky rocket.

Do not be deterred by a build up of carbon and baked on grease.  Simply place the Dutch oven or skillet in an oven and run it through the self clean cycle.  This will remove must of the extraneous material and leave the hidden gem within.  Wash your new treasure in hot, sudsy water, followed by a good rinsing and drying.  Now re-season the piece  by giving it a liberal coating of grease, suet or lard (don't forget the lid) and heating it in an oven until it begins to smoke.   Let the oven cool down, wipe it out, and you have piece to be proud of.  Give the oven or skillet a swipe of grease after each use and cleaning and it will remain pretty much maintenance free.  DO NOT  use spray on food release it leaves a varnish like coating on cast iron that is absolutely no fun to remove.

The Trail Drive

The high time of the trail drives lasted only about 20 years, from the end of the Civil War to the mid -1880's.  In that brief period of time around 10 million cows walked the trails from Texas to the rail heads in Kansas and Missouri.  Many of these went as far as Wyoming and even into Canada.

After the civil war there were millions of cattle roaming free in Texas and northern Mexico.  When a market started to develop in the east for beef and beef related products (leather for drive belts in factories, etc.) there were a few men, Charles Goodnight to name one, who began "round up" these cattle and drive them north.  It was lucrative for the ranchers who succeeded in these drives.  A free range steer worth $4.00 in Texas would escalate in value to $40.00 dollars at the point of sale in Kansas or Missouri.  Many a fortune was made during this period time while the average cowboy worked for "forty and found".

The number of cows trailed out of Texas during the big years was awe inspiring.  Simple multiplication gives you an idea of the revenue generated during this period of time.


The market was glutted in 1871 and numbers dropped off substantially the following year.  1874 marked the beginning of a depression which kept the numbers down from then on.

A trail drive could last up to five months depending on the route taken to the drives destination.  The Chisholm Trail, Shawnee Trail, Western Trail and the Goodnight - Loving Trail were some of the better known routes.

Charles Goodnight
Charles Goodnight

  The first of the major trails to open was the Shawnee in the 1840s, heading northeast from Texas to Missouri.  The Civil War and a quarantine against long-horn cattle closed the Shawnee trail.  The most heavily traveled trail was the Chisholm, which handled half of all cows moved from Texas.  The Western Trail was an incredibly long thing extending from San Antonio to Fort Buford in the nether regions of the Dakota Territory and Miles City Montana.

Trail drives from Texas north to Kansas  and Missouri usually began in the spring so the cattle could feed on new grass as they moved along; for drives up to the northern ranges it was important that the cattle get to their destination before the hard winter set in.  In addition spring drives usually avoided flooded rivers, every cowboys nightmare.  A herd of steers could move about 10-12 miles a day- a drovers favorite speed-although at the start the cowboys might cover 20-25 miles a day in order to get the herds trail broken.

During the trail drive,  the herd was supposed to drift along rather than be driven.  The cattle started a little after daybreak after the cowboys had eaten their breakfast and were driven four about five hours or until around 11:00 A.M. when the cowboys would stop for dinner.  After breakfast, the cook would pack up and move ahead to find a spot for the noon meal; the trail boss would also go ahead and look for a spot to bed down for the night.  During the noon dinner the cattle could graze until about 1:00 P.M. then they would bee herded again.  The bedding ground had good grass and water so that the herd would be well fed and watered before settling in for the night.

 A herd of about 3000 head would take around 10-15 cowboys; this included the trail boss, the wrangler and the cook.  Men worked in pairs so two man watches could be made, and a cowboys status was determined by his position on the trail drive.  The top hands were the "pointers"  who rode at the head of the herd and guided them; next came the swing riders about a third of the way back, and finally at the back of the herd were the poor "drag" riders.  Probably one of the dustiest jobs in all of workdom.  The "pointers" kept their position throughout the drive ; others might change their position as the drive progressed and no one wanted to ride drag. 

 At night the cowboys  would take turns, working in teams for about two hours each; they would often sing to the cattle to keep them calm or to keep themselves awake and let the other rider know their whereabouts.  These "nighthawks" each circled the herd from different directions so they would pass each other twice on each circle.

In the best trail outfits each cowboy had 8-10 horses in the remuda, or a group of horses on the trail drive.  Each cowboy needed a good swimming horse and one that was good for a hard run.  A good night horse was also a necessity.  A young and inexperienced cowboy usually acted as the wrangler for the trail drive.

Daily Life of the Cowboy

Below you will find an excerpt from the book The passing of the Frontier that describes daily cowboy life in the old west.

The round-up was the harvest of the range. The time of the calf round-up was in the spring after the grass had become good and after the calves had grown large enough for the branding. The State Cattle Association divided the entire State range into a number of round-up districts. Under an elected round-up captain were all the bosses in charge of the different ranch outfits sent by men having cattle in the round-up. Let us briefly draw a picture of this scene as it was.

Each cowboy would have eight or ten horses for his own use, for he had now before him the hardest riding of the year. When the cow-puncher went into the herd to cut out calves he mounted a fresh horse, and every few hours he again changed horses, for there was no horse which could long endure the fatigue of the rapid and intense work of cutting. Before the rider stretched a sea of interwoven horns, waving and whirling as the densely packed ranks of cattle closed in or swayed apart. It was no prospect for a weakling, but into it went the cow-puncher on his determined little horse, heeding not the plunging, crushing, and thrusting of the excited cattle. Down under the bulks of the herd, half hid in the whirl of dust, he would spy a little curly calf running, dodging, and twisting, always at the heels of its mother; and he would dart in after, following the two through the thick of surging and plunging beasts. The sharp-eyed pony would see almost as soon as his rider which cow was wanted and he needed small guidance from that time on. He would follow hard at her heels, edging her constantly toward the flank of the herd, at times nipping her hide as a reminder of his own superiority. In spite of herself the cow would gradually turn out toward the edge, and at last would be swept clear of the crush, the calf following close behind her. There was a whirl of the rope and the calf was laid by the heels and dragged to the fire where the branding irons were heated and ready.

Branding cattle in the old west.

Meanwhile other cow-punchers are rushing calves to the branding. The hubbub and turmoil increase. Taut ropes cross the ground in many directions. The cutting ponies pant and sweat, rear and plunge. The garb of the cowboy is now one of white alkali which hangs gray in his eyebrows and moustache. Steers bellow as they surge to and fro. Cows charge on their persecutors. Fleet yearlings break and run for the open, pursued by men who care not how or where they ride.

We have spoken in terms of the past. There is no calf round-up of the open range today. The last of the roundups was held in Routt County, Colorado, several years ago, so far as the writer knows, and it had only to do with shifting cattle from the summer to the winter range.

After the calf round-up came the beef round-up, the cowman's final harvest. This began in July or August. Only the mature or fatted animals were cut out from the herd. This "beef cut" was held apart and driven on ahead from place to place as the round-up progressed. It was then driven in by easy stages to the shipping point on the railroad, whence the long trainloads of cattle went to the great markets.

In the heyday of the cowboy it was natural that his chief amusements should be those of the outdoor air and those more or less in line with his employment. He was accustomed to the sight of big game, and so had the edge of his appetite for its pursuit worn off. Yet he was a hunter, just as every Western man was a hunter in the times of the Western game. His weapons were the rifle, revolver, and rope; the latter two were always with him. With the rope at times he captured the coyote, and under special conditions he has taken deer and even antelope in this way, though this was of course most unusual and only possible under chance conditions of ground and cover. Elk have been roped by cowboys many times, and it is known that even the mountain sheep has been so taken, almost incredible as that may seem. The young buffalo were easy prey for the cowboy and these he often roped and made captive. In fact the beginnings of all the herds of buffalo now in captivity in this country were the calves roped and secured by cowboys; and these few scattered individuals of a grand race of animals remain as melancholy reminders alike of a national shiftlessness and an individual skill and daring.

The grizzly was at times seen by the cowboys on the range, and if it chanced that several cowboys were together it was not unusual to give him chase. They did not always rope him, for it was rarely that the nature of the country made this possible. Sometimes they roped him and wished they could let him go, for a grizzly bear is uncommonly active and straightforward in his habits at close quarters. The extreme difficulty of such a combat, however, gave it its chief fascination for the cowboy. Of course, no one horse could hold the bear after it was roped, but, as one after another came up, the bear was caught by neck and foot and body, until at last he was tangled and tripped and hauled about till he was helpless, strangled, and nearly dead. It is said that cowboys have so brought into camp a grizzly bear, forcing him to half walk and half slide at the end of the ropes. No feat better than this could show the courage of the plainsman and of the horse which he so perfectly controlled.

Of such wild and dangerous exploits were the cowboy's amusements on the range. It may be imagined what were his amusements when he visited the "settlements." The cow-punchers, reared in the free life of the open air, under circumstances of the utmost freedom of individual action, perhaps came off the drive or round-up after weeks or months of unusual restraint or hardship, and felt that the time had arrived for them to "celebrate." Merely great rude children, as wild and untamed and untaught as the herds they led, they regarded their first look at the "settlements" of the railroads as a glimpse of a wider world. They pursued to the uttermost such avenues of new experience as lay before them, almost without exception avenues of vice. It is strange that the records of those days should be chosen by the public to be held as the measure of the American cowboy. Those days were brief, and they are long since gone. The American cowboy atoned for them by a quarter of a century of faithful labor.

Old West Bronco

The amusements of the cowboy were like the features of his daily surroundings and occupation—they were intense, large, Homeric. Yet, judged at his work, no higher type of employee ever existed, nor one more dependable. He was the soul of honor in all the ways of his calling. The very blue of the sky, bending evenly over all men alike, seemed to symbolize his instinct for justice. Faithfulness and manliness were his chief traits; his standard—to be a "square man."