Cowboys got paid high

The cowboys of this era had their rituals and their own unwritten laws: without a saddle and horse, the cowboy was a nobody; milking a cow was below his dignity; He was not allowed to kick or whip a borrowed horse; if two strange cowboys met on horseback on a trail, they were not allowed to change direction, otherwise they would make each other suspicious; If one cowboy got off his horse, the other got off too, so that one was on an equal footing; Handshake deals were strictly adhered to; if a cowboy touched the hat of another, whether a friend or a stranger, it was a sign of the greatest disrespect and a reason to pull the "six shooter". The strict rule was to put down your gun when entering someone else's house. This unwritten rule later became law. So when strangers came to Cowtowns, they had to deposit their weapons.

These examples could go on and on. The mostly Texan cowboys were also often victims of their gullibility and naivete when they fell into the hands of gamblers or shrewd townspeople - or hardened brothel girls. At the turn of the century there were about 50,000 of these ladies across the west.

"Hi Ma’m" ...

A custom that is still common in the West today is astonishing to an uninitiated person. When a rancher or cowboy greets an unknown couple, the man is greeted first with a handshake, then the woman - but only with a nod of the head, with the index finger on the brim and with a "Hi Ma’m". For Europeans, this is a more than strange ritual that can only be explained using the value system of the “good old days”. If a cowboy had a wife over a hundred years ago, she was usually a girl from the brothel. But an “honorable” man does not shake hands with this “lady”.

... or: the dollar bill

Another custom is the thing with the dollar bill in the hat. Many cowboys still have a dollar bill inserted into the sweatband of their hat, folded lengthways. An old custom from the time when the cowboy couldn't be sure whether he would still see the evening. Should fate overtake him, be it by Indians or desperados, wild cattle or the bite of a rattlesnake, the undertaker knew that the dollar in the hat is meant for him and that he does not do his job in vain.

The old code

In a letter to the editor to the magazine “American Cowboy” the writer begins with the lines “Why does America need the cowboy?” And immediately replies: “Because it is this spirit that makes us the way we are - it closes us Americans. ”American society has this“ spirit ”, both in the West and in the East, without always being aware of the roots that shaped their coexistence. It is the "Code of the West", that code of once unwritten laws and rules from the time of the Old West, when barbed wire yet crossed the prairies and plains, the code that was respected everywhere "on the range", according to Ramon F Adams in his "The Cowhand and His Code of Ethics".

This code is a strange mixture of charity and often brutal “justice”, of fairness, courtesy and violence. It is the contradictions of the code that regulated life in such a way that everyone could refer to it because the rules allowed any interpretation. The code is first of all a moral guide, appeals to the good in people, but on the other hand it sanctions exactly the opposite action.

Ethics of fairness

The first law was to keep your man's word. For example, the foreman of a ranch in Montana threw a cowboy out for not paying a prostitute the promised free wage. Most cowboys trusted each other when it came to money matters, and money transactions were sealed with a handshake. A North Dakota cowboy gave back half his wages for digging fence post holes for not digging a hole deep enough. When the wages were due, the ranchers could leave the sacks of money open without being touched until the men came to collect their wages. Cattle buyers bought entire herds with a handshake without having seen a single cattle.

One should help the other where necessary, but not interfere in their private affairs or ask about their past. Hospitality for the passing cowboy was paramount. In Texas, a rancher had fed two cowboys looking for work and then charged them 50 cents. The cowboys then burned the message “meals - 50 cts” into the flank of one of the rancher's bulls for this violation of the code, so that everyone could see that the rancher had broken this code and that he was being shamed.

The horse was a man's most important and inviolable possession, which the noose meant to the horse thief. It was important to have a good name and to defend it. Anyone who broke the code met at least scorn and ridicule.

Code of violence

This code worked well because it was simple. If the code was violated and there was a disagreement or argument, but the code was redefined from the point of view of the individual, then violence took precedence. Both were very close together. The Code of the West and the violence that helped develop it not only existed in an inextricable symbiosis, but together formed the main source of the legends told in dime novels to the gullible "Easterners".

The cowboy of the Old West probably carried a weapon, but only to protect himself and the herd from bears, pumas, highwaymen and Indians or to be able to give warning signals. The novel and film version of the cowboy as a gunslinger is a fictional character that only became true with the fencing of the Plains. With the end of the open range, the cowboys saw their existence endangered, became unemployed, and many joined robbery gangs. In the late 1890s, the “Code of the West” was finally repealed.

When the settlers and ranchers began to fence in their farmland and pasture land through Joseph F. Glidden’s invention of the barbed wire, and cattle and horse theft became the order of the day, more and more vigilance committees for vigilante justice were formed in the west. In their names cattle and horse thieves, mail robbers and fence cutters were hung on the nearest tree, often rightly, but often on mere suspicion. Often members of such committees were killers hired by cattle barons, who were trivialized and called cattle detectives or cattle inspectors. The cattle barons grazed herds worth millions of dollars on the range, and professional “gunmen” did their dirty work to protect them. One of the most notorious detectives was Tom Horn, who shot any cattle thief for $ 500. He ended up on the gallows in Cheyenne in 1903.

The End of the Code - The End of the West

In the 1890s, various grazing wars broke out across the west, such as the one in Johnson County 1891/92 in Wyoming, which earned the cowboy the image of the trigger-happy desperado. Shootings became the West's spectacular means of expression, but they had nothing in common with the Old West. In these years at the latest, the cowboy and the “Code of the West” in their original historical classification were a thing of the past. In 1893 the historian Frederic Jackson Turner announced in his lecture "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", which then became one of the most famous documents in American history, the end of the "frontier" and thus the pioneering days of America. In 1894, Thomas A. Edison shot the first real films with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show subjects. John Ford, who is considered the greatest western maker and who with John Wayne created the cult figure of the West, was born in this year 1894. So here is the big turning point: the end of the west - the beginning of the western.

Hollywood cowboy

Up-and-coming Hollywood painted a flawless picture of the cowboys of the West - men of character who walk straight and upright, are gallant to women and kind to children, but also show no mercy to people who disobey the law. Movie cowboys like Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix or a little later Roy Rogers glorified the cowboy as the noble keeper of the good. Gene Autry, the great “singing cowboy movie star” of the 1930s and 40s, wrote the “Ten Commandments of the Code”, which read like the ten commandments:

1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage.
2. A cowboy never betrays a trust.
3. A cowboy always tells the truth.
4. A cowboy is kind to small children, to old folks and to animals.
5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudice.
6. A cowboy is helpful when anyone’s in trouble he lends a hand.
7. A cowboy is a good worker.
8. A cowboy is clean about his person, in thought, word and deed.
9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, the law of his country.
10. A cowboy is a patriot.

Or: the Texas Ranger, which were founded in 1835 with the beginning of the Independent Republic of Texas, had their own “Deputy Ranger Oath” from the 1930s:

1. Be alert
2. Operate
3. Defent the weak
4. Never desert a friend
5. Never take an unfair advantage
6. Be neat
7. Be truthful
8. Uphold justice
9. Live cleanly
10. Have faith in God.

One of the most original, modern versions of the code comes from Jane and Michael Stern in the 1993 "Way out West":

1. Never ride past someone without saying “Howdy”.
2. Don't wave to a man on his horse, it can frighten the horse and the man will think you are an idiot. A nod is the appropriate greeting.
3. When you walk past someone, don't turn around to look at them. It means you don't trust him.
4. Riding someone else's horse without their permission is just as bad as going to bed with their wife. And never hit the other's horse.
5. Never shoot an unarmed man. And anyway, never shoot a woman.
6. Always be in a good mood, even when you feel bad. Only slackers and fearful rabbits always complain.
7. Always be courageous and despise every coward.
8. Always help the other in need, also a stranger or an enemy.
9. When riding out of town after a weekend drinking spree, shoot your six shooter wildly in the air, scream like crazy and ride as fast as you can. That is then a "hurraying a town".
10. A horse thief can be hanged immediately.
11. Never put another man's cowboy hat on.
12. Never wake someone up by shaking or touching them. He could wake up and shoot you right away.
13. Real cowboys are humble and reserved. A cowboy doesn't talk much, he saves his breath to breathe.
14. No matter how exhausted and hungry you are after a long day in the saddle, always take care of your horse first, feed it before you eat yourself.
15. Curse everything you want, but only among men, horses and cattle.

You can order the book “Mythos Cowboy” by E. Hank Klotz here.


Taken with kind permission from “Mythos Cowboy” by E. Hank Klotz and Klaus-Jürgen Guni, Lorenz Verlag Neustadt / Weinstraße 2011.
Image: Fotolia # 89576661