November 29, 2010


Stephen Bly
Stephen Bly

I rode the Divide years ago,
When it was uncivilized land.
Just me, a coyote, a smuggler or two
Camped out in the desert sand.
Stephen Bly, “Ridin’ The Southern Divide”, ©1998

A lot of us writers have to surmise about how it was in the Old West. But memoirs were penned by folks who were there. Charlie Siringo and Andy Adams come to mind. That’s the sort of resources any western writer’s got to devour.

The Log of a Cowboy by Andy Adams
They knew about the tack and the trivia, such as singing tweaked songs like “Annie Laurie” out on the trail to calm down restless cattle.

They sure didn’t wear pointed toe cowboy boots. Those didn’t gain much popularity until after WWII. Even then, this kind of nobby footwear was used only on dress-up occasions. Or by wanna-be cowboys who wanted to impress others.

I met an old timer in Magdalena, New Mexico, who had been a sheriff in the 1930s. He still packed a pistol. He’d sit for hours and watch, his back to the wall, his face towards the door, just in case someone he had sent to prison got out and hankered for revenge. A man like that lived on permanent defense, trying to predict what might happen next. At the least, it kept his mind alert.

I Can Tell By Your Outfit You Must Be A Cowboy

All the old-time cowboys I’ve ever met wore long sleeve shirts, usually a worn shade of white, with buttoned collar. This kept the dirt out when they rode down the trail or behind a herd of slow moving cows.

Yep. White buttoned shirts. An old beat-up Stetson. And yellow cigarette stains on the fingers. Most seemed crippled up a bit. They may have lost a few teeth, but never their cowboy pride. And they never forgot a true friend, a horse, or a pretty girl.

The Cowboy Mystique

Old-time cowboys lived large. So did the women who put up with them. They could be just as adventurous or reckless as the men. Or they could stick up for their man’s honor. No debate. She didn’t blink. Everyone knew where she stood.

Old West cowboys were shaped by hard work, tragedies, daily battles with weather and critters, as well as the companionship they enjoyed. Only the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific would equal the Old West in producing men of courage and character.

Few were ever drafted to be a cowboy. It was by his own choice. Most days their lives were routine. Nothing special or historical. No pensions. Only a rare cowboy stored retirement savings. Yet, very few ever regretted the decision. They lived free on the range. And jawed about the memories when they got too old to ride.


What's your favorite resources for getting a feel for what it was really like in the Old West days?

Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon
More musings by Stephen Bly and his wife, Janet, at their "On A Western Trail" blog: 

NOW AVAILABLE: Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon at or

To be released March 2011
a western romance:  
Throw The Devil Off The Train



Carla Gade said...

Great post, Stephen!
I love going to google books to find works written back in the day to hear first hand accounts. In the research for my southwest novel I read almost all of the history of Colorado - although I didn't need all that info on the state it was so interesting. I found a great book and ordered it - Pioneering the San Juans - full first hand experiences and it gave me tons of fodder for my story. I even made the author a character in my novel. I found a cool book giving an account of a fellows travels on a stagecoach through Western Colorado. Historical Society data and genealogy narratives have also been helpful resources for me. I've also been know to read yesterday's news by researching my topic in the New York Times archives. Truth is stranger than fiction and lends to the authenticity of a story if woven in correctly.

Stephen Bly said...

Carla: Thanks for the note. Well stated. I love finding those first-hand experiences from the region of my setting.

On the trail,