The COWBOY BOOT is an American original. The cowboy boot, also known as a Western boot, or cowgirl boot when worn by females, symbolizes so much to world. The cowboy endured in unforgiving conditions. The cowboy played an indelible part of the historic American West. He embodied its spirit. The footwear of the American cowboy is universally-known. Arguably, there is no other American fashion statement that is more uniquely iconic around the world than the cowboy boot.
Horsemen, stockmen, military cavalry troops and others have worn protective footwear for centuries in their various duties involving riding horses and working livestock.
THE EARLY AND DEVELOPMENT YEARS OF THE COWBOY BOOT – BIRTH OF THE CATTLE INDUSTRY AND THE COWBOY
After Spain settled Mexico starting in 1519, cattle grazing and ranching operations were set up with horses and cattle imported brought in from Spain. Native Indians were hired to ride skilled horses and they were trained to handle cattle. These native livestock workers were know as vaqueros.
The Englsih word for cowboy (originally often hyphenated as cow-boy or written separately as cow boy) was derived from vaquero, which is a Spanish word for a person described as one who tended cattle. Vaquero came from the Spanish vaca which means “cow” in English. By 1849, “cow-boy” had developed its modern sense as someone who handled cattle and the horses which the cow-boy needed to manage the herd of cattle.
Cowboys have also been called other names which include cowhands, cowpokes, wranglers, buckaroos (Anglicized from vaquero), drovers, herdsman and the like. There were also some early cowgirls. There were many terms applied to positions within the cattle and livestock business. There were ranchers, ranch foremen, wranglers, ranch hands, hired hands and day hires, to name a few. Large land and livestock owners became known as cattle barons or baronesses.
By the 1700s, cattle ranching had expanded north into present day Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and south into Argentina. Starting in 1769, many Franciscan missions opened and ultimately spread all the way from San Diego to San Francisco. This marked the foundation of the California livestock industry. By the early 1800s, demand had increased for cattle products and the ranching industry began to thrive in California and the Southwest.
By the early and mid-1800s, ranching became more widespread and many cow-boys by then were also Anglo- and African-American, in addition to the Mexican vaquero. There was a transition period and the new ranch hands working the cattle adopted the vaquero ways. As the settlement of the American West grew, the cattle business expanded as well. This supplied the needed products (beef for food, tallow for candles, hides for footwear and leather gear) for this increasingly populated section of North America.
Cowboys, along with the ever-important support of the chuck wagon, moved herds of cattle long distances to railheads and thus provided access to important markets. The hardy Texas Longhorn was the number one breed of bovine during this period as it had evolved over centuries to be able to withstand a variety of harsh climates. This was benefical for for these extensive and trying treks.
These cattle drives and the beef and the cattle bi-product industry had become a major economic undertaking in the American West. The peak period of these famous cattle drives was from 1866-1895 during which an estimated 10 million head of cattle were herded from Texas to the railheads in Kansas for shipment to the stockyards in Chicago.
A COWBOY’S WARDROBE
Early vaqueros and cowboys needed special gear. In addition to their saddle, rope, horse, spurs and survival gear, the cowboy needed reliable attire. They wore conventional (to their region) clothing, hats and footwear. As time passed and as the styles and needs of the cowboy transformed, the cowboy adopted a variety of wardrobe designs. Some basic items eventually surfaced and became customary and common for them. These included a broad-brimmed hat, rugged trousers, a scarf around his neck, gloves, and dependable boots. The American cowboy had transformed; he had his own unique, distinct and recognizable style of Western attire. This said, many cowboys, in and effort to express their individualism, sought and developed their own distinctive designs of certain parts of their outfit.
There were long hours on the range and ranches, as well as in the saddle on long drives. The cowhand’s job and demands evolved and so did the cowboy’s required gear. A cowboy’s wardrobe was essential to his survival. Need of protection from the rugged and unpredictable elements of Mother Nature was foremost on the cattle baron, the rancher and the cowboy’s mind. They had to have the best protection possible in what they wore
A wide-brimmed hat with a tall crown developed over time. This became the best and most reliable headwear for the cowboy. It evolved from various designs and owes its ancestry to a variety of styles including those worn worn by farmers and stockmen, the Mexican sombrero, various styles worn by soldiers. It can even traced to styles worn by Mongolian horsemen in the 13th century. Eventually this common look of headwear became known as a cowboy hat. John B. Stetson is credited with the creating the modern day cowboy hat in 1865. The western cowboy protected the cowboy from the cold, sun, rain, snow and hail storms.
The cowboy need rugged canvas type trousers which provided durable reliability for their rugged profession. Suspenders held up their trousers. These definitely came in handy during the many miles that accompanied their stint on the long drives to the railheads, when the drovers lost weight (and width in their waists).
Coats, jackets, and long “slicker” and “duster” coats in many regions, helped with the brisk weather and shielded the cowboy from the cold wind, dust, snow, hail and rain.
Leather or canvas wrist cuffs and gloves were worn by cowboys to protect their wrists, forearms, shirt sleeves and hands from ropes, branding irons, brush, wire and other hazards that came with the job.
Chaps, short for the Spanish chapparreras (named after chaparral, a thick, thorny and low brush), are sturdy coverings that the cowboy counted on to protect and shield his legs while in brushy and thorny terrain. They were buckled over pants and consisted of leggings and a belt with an open seat and crotch. Early chaps primarily consisted of leather with leather ties or metal buckles.
A neckerchief (also known as a scarf, bandana or wild rag) is a piece of fabric typically worn around the neck or head. It has been used for centuries to protect people from the brisk wind and dust that often accompanied it. It helped the cowboy endure the blaring sun as well as extreme temperatures from the harsh heat hot to the frigid cold. The cowboy also used these scarves for many other purposes such as wiping away sweat and dirt accumulated from his trying trade. He used it as a napkin, wash cloth, hot pad, water filter, sling, first aid wound treatment and trail marker.
EVOLUTION OF THE COWBOY BOOT
Perhaps the most identifiable and enduring part of the cowboy’s outfit were his boots. They were a key part of his ensemble. The cowboy developed specific needs for his footwear. In time, they were designed and developed to be functional for cowhands, horsemen, ranchers, cattle barons and the like across the American West.
The origin of the footwear that became the predominate choice of the cowboy in the mid-1800s to 1870s, and which is similar in characteristics to the cowboy boot we know today, is somewhat vague. But we know it transformed over many eras of time. Riding boots have been a part of equestrian life and their use spans many eras of man. Horsemen have worn boots of different designs for many years and the cowboy boot evolved from the inspiration of various boot styles, including the Wellington boot which originated from England’s Duke of Wellington. This boot had a one inch heel and was straight across the tops. Early cowboys also wore a Hessian-style boot which had been a popular military cavalry worn boot during the 19th century in Europe. These boots had a tall top for a rider’s protection, a slight heel slope and a curved toe. Many of cowboys working on the cattle drives during its peak period wore boots left over from (or designed like ones from) the Civil War. These were generally ones with a wide squared-off toe and were not foot-specific (with no right or left). These military boots were made with plain dark cowhide leather and were straight across the tops. All of these boot styles, and others, had an influence on the boot that would eventually be known as a cowboy boot.
Upon its early editions, the Western cowboy boot became a true tool of the cowboy’s trade.
Various theories exist, but it is not clear when the term “cowboy boot” was first used and this iconic footwear officially got its name. However, it was likely during the 1850s. Fashion magazines from 1850-1860 depict cowboy boots with top stitching, geometric cutouts on the tops and an underslung heel.
As cowboys ended up in Kansas towns after long and challenging cattle drives, it was pay day for them. Their were many projects to accomplish once they hit town. They had to have their boots repaired or they would need to buy new ones. The cobbler shops were extra busy at the end of a drive, satisfying the cowboy’s needs.
As the years and decades progressed, so did the cowboy boot. There were many innovative improvements for what the cowboy needed in his trusty and this indispensable instrument.. The tops of boots became taller to protect the leg from the hazards of the profession which included rugged environment of thorny brush, rubbing of the saddle’s stirrups, rattlesnakes lurking, wading water and mud, and more . The toes were not so wide and square, but became more rounded and/or narrow than its predecessor. This allowed the cowhand to slide his foot easier into and out of the saddle’s stirrup. The heels were higher for better hold onto the stirrup and give the cowboy better control in the saddle. Long “mule ear” top pulls helped the cowboy strap-on his boots. With their longer length (than conventional pull straps on most boots), the cowboy was provided an extra benefit. He had extra, as well as matching, leather to help with boot repairs as needed on the trail. Stitching was added to the tops for more support, and eventually this became important to the décor of the boot as well. Hardier leathers, that would stand up to the cowboy’s demands, were used to provide durability.
The American-style boot-making and repairs were taken up head-on by many shoemakers and cobblers in the ranching areas of Texas and Oklahoma, and cattle and railhead areas of Kansas. Many evolved into boot-maker specialists.
Early Western boots made in Kansas were influenced by the Coffeeville-style boot made in Coffeville, Kansas and was identified by its Cuban heel. Other early bootmakers included C.H Hyer of Hyer Brother Boots in Olathe, Kansas and T.C. McInerney of Abilene, Kansas. These companies were in full-swing cowboy bootmaking mode by the 1870s.
At the trailheads in Texas, H.J. “Daddy Joe” Justin, who founded Justin Boot Company in 1873, was making a name as a reliable source for solid quality cowboy boots.
In the 1870s and 1880s many a cowboy had their foot measured and custom boot orders were placed. As the years progressed, many Western bootmakers offered mail order for their valued customers. Some companies provided prospective customers with self-measuring instructions and tools. There were more cowboy boots being sold and worn in American with each passing year.