Cowgirl Up

Sometimes it seems as if women are almost invisible in the history of the West, but the truth is that they were there the whole time, working cattle, going up the trail, and building ranches all across Texas. Problem is, the only word we have to describe them makes you think of buckle bunnies or Nashville queens. I aim to change that.

August 2011By Comments

Jesse Blue, 22, who dayworks at ranches around Perrin.
Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Lizzie Crosson and her husband, George, were some of the first ranchers to settle in far West Texas. A cavalry post existed, but by the time the cavalry arrived, the Indian raiders were usually long gone. Lizzie, who was 24 years younger than her husband, soon learned that if she, George, and the livestock were to survive, they needed to be their own police, fire department, and doctor. Sometimes they even needed protection from the cavalry itself. Once, while George was away, Lizzie prevented hungry soldiers from stealing her sheep with a gun hidden under her apron. At George’s death, in 1885, the Crossons owned 640 acres. When Lizzie died, in 1924, she owned more than 30,000 acres. He raised sheep, she raised cattle. She also raised six children and played the piano.

Some years ago, I would have called Lizzie a cowgirl, a proud and honorable title that I used to spend most of my time trying to earn. But now the word has been stolen and corrupted by dime novels, Nashville, Hollywood, and haute couture. Today it hits my ear like a derogatory term, calling to mind a buckle bunny or a concho whore, boots and breakfast or trolling with turquoise. In her introduction to Leaning Into the Wind, a collection of essays and poems by rural women, Linda Hasselstrom wrote, “Over and over, we debated what to call these women. Naturally, we wanted a handy collective term, but we agreed on only one thing: it wouldn’t be ‘cowgirls.’ ” This isn’t surprising. Most of the rural women I’ve known—women who bought, inherited, or married ranches, women who rodeo or break and shoe horses, women who rope, build fence, fight grass fires, jockey pickups and trailers, pay bills, keep records, homeschool the kids or haul them to town on long muddy roads, and educate themselves in everything from environmental law to curanderismo—hate the word “cowgirl.”

For these women, and myself, it’s become a slur. In the world of cattle and horses the preferred word is “cowboy.” This is a verb. Men, women, and children can and do cowboy. The word already mixes gender: cow (female) and boy (male). Within the ranching world, even cowboys are seldom referred to collectively as “cowboys.” We just call each other by our given names: Jeff, Candi, Chris, or Liz. We don’t seem to need a word that singles out females from teachers, writers, or ranchers, so why do we even need the word “cowgirl”?

Part of it has to do with history. In the past few decades, historians have spent a lot of time worrying about how much women are overlooked in the factual record, and cowgirls are no different. In Women of the Range, Elizabeth Maret notes that “given the particularly legendary character of the Texas cattle industry, women’s part in this great and historic activity can most accurately be described as invisible.” Historically, women did anything they wanted to do—they went up the trail, rode saddle broncs, and owned ranches in their own names. But this is often dismissed. Fay Ward’s classic 1958 manual for working cowboys doesn’t mention women at all (Fay was a man). It does include certain other females, among them the cow, the granny knot, the squaw hitch, and the gal leg spur.

Books are not my primary concern. The problem is that eventually all this invisibility put us afoot. It led to what I call the dark ages of the cowgirl—a time when the rural culture itself forgot its own history and women were not even allowed to ride on some ranches because it was not “tradition.” It became a “fact” that women did not go up the trail or show their face at the chuck wagons.

But women did all those things and more. As a direct descendant of Mayflower pilgrim William Bradford, I can claim thirteen generations as a cattle raiser on the North American continent. My grandmothers were often among the first one hundred settlers into new states. Like them, I’ve lived under many identities—great-granddaughter, granddaughter, and daughter of the outfit; daughter of the seller of the outfit; college rodeo team member; range management club sweetheart; two-stepper; ag major; cowboy’s wife; mother of a girl who cowboys; livestock journalist; cowboy photographer; cowboy poet; horsewoman; big-outfit crew member and small-outfit jack-of-all-trades; scholar of rural literature; divorced owner of cattle and leaser of land; cowboy’s mother-in-law; and grandma of two cowboys—one from each gender.

There’s a common denominator to all these roles, and we might as well use the word “cowgirl” to describe it. It will take some effort to reclaim the word, but it’s worth it. Like “cowboy” on a good day, “cowgirl” can be made to stand for something larger than a skill. Frances Octavia Smith, better known as Dale Evans, once said, “ ‘Cowgirl’ is an attitude, really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses.” Of course, Dale Evans herself bears some responsibility for rhinestoning the cowgirl, but she appears to have understood that there’s more to being one than simply wearing a hat and boots.

When Richard King took his bride, Henrietta, to the banks of Santa Gertrudis Creek, they hung their cooking utensils on the wall outside the front door of a small mud jacal. The first King Ranch brand recorded was the “HK” connected, Henrietta’s initials. She saw her existence as idyllic: “I doubt if it falls to the lot of many a bride to have had so happy a honeymoon. On horseback we roamed the broad prairies. When I grew tired my husband would spread a Mexican blanket for me and then I would take my siesta under the shade of the mesquite tree.”

Richard King was “largely unread” and likely depended heavily on Henrietta. She gained such a reputation for tenacity that, according to a 1925 obituary cited by Tom Lea and Elizabeth Maret, “the outlaws and renegades who infested the neighborhood preferred to approach the house when Captain King was at home rather than try it when his wife was there alone.” According to legend, when King died, he left his widow half a million acres of land and half a million dollars in debt. Forty years later, at the time of her death, she and her son-in-law had more than doubled the acreage into the largest ranch in North America. Was Henrietta a cowgirl?

History is full of hardworking women homesteaders and ranchers. Of the Spanish families who settled in Texas in the eighteenth century, three were led by women with vast holdings: María Bentacour, founder of modern San Antonio; Doña Rosa Hinojosa de Balli, whose son is the padre of Padre Island; and Ana María del Carmen Calvillo, a rancher’s daughter who for the sake of her inheritance straddled the fence between her father’s loyalty to Spain and her husband’s loyalty to the rebel cause. All these women sound like cowgirls to me.

People think the frontier was a man’s world with few women, yet most pioneer settlers brought or soon acquired wives, women whose diaries recount days and months spent camping, driving cattle, and giving birth in tents or wagons. Those early Texas ranches were family affairs, and every member had a job to do. If anything, the frontier seems to have been more hazardous to men than to women. Widows abounded, usually inheriting and continuing to operate the ranch the couple had created together. Sometimes under the widow’s leadership, the ranch prospered even more.

At one time, fifty of the Texas ranches in operation by the same family for more than one hundred years had been founded by women. Rachel Ann Northington Hudgins, for example, was the founding mother of five ranches in Wharton County. She purchased her first land in 1882, nine years after her husband died. Another was Ann Burke. Ann’s husband died while they were en route from Ireland to Texas. She gave birth one hour after the ship landed and filed for a widow’s land grant of about 4,600 acres. Eventually the town of Beeville was founded on 150 acres she donated. Some ranches were even built by single women. Lizzie Williams didn’t accept a marriage proposal until she was 39 and well established as a cattle owner and buyer. Her prospective husband had to sign a prenuptial agreement giving up any claims to her current or future holdings.

Were Ann and Lizzie cowgirls? What about Bennie Miskimon (full given name for this lucky girl: Ben McCulloch Earl Van Dorn Hughes), who began by selling fruit from the family orchard as a nine-year-old? When she accumulated enough nickels and dimes, she bought a dogie calf, eventually building a cattle empire with her husband, a guy she claimed “wasn’t no cowman, couldn’t ride nor cut out cattle, so he wasn’t much help.”

Women built ranches and they went up the trail too. Mary Bunton helped her husband drive their cattle up the Western Trail in 1886. She writes, “Riding ahead of the herd I would turn in my saddle and look back, and it would look as if the entire face of the earth was just a moving mass of heads and horns.” The pace of a drive was incredibly slow as the animals grazed, usually moving less than 10 miles per day. To pass the time, Mary sometimes stopped to cover her buggy and horses’ harnesses with wildflowers. She would weave herself a flower-wreath hat and a flower cape and parade in front of the cowboys, who tipped their hats and called her the “beautiful queen of the flowers.”

Two female ranch owners took their own cattle herds up the Chisholm Trail. One of those was Lizzie Williams. The other was Margaret Borland, who seems to have had typical cowgirl luck. Raised in an Irish immigrant family granted land by the Mexican government, she lost her father in an Indian attack in 1836. She married at nineteen, but that husband died in a duel. A second husband died of cholera. She then married a rancher with the largest herd in Victoria, but he died too. A son, three daughters, and a grandson perished of yellow fever under her care. Left as sole owner, with the best cattle market many hundreds of miles away, she decided to hit the trail with a herd of one thousand head. Along rode her three surviving children (a nine-year-old daughter and two teenage sons) and a six-year-old granddaughter, all old enough to handle jobs. She also brought several ranch hands and a black cook. They successfully made it to Wichita, where she was praised in the local papers for her “pluck” and “lady-like character.” But Margaret died of “trail driving fever” in a Wichita boardinghouse before she could sell her cattle. Pretty much the only piece of writing she left about her life was her signature. Historians have painstakingly pieced the rest together from birth and death certificates, bills of sale, and newspaper articles. How many other women’s stories have never been told?

In 1982 a writer named Teresa Jordan published a book called Cowgirls. She traveled all over the West interviewing women who worked on ranches and rodeoed. Her purpose, she wrote, was to find out why, “when cowboys were a national icon, we hardly knew cowgirls existed.” Eventually, Jordan came to understand that “some of that invisibility was chosen. . . . Cowgirls wanted as little attention paid them as possible.” Most rural males feel this way too, even though no other profession has been as thoroughly mythologized, celebrated, and plastered through our history books and movies as the cowboy’s.

This makes perfect sense to anyone who’s spent much time on a ranch. Most rural people are afraid to step into the spotlight, even for good reason, because our culture is so easily and so often misinterpreted. The situation has to be dire before a real rancher or cowboy of either gender will step up to a microphone or pick up a pen. I’ve spent more than forty years writing about and photographing the ranching world, and most of my subjects were reluctant, at best. Some were hostile. Ranch people know a different meaning behind the familiar song lyrics “The eyes of Texas are upon you, all the livelong day.”

The reason for this is pretty simple. Attention, especially from the media, has a tendency to find the loud and flamboyant elements in any setting and distort rural people. It can change a fairly common woman into “the first white woman up the Chisholm Trail,” as happened to Hattie Cluck. Probably afraid to stay home alone, she and three children went up the trail to Kansas, where she gave birth to her fourth child. Her husband supposedly tried to persuade her to stay behind, but on the morning the herd was lined out and ready to go, she and her packed-up wagon and children simply got in the line. Historian Bill Stein wrote, “Along the way, her biographers, who evidently believed that women were more historically interesting if at some point in their lives they had acted like men, transformed her from a rather passive participant in a half-forgotten trail drive into a bold, shotgun-toting, decision maker on an Old West adventure.” Dozens of stories about women who went up the various cattle trails have been published, and several are called the “only one” who ever did it.

Even in reference books, you will often find the genuine ignored in favor of the exotic, titillating, and phony. Denis McLoughlin’s encyclopedia of the Old West defines the words “cowboy,” “cowhand,” “cowpoke,” “buckaroo,” and “vaquero” but doesn’t mention the word “cowgirl,” except deep in the entry for “rodeo,” where he writes, “Modern rodeos feature such unlikely program fillers as . . . tight-panted cowgirls who must dread the possibility of there being such a critter as a kinky Brahma bull.” McLoughlin gives biographical sketches for Cattle Annie, Cattle Kate, Calamity Jane, Lottie Deno, Belle Starr, Lola Montez, Rose of Cimarron, and what seems like every other famous prostitute or outlaw. He describes their physical attributes and how they dressed. I consider it quite a compliment and blessing to be invisible in that book.

Women may be absent from the chronicles and encyclopedias simply because they were better at avoiding the spotlight. It seems to me that if your goal was fame and attention, you wouldn’t move to the middle of nowhere. It is probably a good rule of thumb that the louder and more flamboyant the cowboy of either gender, the fewer the cows, the less the land, and the worse the horsemanship. The stereotypical Texan with the big cigar is not and never was part of the rural culture. Even out in the pasture, the best ones won’t be catching your eye with a wild bronc ride or racing through the rocks to head off three hundred stampeding yearlings; the best ones—men and women—are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing, invisibly.

I’ve never kept a journal because my life seemed so predictable and dull: Wake up, drink coffee, fix some breakfast, let the chickens out, sit on the porch and watch the chickens drink, watch my daughter’s horse push one of them into the water trough, fix some lunch, watch some clouds build, drive to town, pick up the mail, pen the chickens, fix supper, sit on the porch, watch the light fade. The mythology has always depicted the West as a terribly dangerous place, where only the toughest, meanest, most physically strong creatures stood a chance. But the women who didn’t (and don’t) make it on ranches are those who can’t take the boredom—the wind, the silence, the loneliness. The women who do make it are good at finding something to do. I never had quite enough time on my hands to cover a horse, buggy, and myself with wildflowers, but I have shown up at the end of a morning’s gather with some wildflowers stuck in my hat, and I’ve noticed the same habit among the male cowboys. If nothing is blooming, then maybe a feather or a piece of purple grass.

For most of my life, I never drew a dollar in cowboy wages, just worked for the privilege of riding a horse or came as part of a package. When I was married, the husband’s name was on the checks, not mine. My daughter and I both received our first cowboy wages on the same day. She was 8 and I was 33. But I never complained about the years of being free help, because I never had to feel guilty. I knew I was worth every penny.

For thirteen years I lived on the old traditional o6 Ranch, which still pulled a chuck wagon, sometimes with mules or horses. I got to ride with the big crew, help gather and move a remuda of one hundred horses, work in the branding pens, hold herd, or gather remnants. I occasionally worked long (sometimes fourteen-hour) days, changing horses at noon because they were worn-out, but I wasn’t.

Once in a while the owner/manager/boss man, Chris Lacy, would ride by, smile big, and double my wages. Double nothing was still nothing, but it sure felt good to get those raises. The ranch was my home, I had plenty of horses to ride in open country, and I didn’t have to worry about paying land taxes, rent, electricity, telephone, or heating bills. I could hunt, fish, eat steak three times a day, and twice a year I got to polka with our old cook to “El Rancho Grande.” If you stop looking at just the numbers, there is no higher-paying job than below-poverty-level cowboy wages.

I’ve never been a Larry McMurtry fan, maybe because he once wrote that the cowboy’s women are “for the most part acquiescent victims. They usually buy the myth of cowboying and the ideal of manhood it involves, even though both exclude them. A few even buy it to the point of attempting to assimilate the all-valuable masculine qualities to themselves, producing that awful phenomenon, the cowgirl.” This is the view of a man who needs to take a cold shower and read some history instead of dime novels. Cowboys are not and never have been exceptionally manly men. Nor are cowgirls. In my whole life, I’ve known only maybe two women that I would call really good hands, who could do it all. But I’m not sure I’ve known many more men who could do it all either. Instead of being able to do it all, everyone seems to have a specialty or two: maybe roping, maybe starting colts, maybe cutting a herd, knowing the country, catching horses, gathering remnants, handling a crew, keeping an ancient windmill pumping. My own specialties were self-deprecating humor and washing dishes. I can wash dishes anywhere—creek, stock tank, bucket, mud hole—and under any conditions—blowing dust, snow, hail, no shade, no water. My china is tin.

The job requires tenacity, not virility, patience rather than strength, and the willingness to do whatever needs doing, not heroics. All these qualities are as easily found among women as men. Both historically and today, you will find cowgirls working on ranches all over Texas. Ike Roberts, who ran the sprawling West Texas Catto-Gage Ranch for thirty years, liked to work a female crew when he could get it. He said, “I could get along real good with most of the females because they all would work. Some of these damn boys wouldn’t, but the women worked real good. You see that a lot, not just in the ranching business but in other businesses too.” Historians have dug up women cattle buyers, purebred cattle breeders, and bootmakers. Today women own and operate sale barns, fit cattle for the show ring, do palpating and artificial insemination, photograph breeding stock for advertising, or do one of hundreds of jobs related to the cattle industry. We had a highly respected female horseshoer in West Texas in the early eighties. She didn’t own any land or livestock, didn’t even ride that I knew of, but some of the world’s best cowboys of both genders paid her good money to shoe their horses.

Many women have worn the cowgirl label as performers in the entertainment world: rodeos, horse shows, cutting horse contests, or as singers or movie stars. Fern Sawyer, who died in 1993, was a founding member of the National Cutting Horse Association. “They weren’t going to let me in because I was a woman,” she once recalled. “I said, ‘You know if I had a sorry horse, you’d be delighted to have me. But I have a good horse, so you are worried about it.’ I said, ‘I think we ought to take a vote.’ ” She won the vote and beat out 150 cowboys to win the National Cutting Horse world title at Fort Worth the same year.

Cowgirls are willing to break new trails. Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female to sit on the United States Supreme Court, grew up on horseback on a 250-square-mile desert ranch that ran two thousand cows. The ranch was founded by her grandfather in 1880, and her family lived on it for 113 years. O’Connor swam in stock tanks, helped the cowboys fix windmills, helped with roundups, changed flat tires, and hauled dinner to the crew. She says her brother and sister were much better hands than she was, but her keen observations and ability to describe the nuances of handling cattle, horses, and people, and her love for the ranch, indicate that she is a cowgirl through and through. So do her reputation for fairness, hard work, honesty, and forthrightness.

Cowgirls take on the jobs nobody else wants or believes possible. They try to reclaim the family ranch from the Nature Conservancy; reform state and federal agencies; educate rural children; figure out a way to pay death taxes to keep the land from splitting up into smaller and smaller pieces; serve as mayors, commissioners, school board members, judges, and justices of the peace; and turn off life support for a horse-wrecked husband. A cowgirl may not always succeed, but she’ll try.

My granddaughter has already been paid cowboy day wages several times, sometimes as much as $100 per day, and she’s only eight. She calls herself a cowgirl and gave me the following code of honor, which I’ll let stand as a definition: If you get bucked off, get back on. Hold on and never let go. Get strong, grow up fast, don’t be a sissy, trust your horse, brush your horse’s back, water your horse, and don’t be mean to your horse. Once a cowgirl, always a cowgirl.

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