Things That Can Go Wrong on a Cattle Drive


xit ranch cowboys

Nineteenth century photo of XIT Ranch cowboys

There may not have been any more challenging task for the old west rancher than the cattle drive. The cattle drive after all was how the rancher transported his herd to the rail heads for shipment east. The successful cattle drive ended with a substantial payday. Cowboys were paid and the rancher hopefully made a good profit.

Work on the cattle drive by the cowboy was not easy. Having to sleep on the prairie ground in all weather for weeks at a time could be grueling. One improvement for sure was when famed Texas Panhandle rancher Charles Goodnight developed the chuckwagon out of a military surplus Studebaker wagon after the Civil War.

cattle drive structure
Cattle Drive structure. lead

The Structure of the Cattle Drive

A trail boss will be at the front end of the herd. Cowboys will serve a variety of functions mostly to help keep the herd together and heading in the right direction.

Cowboys ride the point position which means they ride near the front of the herd on either side close to the lead steer. Some of the more experienced men were in this position.

The swing riders ride at a distance behind the point riders to turn the herd in the right direction.

Behind them are the flank riders. These cowboys are positioned to keep the herd from spreading out too far.

cattle drive diagram
Cattle Drive Structure, rear

Behind the flank riders and at the end of the herd are the drag riders. Drag riders work to keep the herd moving along.

In addition to these cowboys is the wrangler. The wrangler tends to the extra horses brought along on the drive. These horse are referred to by the Spanish word ‘remuda“. The wrangler could also be referred to as a “remudero“. A remuda is simply a herd of horses that cowboys choose their mounts from and travel along with the drive.

A typical late 1800’s cattle drive might employ a dozen cowboys in addition to the trail boss. The trail boss might be the ranch owner or might not be. So many of the large western ranches had overseas investors, mostly from England and Scotland, the trail boss was likely to be a top tier employee or ranch manager. The trail boss needed to be experienced and a good guide because he would be in charge of the herd and the cowboys along for the drive. The trail boss would decide when to start and where to stop at days end.

chuckwagon photo

Chuckwagon exhibit with supplies

Last but certainly not least was the cook and the chuckwagon. The cook was often given the nickname “cooksie” or “cookie” and might actually take charge of the drive if something were to happen to the trail boss.

Length of Cattle Drive

Cattle drives out of Texas after the Civil War could easily involve thousands of head of cattle. Three thousand head would not be considered overly large.

Cattle drives weren’t fast moving but considering the amount of cattle they would travel ten or more miles per day which wasn’t bad. Depending on the distance to a rail head and considering any unforeseen delays the drive might take a month but typically two months or even more.

Trouble on the Drive

There was a wide variety of difficulties and trouble that could plague a cattle drive. The herd alone could stretch out for perhaps two miles in length. There were plenty of things that can go wrong on a cattle drive.

Just one of these was weather. Who could predict weather with any accuracy in 1885? A thunder clap could cause a herd to stampede, one of the worse things to occur on a drive. A simple sneeze or a sudden horse move could set a herd off in all directions. In addition to the extra time involved in gathering up a herd after a stampede, a cowboy could be injured or killed by falling under a stampede.

texas branding irons

Old Texas branding irons

Crossing rivers was mandatory to reach rail heads. A cowboy and/or cattle could be lost to drowning. It was up to the trail boss to locate a suitable place to ford.

One such major river crossing for the Great Western Cattle Trail, sometimes referred to as the Western Cattle Trail or Texas Trail, was located on the Red River between Texas and the then Indian Territory. This was known as Doan’s Crossing and is located about twenty miles north of Vernon Texas. Today this crossing is commemorated with historical markers. See our Doan’s Crossing photo article on our Western Trips site.

Sickness was an ever present menace while on the trail. For the most part the herd was driven away from settlements and medical help could be slim to none. Home remedies were the treatment of necessity.

Indians could also interfere with the cattle drive. If Native Americans were to attack a cattle drive the reason would most likely be to steal beef. Buffalo hunters with their Sharps rifles did permanent damage to the wild bison herds and the need for beef was real. Aside for attacking cowboys on cattle drives to obtain meat, Indians might use the raid to teach their young the art of warfare and to prove bravery.

One of the most publicized Indian attacks on ranchers occurred in eastern New Mexico when Oliver Loving, partner of rancher Charles Goodnight, was severely wounded by Native Americans in September 1867. Loving survived the attack and made it wounded to Fort Sumner New Mexico where he died of gangrene.

Oliver Loving, whose name is part of the historic Goodnight-Loving Trail, was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

doans crossing texas

Monument at historic Doan's Crossing on the Red River in Texas

Rustlers could also add to theft on the trail. Rustling was real and was a capital offense. Cowboys would need to be on lookout especially at night to ward off any rustlers.

Large ranchers in many cases employed range detectives.

Rattlesnakes, and there were and are plenty in the west, could cause a herd to stampede. They could either cause the stampede directly with the cattle or cause a cowhand’s horse to react in such a way as to spook the herd. A rattlesnake bite to a cowboy was always a possibility.

Wildfires. Wildfires, range fires or prairie fires could be deadly to both cowboy and animal. The major cause of these fires were lightning and obviously unpredictable.

When the nineteenth century came to a close, railroads had laid track to most of the formerly inaccessible areas of the country and the need for long cattle drives vanished. Today, cattle are transported by truck and railroad and the need for the point, swing, flank and drag cowboy changed with the times.

You may also enjoy the related Trips Into History articles on the links below…

Charles Goodnight and the Chuckwagon

Old Santa Fe Trail Wagon Ruts in New Mexico

Studebaker’s Frontier Wagons

We’ve found several good books on the subject of cattle drives, ranchers and ranching. They include…

The Cowboy by author Philip Ashton Rollins

The Cattle Kings by author Lewis Atherton

Charles Goodnight: Father of the Texas Panhandle by author William T. Hagan.

cowboy statue

Cowboy statue at National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK

Experience a Cattle Drive Today

While the old west cattle drive is a part of history, there still remains opportunities for the adventurous traveler to experience what life was like on the open range.

For those visiting the Fort Worth Texas area, a small cattle drive is held twice daily at the Fort Worth Stockyards. The stockyards are located off of N. Main Street just a few miles north of the central business district.

Several dude ranches in Wyoming can also give you a good taste of being a cowboy. Check out the Double Rafter Cattle Drives in Ranchester Wyoming and also Two Creeks Ranch located near Douglas Wyoming.

The website features cattle drive vacations in both the U.S. and abroad. Information on a cattle drive that takes place in Australia can be found at website

Also, check out the summer cattle drives held every June, July and August in Alberta Canada. More information is found on website

(Article copyright 2013 Trips Into History. Cattle drive diagrams courtesy TX DOT. XIT cowboys photo from the public domain. Remaining photos from Trips Into History Collection)

The Chuckwagon

It was as important to a successful cattle drive as the drovers themselves. The chuckwagon is what made sure the cowboys had hot meals while driving cattle herds north to the railroad towns in Kansas and elsewhere.


Chuck Wagon

As a side note, the term Chuckwagon is spelled as both one word and as two. You’ll see both Chuckwagon and Chuck Wagon used.

Another interesting fact is that the word “chuck” was derived from 1700’s English meat merchants where it was used to describe a lower priced meat.

You might think that the chuckwagon was simply a wagon transporting food. Of course any horse drawn wagon could transport food and supplies but the chuckwagon was different. It’s creation is generally credited to one well known rancher of the 1800’s..

Charles Goodnight’s Invention

The chuckwagon was developed in 1866 by Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher who is also referred to as the “father of the Texas Panhandle“. Goodnight essentially modified a Studebaker Wagon. This was a wagon built by the Studebaker brothers whose family first arrived in America during the 1700’s. The Studebaker family would later go on to be early American automakers.

chuck wagon

Chuck Wagon interior for supplies

Originally the Studebaker brothers were blacksmith’s in South Bend Indiana. Later they would form a company to build horse drawn wagons. The Studebaker’s business was helped by the demand created by the California Gold Rush. Later the brothers won a large government contract to build wagons for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. These two events made for a lucrative manufacturing business.

What was a Studebaker Wagon? The Studebaker Road Wagon resembles to a degree a conestoga wagon that the pioneers are pictured traveling along in wagon trains. Four wheels and a wood body. The Studebaker Road Wagon however was much better. Made of rosewood, the Studebaker Wagon was considered very durable, easy to handle and a quality made product. Studebaker would also be a top producer of what would be called “farm wagons”.

An interesting side note is that when you’ve seen the Budweiser Clydesdale horses pulling that wagon loaded with beer they are pulling a Studebaker Wagon.

chuck wagon photo


The year 1866 was an important one for ranchers in Texas. While the Civil War raged for five years, the number of heads of cattle in Texas grew enormously. The Civil War kept shipments quite low and when the war ended there was more cattle in Texas than ever before. While the big cattle drives as we know them started after the Civil War, cattle had been driven from Texas to Louisiana as far back as 1836.

How the Chuck Wagon was Built

As mentioned above, rancher Charles Goodnight took a Studebaker Wagon and made modifications. He built a pantry box on it’s rear end that had a hinged door. The hinged door would lay flat to serve as a table. The cook would use this table as a work area.

Shelves and drawers were built in to keep the cook’s gear and supplies in easy reach. Invention is the father of necessity and what Charles Goodnight did was merely take a surplus supply wagon and convert it to a mobile kitchen. Goodnight well knew that a cowboy was a much better worker when he could eat well while on the trail. The key to eating well on the trail was to be able to have a “hot meal“. Cattle drives could easily last two months or so therefore the Chuck Wagon had to be constructed to last. The old Studebaker surplus wagon bought from the army was a durable wagon.

See additional Trips Into History photo articles on the links below.

Cowboys and Cattle Drives

The Great Western Cattle Trail

The National Ranching Heritage Center / A Texas Treasure

chuckwagon supplies

Wagon converted to Chuckwagon

Today’s Celebrations of the Chuck Wagon

Many communities and associations, mostly in the western U.S., put on events during the year that include chuck wagon cooking. One of these is at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. The museum has been celebrating the Chuck Wagon Gathering and Children’s Cowboy Festival for twenty-three years as of this writing.

Another interesting event is put on by the American Chuck Wagon Association. The association hosts several events throughout the country each year. The association will help those wishing to put on Chuck Wagon competitions. The ACWA was formed in 1997 in Bryson Texas. It’s goal is to preserve the heritage of the chuck wagon. For more information about this group see website

chuckwagon table

Fold out work table for cook

Every October in LLano Texas you can attend the Llano Texas Chuck Wagon Cookoff. Chuck Wagons are set up in the morning and authenticity judging takes place later. Llano is located southwest of the Dallas/Fort Worth area and northwest of Austin. For more information see website

The New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe is featuring a very large exhibit about cowboys lasting through March 16, 2014. The exhibit is titled Cowboys Real and Imagined. Among many artifacts and photographs on display is a Chuck Wagon. This is one of the best exhibits of cowboy artifacts and information assembled under one roof.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)


Western Horse Saddle

During our Trips Into History travels we have come across several sites that display a large collection of the western horse saddle. To be sure, there are many varieties of saddles and we wanted to share a few of these with you and list some of the venues you may want to add to your next road trip planner.

Spanish Origins

bronco buster

Bronco Buster

As many people are aware, the horse was introduced into North America by the early southwest Spanish explorers. The first significant Spanish expedition was that of Coronado in 1540. Coronado brought with him cattle and the vaquero, the Spanish cowboy. With the vaquero came the first Spanish saddles seen in America. They were the cattle handlers and horse trainers in Spanish culture.

The western saddle was designed to be comfortable, or as comfortable as possible, since it was used by the American cowboy who spent many hours on them. It was an essential cowboy tool for riding the range.

McClellan Saddle

Named after the American army officer, George B. McClellan, the McClellan Saddle was used extensively by the U.S. military beginning in 1859. The McClellan saddle was standard issue by the US War Department in 1859 for the U.S. Cavalry for the entire history of the horse cavalry into the 1940’s. During that time there were several different models of the McClellan Saddle, beginning with the M1859 and ending with the M1929.

mcclellan saddle

M1859 McClellan Saddle

George McClellan came up with his saddle design after spending time in Europe during the mid 1850’s. His tour of Europe was to learn the latest developments in field cavalry equipment. The McClellan saddle design is a direct result from that European trip. The saddle McClellan designed is very similar to the Spanish tree saddle which was originally a saddle used in Mexico from that countries Spanish heritage. McClellan;s saddle was relatively inexpensive, was light weight and offered excellent support for the rider. These attributes were welcomed by the U.S. War Department.

Roping Saddle

The Roping Saddle is a version of the Western Saddle. As the name implies, the Roping Saddle is designed as a ranch work saddle. You could also say it is a Cowboy Saddle. The typical roping saddle has a deep seat and strong tree and horn.

western roping saddle

1940s Roping Saddle

The horn is typically stronger to secure the rope and a strong tree is especially important roping stability. A saddle tree is the base on which the rest of the saddle is constructed. It’s similar to a chassis on an automobile. The saddle tree size determines the overall size of the saddle and how the saddle fits on the horses back. The saddle tree is made from wood or a synthetic material and is covered by leather.

Western Show Saddle

The show saddle is very much as the name implies. The show saddle is made for looking good. It’s a decorative saddle. It’s a western saddle you would see in parades, during horse shows and at special events. Where the roping saddle is a work saddle and is built as such, the show saddle is constructed to be a pleasing to the eye.

show saddle

Show Saddle

These decorative saddles are for the horse show arena and their design and construction usually mirror current fashion trends more than any of the other western saddle varieties. Because of this, styles come in and out of fashion.

A typical show saddle will have silver and deep tooling. The horn may be shorter so as not to interfere with the reins. A show saddle might have large medallions and corner plates. The saddle would have tooled skirts and the lacing on the leather might be another decorative attribute. Sewn trim on the show saddle’s edge adds another element of decorative design.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History articles about Cattle Drives and Cowboys and the Rodeo Cowgirls.

Texas and Oklahoma Museums and Venues Exhibiting Western Saddle Collections

rodeo hall of fame in oklahoma city

Rodeo Hall of Fame exhibit at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum– Located in Oklahoma City, this large museum has excellent exhibits of saddles and everything cowboy. Included are several trophy saddles and a indoor rodeo exhibit.

Fort Reno Oklahoma– Located about twenty miles west of Oklahoma City, Fort Reno’s Visitors Center features saddles, photos and artifacts. Fort Reno operated from 1876 to 1949. Fort Reno also has a lot of information on the buffalo soldiers who occupied the fort during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Fort Stockton– Old Fort Stockton is located on the east side of present day Fort Stockton Texas. The fort museum which is located in an old barracks building has an excellent collection of saddles, cavalry equipment and firearms plus exhibits of army uniforms from the mid to late 1800’s. Fort Stockton is located in southwest Texas along Interstate 10 between San Antonio and El Paso.

Limon Museum and Railroad Park– Located in Limon Colorado, this museum has a Saddle Boxcar exhibit.The 1890 Western saddle Boxcar brings back the era when every town had a saddle maker and the saddle was an important part of cowboy life. Many of the displayed saddles had belonged to well known area ranchers. Limon is located about a 90 mile drive southeast of Denver Colorado.

(Photos from author’s private collection. Bronco Buster photo from the public domain)


Movie Stuntmen / We Wouldn’t Have the Old Western Films Without Them

Over the years of movie making, the old western movie genre came and went and then came again. The fact is that when the movie industry first began during the very early years of the 20th century, the western was king. Everyone wanted to make western movies and many did.

The Early Western Movies

The earliest well known old western movie produced was The Great Train Robbery. The Great Train Robbery was filmed in 1903. It was also filmed in Milltown New Jersey. This was the time that the east coast was the headquarters for the growing movie making industry.

the great train robbery movie

The Great Train Robbery

Actors included Broncho Billy Anderson, Justus D. Barnes and Alfred C. Abadie. As the industry of western movies began originating out of Hollywood California, the plots and sets grew. Location shooting was the order of the day. Old western towns were hastily put up on location. Thankfully for the producers of old westerns, the Los Angeles area in the early and mid 1900’s proved to be advantageous for shooting western films. At the beginning, most settings were very near to Los Angeles. Perhaps a few hours drive. This was before the population exploded and land values went up with them.

Where to Find All Those Extras?

It just so happened that at the time the old western movie craze took off, the ranching industry was in general decline. The open spaces were being fenced in at a fast rate and the population growth was moving westward. Unfortunately, for the real live cowboy who had spent his days working the range, he now might have found himself out of a job. There were not a great many occupations that you could segue into, aside from the rodeo, with the talents of knowing how to ride a fast horse, knowing how to rope a steer or even how to handle firearms. What some people might term progress was not a good omen for the professional cowboy.

As western movie production became more elaborate and with some scenes requiring the presence of many horsemen, the old cowboy found another calling. Think back to those westerns featuring a galloping cavalry, a band of Indians on horseback or a fast riding sheriff’s posse. All of those scenes required people with horsemanship skills. This time represented the birth of the western movie stuntman.

western star buck jones

Buck Jones

All of those scenes needed people who not only looked like genuine cowboys, but actually were. The western movie producers turned to a ready supply of talented riders, actual cowboys looking for work in Hollywood.

The Local Los Angeles Watering Hole

With a good many cowboys finding themselves out of a job, the lure of Hollywood didn’t sound so bad. It wasn’t the same thing as being a real cowboy, but taking part in movies and being paid for it wasn’t such a bad thing either. It was about as close as a real cowboy could get to being a cowboy. Making a job out of it appealed to many. The timing was good. Being a paid movie stuntman sounded pretty good.

The way it worked in Hollywood went like this. According to the book , Wild West Show, edited by Thomas W. Knowles and Joe R. Lansdale, the ex-cowboys would congregate at a Los Angeles speakeasy that was called the Waterhole. The cowboys would gather there and wait to hear from the movie studios. In that era, one never knew when a director would send an assistant over to the Waterhole for extras. These jobs were referred to as “riding extras“. Maybe the director needed riders for a cavalry shoot or for a band of Indians on horseback. If this was the case, then there was work. While it was work, nobody claimed to have become rich doing it. The pay was generally $10 per day plus a box lunch. The cowboys who were hired, and this was usually on a day to day basis, would show up the next morning bright and early at the studio wearing their cowboy clothes. For this pay, the riding extras would ride all over movie sets spread around Los Angeles, many to the north in the vicinity of the San Fernando Valley. Many locations where the old westerns were filmed are now covered by subdivisions.

cowboy actor tom mix

Tom Mix

Some cowboy riding extras and movie stuntmen had their own horses which were usually kept at a Los Angeles corral called the Sunset Corral. The next time you have a chance to watch one of these very early westerns, you’ll know where that large cavalry regiment came from… the Waterhole.

These western cowboy riding extras also knew how to fall off a horse if need be without killing themselves. This type of individual was in great demand. The old cowboys also knew how to rope. These were things that generally weren’t the strong suit of leading men actors. The most noted exception was Tom Mix who knew how to wrangle cattle. Mix knew how to rope and ride. Tom Mix made some 160 cowboy matinee movies during the 1920’s alone and is thought of by many as being the first matinee cowboy idol. Mix had previously worked in Oklahoma at the very large Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. He knew how to ride a fast horse, rope as good as anyone and was said to be pretty good with a six-shooter. Mix won the 1909 National Riding and Rodeo Championship. Not bad skills for a Hollywood actor during the days of the western.

Who Were the Cowboy Stuntmen?

There were obviously many cowboys who worked as western movie riding extras. Some names however stand out. Some became more than just movie extras. These include Hank Bell, Jack Montgomery, Bill Gillis and Jack Padjeon, just to name a few.

Padjeon was in many old western films during the 1920’s and 30’s. He turns up as early as 1923 as a stunt rider in the western film, Covered Wagon. Padjeon also played Wild Bill Hickok in The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford in 1924.

Hank Bell appeared in well over 300 films, mostly westerns, between 1920 and 1952. Some of Bell’s movies included The White Horseman in 1921, The Oregon Trail in 1923 and Tall in the Saddle in 1944.

Jack Montgomery got into the old western movie business when some of his ranch cowboys told him they were leaving and heading for Hollywood. It appears that Jack Montgomery decided to also. He worked for a time as a stand in and stuntman for Tom Mix. Actually, Mix preferred to do his own stunts but the director would urge him to use a stuntman because if he was injured it could hold up production for an indefinite time. Mix didn’t quite see it that way but finally agreed to the directors wishes. Regardless, Tom Mix made it a point not to publicize the fact that he used doubles. Maybe he thought it was bad for the rough and tumble cowboy image. Mix wanted to protect his image and the studio wanted to protect it’s investment. Some of Jack Montgomery’s films aside for doubling in Tom Mix movies included Courage of the West produced in 1937, The Dark Command made in 1940 and starred Walter Pidgeon and The Renegade in 1943 which featured Buster Crabbe.

universal studios western set

Western movie set at Universal Studios

Bill Gillis enjoyed a good career playing mostly villains in old westerns of the 1920s. Other Gillis films included a role as a cowhand in Sunset Range made in 1935 and starring Hoot Gibson. He worked in the 1940 Gary Cooper movie The Westerner. He also had a minor acting role in Winchester ’73 produced in 1950.

There of course were many more rider extras and stuntmen than are listed here, and who in some cases received acting credit during the heyday of the western motion picture. These early Hollywood cowboys highlighted above were part of what was known as The Gower Gulch Gang. They took this name simply because many of the small studios cranking out the westerns were located on Gower Avenue in Los Angeles. The Gower Gulch Gang in many cases helped make their living by playing roles in movies which often times portrayed exactly who they had been all along. It was a great way to earn money while the work lasted. If it wasn’t for the Gower Gulch Gang, we might not have been able to enjoy those dramatic scenes of cavalry and Indian fighters racing on horseback across the plains and desert.

old tucson studios

Main Street of Old Tucson Studios, Photo courtesy of James G. Howes

Two additional articles you’ll find interesting are Cattle Drives and Cowboys / What it Was Really Like and our story about Pawnee Bill and his Wild West Show.

Today, a terrific old western movie studio that receives many thousands of visitors annually is the Old Tucson Studios just a few miles west of Tucson Arizona. The Old Tucson Studios is both a theme park and movie location which is still being used today for both Hollywood and television productions.

(Old Tucson Studios photo courtesy of James G. Howes. All other photos are in the public domain)

Professional Rodeos / Cowgirl Story

There’s an old story that the name “cowgirl” was first uttered by none other than Theodore Roosevelt. As many people know, Teddy Roosevelt, was enamored by the American West and during this time in the 1880’s had traveled to the Badlands of Dakota Territory and bought himself a ranch. In fact, Roosevelt ultimately ended up with two ranches. The story goes that Teddy asked a young lady named Lucille Mulhall, fourteen years old, to rope a wolf on his ranch. Lucille did ride and rope the wolf and Roosevelt referred to her as a cowgirl. It’s been reported that from about that time on, the term cowgirl came into common usage. Lucille went on to be one of the first women to compete with men in roping and riding events. She was known as the “Rodeo Queen”, “Queen of the Western Prairie” and “Queen of the Saddle”. Many women during the early days of the professional rodeos were star attractions.

bonnie mccarroll rodeo cowgirl

Bonnie McCarroll

Theodore Roosevelt, being from the east coast may not have known it, and probably didn’t, but women on horseback and performing ranch chores that are commonly attributed to cowboys was nothing new. The pioneers themselves traveling on the Oregon Trail often included women who did just about everything that a man did. It was a necessity more than a desire. Women rode horses, roped a steer, reined wagons and often times had to hunt for the family dinner. The difference is that these duties handled by women have not been publicized to the same extent as those of the cowboy or western pioneer male. Probably the best promoter of what a woman could do on horseback was Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody was at awe at the talent these female riders had. Buffalo Bill of course had his very successful Wild West on tour in the 1880’s and 1890’s and he was the man above all who could showcase the talent these early female riders possessed.

The Wild West’s biggest female star was Annie Oakley but Annie was a great sharpshooter. She wasn’t considered a star of horsemanship. Buffalo Bill did indeed employ women as riders and stunt riders. These included professional rodeo performers such as Georgia Duffy and Emma Lake Hickok. In fact, by the time Cody took his show to Europe he already had a list of trick riding cowgirls who could rope and race better than any man. This was in the 1880’s. It wain his show.s said that by 1887, Buffalo Bill had a dozen women performing in his show.

cowgirl lucille mulhall

Lucille Mulhall

Women rode rodeo broncs as early as the year 1897 in Cheyenne Wyoming. This was a rider named Bertha Kaepernik. A woman named Prairie Rose Henderson entered a Wyoming bronco contest in 1901 even after the judges told her that women weren’t allowed to compete. Prairie Rose’s popularity was such that sponsors began putting on female bronco riding events.

Prairie Rose Henderson 1880-1939

As mentioned above, Prairie Rose Henderson made quite a name for herself as a bronc rider. She was also very well known for the fashions she wore during her performances. Competing in rodeo events was one of the few lucrative jobs for women at the turn of the 20th century.. Even though the female performers earned less than men, they still made a lot more money than other women and had a good time doing it.

Prairie Rose was born to a Wyoming ranching couple. She grew up breaking horses for her parents and neighbors and she was determined to become a cowgirl. Her very first competition was at the Cheyenne Frontier Days event. While Prairie Rose was primarily a bronc rider she also participated in relay racing, flat racing, roping and trick riding. By the year 1906, cowgirls were bronc riding and relay racing and were quite a popular draw. Prairie Rose wore what was dubbed the “Turkish Trousers”. She designed her own, what was considered, outlandish costumes and this increased her popularity even more.

Prairie Rose Henderson’s domestic life was a bit complicated. She ended up marrying three times. Not much is known about the first marriage. Her second husband was a trick roper and they moved to Arizona to perform in silent westerns. Her last husband was arrested for cattle rustling in Wyoming.

annie oakley

Annie Oakley

During the 1930’s Prairie Rose went missing during a snow blizzard. The story is that she apparently went looking for a lost horse and became lost. Nothing was ever heard from her and there were no indications of a crime. Her body was found years later in 1939 and was identified by the rodeo trophy buckle and ring she was wearing when she disappeared.

Bertha Blancett 1883-1979

Bertha Blancett was another very talented cowgirl who was credited with advancing the female rodeo event. Coming from a Colorado ranch, Bertha Kaepernik was a great bronc rider in professional rodeos. According to the book, Bertha Kaepernik Blancett, The Woman Who Stayed Aboard, by author M.J. Van Deventer, Bertha’s father, William Kaepernik, placed the five year old on a horse and said “stay aboard”. That advice stayed with Bertha and served as a defining moment in her life. Bertha honed her horsemanship skills by helping her father work the cattle on their ranch. She joined several Wild West shows, including the 101 Ranch Show, where she married a man named Del Blancett. In 1912, Bertha Blancett and Del toured Australia with other rodeo performers as part of the Atkinson Show. When they came back to the U.S., she and Del entered rodeos and won all over the country. Their next move was to Hollywood.

Bertha and Del relocated to California where, with her husband, she worked in films under contract to Bison Pictures. Between movie productions, she competed at rodeo events. While in Hollywood, the Blancett’s became friends with such early western film stars as Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson.

rodeo bronco buster

Rodeo Bronco Buster

When her husband Del passed away, Bertha lost much of her enthusiasm for riding. She did come back for a while as a string rider. That was the rider at the rodeo who picks the rough string riders off their horses when the buzzer sounds. Bertha retired in 1934 and remained at her home in Porterville California until she passed away at 96 years of age. Bertha Blancett was a true pioneer of women’s rodeo competition.

Bonnie McCarroll 1897-1929

Bonnie McCarroll was a bronc riding champion. Other talents were bulldogging, steer riding, and of all things, automobile jumping. Bonnie was born on a rancjh near Boise Idaho in 1897. By the year 1922, she had won bronc riding competitions in both Wyoming and New York City. These were the Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Madison Square Garden Rodeo. Just like many of the performers with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in the 1880″s and 90’s, Bonnie performed in front of kings, queens and presidents.

Bonnie McCarroll unfortunately had a short career and life. Her plans were to retire after performing in the 1929 Pendleton Round Up in Pendleton Oregon. She and her husband Frank were to retire to their home in Boise Idaho. During this exhibition she was thrown from her mount who tumbled and landed on top of her. Although she was quickly rushed to the hospital, Bonnie died of spinal injuries. As a direct result of her death, rodeo officials began exercising more scrutiny towards rules and regulations for women in bronc riding. The Pendleton Rodeo dropped female bronc riding altogether. Bonnie McCarroll was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 2002.

There are many more women who performed in rodeos and Wild West shows. The women highlighted in this article represent only a few. While the publicity tells the story of their accomplishments in the rodeo and in toruing shows, the fact is that many females rode on cattle ranches long before their exploits came to light on the show circuit. The fact that these early riders were able to break into what was considered an all male sport is a tremendous accomplishment in itself.

During your travels and road trips there are some very good venues to learn more about many of the early cowgirls and a list of their achievements. In Fort Worth Texas is the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. The location is 1720 Gendy Street  Fort Worth, TX. Also, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. Address is 1700 Northeast 63rd Street. Another is the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame located at 101 Pro Rodeo Drive in Colorado Springs, CO.

(Photos are from the public domain)