Cowboys , Outlaws and the Dime Novels

Cowboys and Outlaws

To say that literature describes the old west cowboy in different ways is a true understatement. Add television to the mix and the cowboy life is portrayed in an even wider range. Whether the cowboy was written of in the nineteenth or twentieth century makes little difference. There are many story lines attached to the cowboy…some very true and others total fabrication.Was it a romantic life, a hard and dirty job or perhaps something in between.

cattle drive structure

Cattle drive structure

In many ways the same holds true for the portrayal of outlaws. Literature has portrayed the old west outlaw from a romantic Robin Hood type character to a murderous psychopath.

There are questions to be asked. The questions are…who really was the American cowboy and what was the cowboy life really like? What was the difference between outlaws and cowboys? In some cases maybe no differences. In others, total differences. The biographies of these two type individuals often intersect. While there have been inaccurate portrayals written about both, the largest inaccuracies have probably been written about the cowboys. There was a great deal published about the subject during the latter part of the 1800’s and, in a way, literature often helped shape events. In fact, successful western literature in the latter 1800’s was similar to what sells today on bookshelves. The wild west was wild, but perhaps not as wild as often presented to sell books and movie tickets.

western ghost townsWhat Author’s of the Era Wrote

The Dime Novel depicted both outlaws and cowboys as a wild bunch. In Lewis Atherton’s book, The Cattle Kings, the author points out that Mark Twain himself described the cowboy as more gunman than ranch worker.

Roughing It

Twain worked for a time at the Virginia City Enterprise, Nevada Territory’s first newspaper.  Twain wrote glamorizing accounts of the western cowboy. Twains experience in Virginia City gave him the background to write a book, Roughing It, in 1872 which was the real start of his literary career. In his book, Mark Twain makes mention of bad men stalking the streets and moving easily from ranch to mining camp. Twain describes them as wearing long coats, cocked hats and revolvers. He goes on to further describe them as brave and reckless fellows who traveled with their life in their hands and who did their killing most within their own circles. They thought it shameful to die with their boots off.

All of this was Mark Twain’s account of the outlaw of the west. While this account stirs interest among readers, it also omits quite a bit of factual information. Nevertheless, this type of literature sold well. Twain was describing the outlaw, not the cowboy.. Although somewhat similar in appearance to the cowboy, the outlaw or bad man was an entirely different individual.

ranch bunhouse photo

Old JA Ranch Bunkhouse

The Big Bonanza

There was a book written by the senior editor of the Virginia City Enterprise, Dan De Quille. The book was encouraged by Mark Twain who urged De Quille to write a factual account of life in the Virginia City mining town. De Quille did publish his book in 1876 titled, The Big Bonanza. De Quille basically agreed with Twain’s account with the exception that he didn’t glamorize the violence. Instead, he denounced it and the men who caused it. It’s not surprising to note that Dan De Quille’s more realistic account didn’t sell as well as did Twain’s book.

According to the book, Cattle Kings, another book, Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest, this one written by a Joseph G. McCoy who is credited with bringing ranchers and cattle buyers together in Abilene Kansas, described the cowboy and his dress in colorful terms.

McCoy wrote that..mounted and drunken, they charged wildly through the streets, shooting up the town as they went, or rode directly through the swinging doors of saloons to demand drinks at pistol point. Literature published by both Mark Twain and Joseph McCoy, attached a code of reckless action by the cowboy in the 1870’s that gave or proposed a style of behavior for new cowboys to emulate. This was a mixing of the cowboy and outlaw culture and I think gives the wrong impression of the cowboy. It has been written however that serious individuals who entered the ranching world in the late 1870’s and 1880’s actually found this much publicized code of conduct either humorous or irritating. Although colorful, it wasn’t necessarily accurate.

xit ranch cowboys

XIT Ranch cowboys

What the Ranchers Had to Say About Cowboys

If you really want to find an accurate account of the cowboys of the old west, there is probably no better source than ranchers of the era. First of all, ranchers were not selling books. They were in the business of raising and selling cattle and anything that would disturb that process was unwelcome. Ranchers employed cowboys and at the same time laid down the rules. In fact, ranchers operated in areas far removed from the courts and oftentimes lawmen. The ranchers were in the position to make the laws and enforce them. Some ranchers were small operators and others large corporate concerns. One of the largest, the XIT in the Texas Panhandle, employed about 150 cowboys during it’s peak years.

Was the Cowboy Armed or Unarmed?

Contrary to many of the Hollywood westerns, many ranchers didn’t carry firearms and had rules against their ranch hands carrying guns. Carrying a six shooter was the exception rather than the rule. One of the reasons mentioned for this was the idea that an armed man sent an unspoken message. An armed man would be much more likely to be involved in some sort of violence than an unarmed one. The sometimes controversial “code of the west” prohibited the shooting of an unarmed individual. Most ranch owners simply felt that a sixshooter could only lead to trouble and especially so when mixed with alcohol. This was something detrimental to running a cattle business and was highly discouraged.

The famed Texas rancher, Charles Goodnight, presents a good example of ranching law and order. In the book, Cattle Kings, Goodnight was said to have ordered his cowboys to keep their differences under control while working his long cattle drives. He stipulated that his outfit would hold an immediate trial and hanging of anyone found guilty of committing murder. This reportedly worked effectively for Goodnight. As far as he was concerned, the cowboy could go settle his differences, but not while working on one of his drives. While working on the ranch itself, Goodnight forbade drinking, gambling and swearing.

The above mentioned book also describes how a ranch manager by the name of John Clay handled differences among his employees. Clay was known to settle differences by persuasion. This usually worked. Clay was said to have carried a firearm only once when unruly cowhands ran off one of his supervisors. Again, firearms on the ranch was an exception.

Teddy Roosevelt, when spending time ranching in the Dakota Territory, wrote of his experience and concluded that people had little to fear about murder in the west as long as they minded their business and stayed out of barrooms. Barrooms of the old west being the natural habitat of outlaw and alcohol. Regarding cowboys, Roosevelt pointed out their rough language but contended that it was little different than when any group of all males got together. There was no mention made of shooting up the town.

The Real Bad Men of the West

While the cowboy certainly was spirited, he was also a very hard worker. Many old west cowboys of the late 1800’s were mere teens. Working cattle drives was difficult work and required good physical conditioning. To understand the physical conditioning required to carry out the cowboy’s job, just visit one of the many rodeos held throughout the country and you can see for yourself what was involved.

When cattle drives ended at rail heads such as Abilene, Kansas and later Dodge City ,Kansas, there was a lot of steam to be let off and the cowboys had their pay. You could say it was a time of planned rowdiness. This type of activity was in stark contrast to the western outlaw who would be more apt to target the cowboy.

Again, the ranching industry was involved with the criminal element as well. The western outlaw or gunslinger really came to the forefront after the American Civil War. This was the era of the James Gang, the Daltons, Sam Bass, Butch Cassidy and others. In the case of the James Gang, much of their violence was attributed to lingering hatred from Civil War days, although that is an arguable point. What is significant is that none of the stories about the above mentioned outlaws had a good ending.

sam bass round rock texas

Outlaw Sam Bass who was shot and killed in Round Rock, TX

The Rustler Outlaw

The biggest bane to the cattle rancher was the rustler. Cattle associations were established to, among other things, deal with rustlers and old west outlaws.

Cattle associations went as far as employing range detectives who many times themselves had prior brushes with the law. Cattle associations themselves were responsible for violence when it came to the rustler, or alleged rustler, such as in the case of the Johnson County War in Wyoming. Rustlers were dealt with severely and quickly and in some cases the ranchers may have hung the wrong person in the rush for justice.

Vigilance Committees

The more you read about the subject of lawlessness in frontier or cattle towns, the more you realize that it was a short lived event. Many old western towns had vigilance committees that dealt with the criminal element their own way. The criminal element the committees were targeting were not drunken cowboys having a good time after trail drives. From vigilance committees came formal law enforcement and often times the two operated simultaneously. It was true that the great majority of murders committed in the old west were between members of the lower element. One reason was that if a rancher or land owner, someone of rank within the community were killed by a gunman, certain retribution was sure to come.

great train robberyWhen one gunman killed another gunman, many in the community were actually glad there was one less outlaw. Stagecoach and train robberies of course did effect law abiding citizens and it took little effort to organize a posse to go in pursuit. In addition to this, if you happened to rob a bank or a train you could be assured to have the Pinkertons on your trail brought in by banking associations.

Outlaws, gunmen, rustlers and others were simply detrimental to business and settlement. The American west was all about business and settlement. It is for this reason that the criminal element was dealt with firmly and swiftly, whether it be by a sheriff, a vigilance committee or the Pinkertons. Sometimes all three working together. To be sure, lawlessness in the frontier town ended more sooner than later.

The dime novels often paint the life of the cowboy and the outlaw with the same broad brush. This is especially true about the carrying and use of firearms. While this portrayal might spice up the mundane, hard working life of the cowboy, there was no similarity between cowboy, outlaw or gunslinger.

The cowboy could be rowdy as Teddy Roosevelt pointed out, but he would be more inclined to be pulling practical jokes and bragging rather than to break the law. Were there bad cowboys? Certainly. Ranchers were quite aware of this. Did some cowboys become outlaws later? Yes. An interesting fact taken from Dodge City Kansas records of 1872 says a lot about the cowboy. It was 1872 that the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad reached Dodge City making it an important cattle drive rail head. During that year there were a total of twenty-five murders that occurred during fights. Out of the total of twenty-five only one involved a cowboy.

See additional Trips Into History and Western Trips Articles on the Links Below…

The Saints Roost Western Museum in Clarendon, TX

See the Famous Goodnight Ranch House in Goodnight, Texas

Visit Historic Round Rock, Texas

Museums and Venues to Add to Your Next Trip Itinerary

The National Ranching Heritage Center – Lubbock, TX

National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum – Oklahoma City, OK

The XIT Museum – Dalhart, TX

King Ranch Museum – Kingsville, TX

Saints Roost Museum – Clarendon, TX

Black American West Museum – Denver, CO

The Rex Allen Museum – Willcox, AZ

Desert Caballeros Western Museum – Wickenburg, AZ

The Western Heritage Museum & Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame – Hobbs, NM

(Article copyright Trips Into History)


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)


Pinkerton Detective / Charlie Siringo

Trips Into History explores the old west and in particular a Pinkerton operative of the late 1800’s. A name that may not come up as often as it should is that of Charlie Siringo.Charlie Siringo was involved in old west law enforcement as much or maybe more than familiar names such as Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp and Bill Tilghman.

Charlie Siringo while Charlie Siringo gained much of his fame, and spent twenty-two years at it, as a detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. This was the detective agency started in the mid 1800’s by Allan Pinkerton, a one time bodyguard for Abraham Lincoln, that some called “America’s Scotland Yard“. It has been written that Pinkerton had as many as 2,000 detectives on the payroll and some 30,000 in reserve. This was a total larger than the U.S. standing army during the era.

pinkerton detective agencyCharlie Siringo was a onetime Texas cowboy, a Pinkerton detective and the author of some thirty books. Many would say that Charlie Siringo molded the cowboy image as it applied to private detective work. He worked largely in the era where a Pinkerton operative acted as a sort of quasi-lawman.

From Cowboy to Detective

Charlie Siringo who was born in south Texas was looking for adventure. He moved to Chicago and because he could furnish several good references, one reportedly being from none other than Pat Garrett, Charlie Siringo was able to get a job with the Pinkertons in 1886.  His hiring was also brought along by the fact that the Pinkertons were in the market for a “cowboy detective“. Western cattle ranches were in their heyday and the Pinkertons were busy. This was fine with Siringo since he had little interest in working in the east. He was destined to be assigned to Pinkertons Denver office.

charlie siringo

Charlie Siringo, circa 1890

Before that occurred however, Siringo would find himself involved with the Haymarket Riots in Chicago. What is referred to as the Haymarket Riots was a lethal labor altercation with anarchist overtones. It ignited with a bombiing that killed Chicago policeman. This was one of Chicago’s largest labor disputes only to be eclipsed by the violent Pullman Strike during the 1890’s financial depression.

Eventually Charlie Siringo did make his way west with the Pinkertons working out of their Denver office as an “operative“. That was the term used to describe the Pinkerton detectives. Back again in the west, Siringo was put to work in a variety of the things.

Chasing Rustlers, Thieves  and Outlaws

Siringo was said to have worked for the Pinkertons as far south as Mexico and as far north as Alaska. This must have worked well for the man that disliked desk jobs. It’s also been noted that Charlie Siringo worked undercover a good deal which was something fairly unique for the late 1800’s.

wild bunch gang

Wild Bunch Gang photo. Kid Curry (Harvey Logan) is standing on the right.

Siringo was present in Dodge City Kansas when Wyatt Earp allegedly had his confrontation with Clay Allison. Charlie Siringo also provided the information for the capture of the wanted outlaw Kid Curry whose real name was Harvey Logan and was a member of the infamous “Wild Bunch Gang“.

Siringo also did work for the Pinkertons on behalf of the railroads. The railroads were big customers of the Pinkertons. One case involved theft from a railroad in Texas. Siringo’s work on this case covered both Texas and across the border into Mexico. The case was solved when Charlie Siringo found the guilty culprits to be the railroad’s own general manager along with some of the passenger conductors. This most likely was another undercover operation that Siringo proved so good at.

The Bloody and Violent Coeur d’ Alene Strike

Probably because of his experience with the Haymarket Riots in Chicago, Charlie Siringo was trying hard not to get involved with his company’s assignments in Idaho on behalf of  mine owners. He had been working in Denver at the time doing what he referred to as ” city work“. His preference was to work out in the open. Away from the office. City work was much more confining. Working out in the open let Siringo escape the heavy oversight of the Pinkerton office. The labor unrest in Idaho would eventually allow Siringo get out of the office. Charlie Siringo probably thought this was both good and bad.

During the national financial downturn of the early 1890’s, Idaho miners wages were cut and strikes and violence soon erupted. It’s important to note that just about every labor dispute in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s had to do with cut wages and hours. Unionizing was in full swing. The Pinkertons were hired by the mine owners to try to infiltrate the union and learn of their plans.

Charlie Siringo, probably as a result of his Haymarket Riots experience, developed a hatred for anarchists but at the same time he was sympathetic toward miner’s grievances. In many respects he was a man in the middle. Although this was work away from the office, Siringo didn’t want this Idaho assignment. After coaxing and pressure from Pinkerton and the Mine Owners Association, he agreed to accept the assignment. His job would be to pose as a mine worker at the Gem Mine in Wallace Idaho, work alongside the miners, and try to gain as much information about union activities as he could.

wallace idaho fire

Wallace Idaho after the Great Fire of 1910. This was the location of much violence during the 1890's miners strike.

The mine owners were trying to bring scab labor in by train. The workers and union organizers became aware and were determined to stop it by any means necessary. In one instance a trainload of scab workers was on the way and the miners in Wallace Idaho were preparing for the confrontation. Siringo learned of this and was able to tip off the mine owners who then ordered the train to proceed straight through Wallace without stopping.

Charlie Siringo eventually lost his cover and was a prime target of the union. Fortunately for the mine owners and for Siringo, the U.S. military was sent in to restore order. Charlie Siringo, by request of the military, pointed out the union leaders and they were rounded up by Siringo and others. They were placed in what was called at the time the “bull pen”. It’s important to note that Siringo pointed out the union leaders who in his judgement were the troublemakers. The ones inciting the workers. Not all of the union men fit that category. By the same token he pointed out mine managers who in his judgement aggravated the situation and in some cases incited the violence. This again was an example of Siringo’s sympathy for the plight of many workingmen even though he served at the behest of the Pinkertons and the owners.

1904 Cripple Creek Colorado, the scene of early 1900's miner strikes

The outcome of the Couer d’ Alene Strike was the 1893 formation of the Western Federation of Miners which was considered a radical union operating in the Western mining states. It would be nice to think that things settled down but trouble again flared in the late 1890’s and once again U.S. troops were brought into Idaho to restore order. The federal troops didn’t leave the area until 1901. Labor unrest was still a big issue. Violent miner strikes cropped up later in Colorado during the early 1900′s and, there too, the Western Federation of Miners were the unionizing force.

See our additional Trips Into History articles on the Pinkertons and Jesse James and the early 1900’s miners strike and Mass Deportation in Bisbee Arizona.

Charlie Siringo the Author

Charlei Siringo left the employ of the Pinkertons in 1907. Just like Allan Pinkerton he decided to write about his experiences. The Pinkertons however felt that Siringo was violating their confidentiality agreement and court hearings held things up for a few years.Eventually, Charlie Siringo agreed to delete the use of the Pinkerton name in the book titles and that settled the matter.

There were basically four themes that Siringo wrote about. These were,  his youth and life as a cowboy, Billy the Kid who he had both known and chased, his twenty-two years as a Pinkerton operative, and the outlaws with whom he had come in contact with. In addition to the above, Siringo worked as an advisor in Hollywood and even had a few bit parts.

Siringo’s writings about his many years with the Pinkertons caused a bit of a stir. The Pinkerton Agency initially blocked Siringo’s writings citing the confidentiality agreement all Pinkerton operatives signed. After a few years  the two sides reached an agreement and Siringo kept the “Pinkerton” name out of his book titles.

Charlie Siringo happened to live in an era of great change. It was the last years of the frontier, the industrializing of America, and the start of a new century. Other notables that lived through this era were Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody, Theodore Roosevelt, Wyatt Earp and of course many others. What I find interesting is how these memoirs, written later in life, seem describe a time that is fascinatingly different than the twentieth century. The change during the years of about 1880 to 1915 was dramatic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the frontier officially ended in 1890. By the year 1910 people were starting to drive automobiles obtaining their horsepower from internal combustion engines fueled by gasoline. How times changed.

Books About and By Charlie Siringo

Among the books I’d recommend to explore more about the life of Charlie Siringo include…Charlie Siringo’s West: An Interpretive Biography by author Howard R. Lamar. Also, A Texas Cowboy by Charles A. Siringo and A Cowboy Detective: A True Story of Twenty-Two Years With A World Famous Detective Agency by Charles A. Siringo.


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)

Theodore Roosevelt and His Maltese Cross Ranch

President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for many things. Some of the more publicized were his involvement during the Spanish American War with the famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, and the other, his close involvement in establishing and protecting national land. In the 1880’s in the North Dakota Badlands, Teddy Roosevelt would carve out an image that would serve him his entire life.

Getting Into the Ranching Business

Aside from the fact that western ranching was all the rage among eastern and foreign investors, Teddy Roosevelt was attracted to it for much more than financial reasons. In 1883 he originally traveled to the Dakota Badlands to hunt buffalo. Before he left the area he acquired a major interest in the Maltese Cross Ranch. In fact, he bought the ranch after being in the area for just two weeks. The Dakota Badlands was quite attractive to Roosevelt. To be sure, he did want to make a go at western ranching and he did hope it would be profitable.

Maltese Ranch cabin

Beyond a doubt, his acquiring the ranch had as much to do with living the western life as it did with trying to turn a profit. Roosevelt was independently wealthy. According to the book Cattle Kings, author Lewis Atherton describes the partnership Roosevelt entered into with his Maltese Cross Ranch. Roosevelt at first had two partners, Sylvane Ferris and William Merrifield. Both were honest men but the problem was that they knew about as much as Roosevelt did about cattle ranching, which was very little. Teddy asked his two partners to build a ranch house in addition to the cabin which was on the site. They constructed a one and one-half story cabin complete with a shingled roof and root cellar. Constructed of durable Ponderosa pine logs, the cabin was considered somewhat a kind of mansion in its day,

By having his two partners operating the Maltese Cross, Roosevelt was able to return to New York City and attend to his other affairs. He did however return to the ranch fairly often. The Dakota Badlands was never too far from his mind. On a return visit in 1885, Teddy acquired a second property, The Elkhorn Ranch. Interestingly, to help operate the Elkhorn Ranch, Roosevelt installed tow of his hunting guides from Maine who also knew nothing about western ranching. The ranches ended up losing money for Teddy. Author Lewis Atherton asserts that Teddy may have lost less money if he had taken more advice from his rookie partners.

What the West Did For Roosevelt

Regardless of the fact that the ranches ended up to be losing propositions, His ranching experience did improve his health and vigor and at the same time he acquired a new appreciation of conservation. The rugged life in the Dakota Territory helped shape his overall image from that of a wealthy eastern gentleman to that of an outdoors man, adventurer and in a way a cowboy. This image would carry on with Roosevelt for the remainder of his life. Teddy Roosevelt at one time after being made President of the United States was quoted as saying…”I would not have been the President, had it not been for my experience in North Dakota”.

In the very interesting book, Trailing the Loghorns, by author Sue Flanagan, she describes the circumstances of Roosevelt’s ranching foray. After acquiring his ranch in 1883, he spent much of the next four years in Dakota Territory, his ranch having from three thousand to five thousand head of cattle on two different spreads around Medora Dakota Territory. Roosevelt wanted desperately to master the cowboy ways and through himself completely into that quest, after death in a single night took both his wife and his mother.

Wild Horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

All accounts relating to Roosevelt’s time in the Dakota Territory say that he was accepted by the area cowboys. Even with his strong Harvard accent and often times fancy outfits, he was well accepted. One of the best descriptions of how Teddy regarded the cowboy life is mentioned in Trailing the Longhorns. In a letter to his sister, he wrote…”I have been on the roundup for a fortnight and really enjoy the work greatly…we breakfast at three every morning and work from sixteen to eighteen hours a day, counting night guard; so I get pretty sleepy, but feel strong as a bear”. He later wrote in one of his publications…”We knew toil and hardship and hunger and thirst; and we saw men die violent deaths as they worked among the horses and cattle; but we felt the best of hardy life in our veins, and ours was the glory of work and the joy of living”. Being owner of the ranch, Roosevelt could have chosen easier tasks for himself during roundups, but he didn’t. He could have chosen the best and easiest to handle mount, but he didn’t. The book Cattle Kings suggests that by putting himself on the very same level as his working cowboys, Teddy gained their respect regardless of his high society eastern upbringing and the fact that he was one of the very few who had to wear eyeglasses. He also adapted to the code of the western community of not trying to force his own views and values on others. That trait alone was enough to gain local acceptance.

You will find our article on the Real Cowboys very interesting. The facts are quite different from what was written in many of the dime novels.

While Theodore Roosevelt made no real contributions to the ranching industry such as men like Jesse Chisholm and the Chisholm Trail and the famous Texas Panhandle rancher, Charles Goodnight, he did gain quite a lot himself from the experience. His writings testify to that fact. The gains Roosevelt made in the Dakota Badlands were certainly not financial. When Roosevelt sold off his Dakota ranches in 1898 it was estimated that he probably lost some $50,000 with the ventures.

Medora North Dakota Today

What remains today of the Maltese Cross Ranch is the three room cabin. It’s the cabin that Roosevelt stayed in during his first visit to his ranch. The cabin, which was once located about seven miles south of Medora is very symbolic. In 1959, the cabin was relocated to its present site and renovated. The most recent preservation work occurred in 2000. Prior to being moved to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the cabin had been moved many times.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir

While Theodore Roosevelt was President, the cabin was displayed at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. It was displayed at the Louis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland Oregon and it resided at one time on the state capitol grounds in Bismarck North Dakota. Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Maltese Cross Ranch cabin is located adjacent to the park’s South Unit Visitors Center.

What’s very unique about the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is that it not only is located where Teddy Roosevelt educated himself about the west, but it also is a symbol of the strong conservation views he held. One could argue that there was no other American president who did as much for the protection of public wild lands than Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt, along with his conservation chief, Gifford Pinchot, secured millions of acres of public lands for future generations. A good deal of this land is now in our National Parks and Monuments. Giffford Pinchot was noted for, while serving under Roosevelt, hiring and personally training the first Forest Service Rangers and became the first head of that organization. It would be an understatement to say that Teddy Roosevelt and Pinchot had a difficult time obtaining support from the forest and mining industries and their friends in Congress. Pinchot’s Forest Service had one of their biggest challenges during the Great Fire of 1910 which devastated towns and forest lands in Montana and surrounding states.Teddy Roosevelt also traveled to meet and discuss conservation efforts with John Muir, thought of as being America’s most famous conservationist of his era. John Muir was more of a preservationist than a conservationist. This led to some friction with Pinchot who was a conservationist. A conservationist will work with business interests to use resources wisely. A preservationist on the other hand believes that the forests and wild lands should be left alone period.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into three units. The North Unit, South Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. The South Unit is entered from Medora North Dakota. Medora is located 133 miles west of Bismarck North Dakota. The North Unit entrance is along U.S. Highway 85, approximately 16 miles south of Watford City, ND and 50 miles north of Belfield, ND. The distance by road from Medora to the North Unit is approximately 70 miles.The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is located 35 miles north of Medora and is accessed by gravel roads. For those visiting the park on a western road trip, Interstate 94 goes right through the park and to Medora North Dakota which makes this historic site very easy to reach.

(Photos are from public domain)