(originally appeared in the NY Times May 13, 1888)
Miles City, May 3– The ordinary cowboy of the West, and particularly of the Northwest, is the most thoroughly misunderstood man on the face of the earth. Eastern people imagine that all cowboys carry one or more of all overs of peace, ride a fiery, untamed mustangs, where broad sombreros with half-acre brands and rattlesnake bands, are filled to overflowing with profanity and fun, are ready to shoot on the drop of a hat if not sooner, and are altogether on a par with the blood-and-thunder characters portrayed in flashy literature. As her matter of fact, the cowboy of nature is no such thing. There is as much variety in this class as in any other calling of life, but as a rule all cowboys after becoming well broken to harness our gritty, full of — in spirit, lively, brave to rashness, generous to a fault, and the very soul of honor and hospitality. Meet a “cow puncher” alone on the prairie and he will share his last meal and only blanket with you even before the asking.
Miles City is the cowboy headquarters of the Northwest. Here every variety of the type can be met with during the Roundup season. One can jostle upon the street corners. Men who are veritable cowboys in every sense of the word; men who personally accompany the roundups, cut out cattle, lariat steers, and sleep on the open prairie with a saddle for a pillow and the starry canopy for a coverlet; and yet those very men, some of whom are scarcely able to write their own names, could buy and sell many of our so-called millionaire nabobs of Eastern cities. One glass of cowboys are college bred men, or sons of college men, who follow the calling for health and not wealth. Somehow they managed to secure both health and wealth, when really in need of only the former. A lady whose home ranch is in this neighborhood was sitting on the portico of a hotel in Miles city recently waiting for her husband come in from the ranch. She had just arrived from “the States” and had brought with her a friend, a young woman, who is ages to see Western life. The visitor had never met the husband or any relative of her hostess. All at once around the corner of the street came — in an almost breakneck speed to cowboys mounted on a plains cayuses. They were dressed according to rule– leather trousers, flannel shirts, Texas sombreros, and top boots.
“Oh, my!” exclaimed the horrified visitor, “just look at that horrid cowboy. See he’s greasy trousers, big pistols, and muddy boots. Ugh! Let’s go in.”
“Why, that’s my husband,” said her companion quietly.
“No, not that one,” quickly responded the lady, blushing crimson. “I meant the other.”
“oh! Why, that’s my brother.”
Matters have so far progressed favorably since visitor from East met these cowboys that she is likely soon become the wife of one of them. Moral: a remarkable change comes over a man, outwardly, when he dons his swallowtail code in New York, comes out west, and dons a herders suit of leather on the Plains.
Another class of Plains herders are a mad sort, to say the least, who are headstrong, plucky, always ready for fun of any description, and perpetually on the watch. The startle out of his five cents is any unsophisticated tenderfoot fresh from the east to chances to come along. Still, they have a reckless generosity and rough kind heartedness wound in among all their faults, which softens their nature and prevents them from being a hundred part as cruel as the outwardly seem to be.
The Norther Pacific Railroad cuts directly through the gray cat arranges of the Northwest. Passengers on these trains are always on the watch to catch a glimpse of a genuine cowboy, and you may be sure that the boys never let an opportunity slip by to startle and horrified these innocents, who are making their first journey to the land of the setting sun. In the Bad Land of Dakota, are the ranges of the cowboy nobleman, the Marquis de Mores; Theodore Roosevelt, and many other prominent men, whose herds roam at will, over the vast free ranges of the Northwest. The style of cowboys at Medora (capital of the Badlands) certainly eclipses anything of the kind elsewhere on the continent. For reckless daring and useless exploits of a marvelous sort these lads have a reputation second to none. Scarcely a trains lease through the wonderful Badlands, but 10 or a dozen cowboys mounted on the worst of bucking and bracing cayuse Broncos, are cutting all sorts of capers and giving a general free circus for the edification and amusement of the wondering passengers, who possibly have never seen such sites before. Such exhibitions of equestrianism be astonished tenderfoot never dreamed of. Just at Medora is the little Missouri River, spanned by a trestle bridge. More than 100 feet above the water. In the center, upon the ties, runs a narrow plank walk used by the railroad footman, and it requires a level head and steady nerves even for a sober man to make the long trip successfully from shore to shore. A train loaded with passengers had stopped at a water tank for a few minutes just before crossing the bridge, and the starting tourists were gaping in open eyed wonder at a dozen or more cow puncher’s who were cavorting about and doing all sorts of impossible things on horseback. One of them would set a bronco to buck in with all his might and then in a twinkling “bust him.” Another would throw his Beeston leap nimbly out of danger. Another yet would make extraordinary leaps, a third or fourth pick up pebbles from the ground while going at full speed, hits in six would have their steeds quietly back on their haunches sitting up like so many dogs, while others would be handling the rope– lassoing trees, stones, dogs, Pullman porters, each other, and, in fact, anything within reach.