Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Connie Brooks, The Last Cowboys

This 1993 study of the Old West by historian Connie Brooks is subtitled Closing the Open Range in Southeastern New Mexico, 1890s-1920s. Brooks writes of how this arid region on the border with Texas was the last to be settled in the Southwest. An area of over 4000 square miles, on the western reaches of the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains), it remained open range years after ranches and towns were established to the east and west.

Her main interest is the cowboys who came to work here on one or more of the five ranches that occupied what is now Lea County, New Mexico. Studying census records and interviewing descendants, she was able to identify 32 of these men. And she found that as a group they were far different from the stereotype of early cowboys that exists today.

The popular notion of the frontier cowboy is that he was a drifter, spent all his money on gambling, drink, and whores, couldn’t read or write, never married, and never amounted to much. What he had was a fierce spirit of independence, proud of his calling to the end of his days. This belief is shared by many historians of the West, as well.

Map of New Mexico, Lea County in red
Brooks found in her small sample a different picture. Nearly all of her men became farmers and small ranchers as soon as they could lay claim to some property. By their mid-thirties they were married and raising families. Some became high-profile citizens, operating businesses, holding public office, or taking up law enforcement. Some became owners of large ranching operations. And they all tended to live to a ripe old age.

A few had brushes with the law, but only one was a true outlaw, fleeing to Montana after killing two men in Texas in 1923. He was already in his 50s by then and evaded capture until 1929, when at the point of being arrested he committed suicide. Before all that, like the others in the study, he’d married, started a family, and even joined a church.

Records show that the cowboys in her study had been born in various Southern states and grew up mostly in Texas. Most had at least some education and were literate. As sons of farmers, they took to cowboying for lack of other opportunities. A few had trailed herds to the north.

There’s the belief that cowboys disdained farming and any work that required them to descend from their horses. Yet these farmers’ sons left cowboying and returned to the soil, apparently without complaint. No different from other laboring men, she argues, they wanted economic independence. The freedom of the penniless drifting cowboy belongs more to myth than reality.

In only one interesting regard, Brooks’ cowboys were true to the stereotype. They were not religious and rarely attended church.

Most telling is Brooks’ conclusion that none of the men in her study identified themselves as “cowboys.” None seems to have preferred to be classified or remembered as a low-paid agricultural laborer. In later years, the ranchers among them would call themselves “cowmen,” but there’s little evidence that they ever reminisced over the good old days.

Her book includes photos and brief bios of all the men in her study. Each of these is a miniature gem of social history. Here is one example:

Richard Heidel, born 1881, Germany, died 1954; married in 1906; four children. Heidel was thirteen years old when his father, who had immigrated in 1883, died. Heidel immediately struck out on his own as a cowboy working north from Austin. About 1894 he worked for the XIT Ranch helping survey for fences, scouting for expansion possibilities, and wrangling horses. It was on a scouting expedition that he first glimpsed the New Mexico side of the line, settling permanently in Lea County in 1910.

Heidel’s daughter claims “cowboying” was “all he knew to do,” but in later years he made his living as a farmer. When applying for United States citizenship (in order that he might prove up on his claim), one story claims Heidel met some resistance with the bureaucrats in Roswell, which was settled to his satisfaction when a man shoved a .45 pistol into his hip pocket and said, “Smoke them out, Heidel.”

As this bio suggests, descendants today pride themselves in being children of men who were cowboys on the open range. Yet, Brooks notes with some irony, of the 125 children fathered by the 32 men in the study, not a single one was ever a cowboy himself. The romance of cowboying, she reasons, occurred only after Hollywood and popular fiction had created the myth.

This book is out of print, but used copies are available at AbeBooks and amazon.

Picture credits:

Coming up: Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red (1914)


  1. The reality is always so much more intriguing to me than the fabricated history. It sounds like a fabulous read.

  2. The idea of being a Cowboy always appealed to me. But I am aware that the reality is far from what we see in films.

  3. I think a lot of cowboys were young men sowing their oats, just like now. After a while it was time to get hitched and settle down.

  4. That's one of the things that come through with L'Amour's characters. They are almost all looking to get a ranch at some point, to get a little piece of land to call their own.

  5. Cowboying for a wage still goes on and there is always the dream of owning enough land to run a few head. It was not much like the myth of the modern days, just a lot of hard work, with the owners having all the responsibility.