Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cowboy names, no. 1

Cherokee Hall
A while ago, I got to noticing the imaginative names that early western writers give to their cowboy characters. Curious and amused, I started collecting them. None are names that were bestowed at birth. Women characters, by the way, rarely go by anything but their actual names, unless they are habitués of saloons, dancehalls, or gaming parlors.

Here are thirty or so from a half dozen authors, starting with Owen Wister himself, whose Virginian would be the best known example of a man whose given name is unknown. My favorite is Henry Herbert Knibbs’ cowboy, Bud Light.

Owen Wister, Lin McLean (1897)
Toothpick Kid
Limber Jim
The Doughie
Jerky Bill
Dollar Bill
Honey Wiggin

William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming (1908)
Beet Collins
Soapy Southern
Chalkeye Dave
Denver Halliday

Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red (1912)
Bud Light
Billy Dime
Pars Long
Silent Saunders

Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville (1897)
Short Creek Dave
Texas Thompson
Cherokee Hall
Tucson Jennie
Faro Nell
Jaybird Bob
Rainbow Sam
Curly Bill
Doby Dawson
Mace Bowman
Piñon Bill
Crawfish Jim
Cimarron Pete
Slim Jim

Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith (1911)
Banjo Johnson
Babe Britt
Arkansaw Red
Meeteese Ed
Old Man Rulison

Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer (1906)
Long Pete Lumley
Sandy Winn
Three-Finger Boone
Bad-Eye Connelly
Silent Murphy

Image credit:
Drawing of Cherokee Hall, Frederic Remington

Coming up: Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord (1903)


  1. I couldn't help thinking of this paragraph in O. Henry's "Christmas By Injuction":

    It was not necessary for a citizen to exhibit his baptismal certificate in order to acquire a cognomen. A man's name was his personal property. For convenience in calling him up to the bar and in designating him among other blue-shirted bipeds, a temporary appellation, title, or epithet was conferred upon him by the public. Personal peculiarities formed the source of the majority of such informal baptisms. Many were easily dubbed geographically from the regions from which they confessed to have hailed. Some announced themselves to be "Thompsons," and "Adamses," and the like, with a brazenness and loudness that cast a cloud upon their titles. A few vaingloriously and shamelessly uncovered their proper and indisputable names. This was held to be unduly arrogant, and did not win popularity. One man who said he was Chesterton L. C. Belmont, and proved it by letters, was given till sundown to leave the town. Such names as "Shorty," "Bow-legs," "Texas," "Lazy Bill," "Thirsty Rogers," "Limping Riley," "The Judge," and "California Ed" were in favour.

    1. Thanks, Elisabeth. Got a big kick out of this. Having lived for many years in Texas, O. Henry, of course, would know all about this.

  2. Replies
    1. Patti Detroit, of course. Or has that one been taken already?

  3. I always loved that tradition. I've wanted to do it with my own characters but seldom have found just the right phrasing to express what I want.

    Charles, dragalong Gramlich

  4. I have to wonder about Short Creek Dave. LOL. What a fun post!

    1. I like that one, too. Using place names was apparently a common way to distinguish between men with the same first name. This was probably Dave from Short Creek

  5. Ron, I am reminded of old baseball nicknames: Three-Fingers Brown, Dummy Taylor, Preacher Roe, Wahoo Sam Crawford, Rube Foster, Sliding Billy Hamilton, Gabby Hartnett, Rabbit Maranville, Oarator Jim O'Rourke, Old Hoss Radbourn... There is just something about such colorful names.

  6. And then there's the stock western movie actors, Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, Hoot Gibson, Gabby Hayes -- except Chill Wills really WAS his name!

    1. Theodore Childress Wills, actually. Dug that up for a blog post - thanks for the inspiration, Ron!

  7. Fascinating, Ron. In THE HELL RAISERS by Lee Floren, which I just started reading, one of the main cowboys is called War Dog Smith. A list of pseudonymous western writers would be equally interesting. Even unusual titles of western novels, for the matter.

    1. I'm guessing there must be a full list of authors' pseudonyms somewhere online.

  8. The Wild Bunch had several members with names like "Butch" Cassidy, Sundance Kid, Tom "Peep" O'Day, "Cap" Brown, "Flat Nose" George, "Kid" Curry, etc. Fascinating tradition.

    1. Yes, pretty common practice among the criminal element generally.

  9. My father, born in 1925, grew up in a small Wisconsin railroad town. I used to love to listen to him reminisce about his friends and neighbors, all of them -- at least the men -- known by nicknames.

    There were the three Welshmen, all named Jack; Big Jack, Little Jack, and Jack the Engine. There was his best friend, Gahoot Cadman, and the Baird brothers, Double-Barrel, Lemon Essence, and Slipalong.

    (Dad's nickname was Blackie).

    I tried my hand at writing a Western short story some months ago, and maybe that's why I named a stagecoach driver Buttermilk Brown.

    1. I grew up in a farming community in Nebraska, and I'm remembering now that the same was true for my father's, and even my own, generation (Shorty, Corky, etc.). I'm guessing that growing up together, they got nicknames in school and never outgrew them.