For at least 60 years, I have enjoyed Charlie Russell’s art, the predicaments his cowboys find themselves in, and the authentic representations of their gear. What’s more, the comportment of Russell’s cowboys and horses has always struck me as “right.”
I got my first horse in 1950, and grew up surrounded by vaquero traditions in Northern California. Since 1981, though, I’ve lived in Stevensville, Montana, long enough to have developed a good feel for the melting pot of riding styles we still have here in Big Sky Country. Russell’s art—quite obviously—reflects the Montana mix of cowboy cultures and gear. Perhaps due to a lifetime of finding errors in the works of other Western artists, I couldn’t resist scanning Russell’s paintings for inaccuracies and mistakes. However, through this study (and other research), I have come up with some enlightening and surprising discoveries about the work and ware of the Northern range cowboy.
In general, there are two distinct styles in the world of cowboys: vaquero-influenced and Texan-influenced. (It’s been said that cowboys use their horses to work their cattle, but vaqueros use the cattle to work their horses.) Both breeds of cowboy eventually made their way north.
With the end of the Civil War, Texans began influencing the Northern ranges with double-rigged saddles, short ropes—made of manila, maguey, or grass—tied hard and fast to the saddle horn, and shotgun or batwing chaps. Texas cowboys were not into flash or silver on their bits and spurs. They needed strong and practical gear to catch wild cattle in the brush country, and were more concerned with results than with finesse and flair.
By the 1880s, cattle began arriving in Montana from California, through Oregon, and with them the vaquero—or buckaroo—influence also arrived. Most rode single-rigged saddles, carried 60-foot reatas (four-plait rawhide ropes), and dallied—or wrapped the rope around the saddle horn—to hold cattle after roping. Their stirrups were covered with tapaderos, and their bits, spurs, and saddles were often adorned with silver. They wore armitas or chinks (which are lighter and shorter than chaps). It is the vaquero tradition to get the job done, and to look good doing it.
Those cowboys—both vaquero and Texan—who brought cattle to the Northern ranges and stayed through Montana winters created their own styles, largely in an effort to ride without freezing to death. Chaps were made out of Angora goat hides (though bearskin and buffalo hides weren’t uncommon), tapaderos were lined with sheepskins, silk scarves provided warmth with light weight, Scotch caps and earflaps for cowboy hats were invented, and gloves were lined with wool. Old lore advised attaching fresh skinned beaver tails into the bottoms of stirrups to prevent ice buildup.
One thing that helped expand everyone’s cowboy horizons from 1872 on was the advent of mail order catalogs, like Montgomery Ward’s. This made a variety of gear and clothing available to all, and helped blur cultural lines, as everyone had access to the same kinds of gear.
It was into this cauldron of varying traditions, conflicting philosophies, and style borne of necessity that Charlie Russell dove for inspiration.
HORSES, NOSE TO TAIL
For yearsI have noticed the number of double-cheeked bosals as hackamores in Russell’s art. (As an aside, bosal refers just to the noseband. A hackamore is the whole setup—bosal, headstall, maybe fiador, and mecate for reins and lead rope.) In “Men of the Open Range,” and the cowboy in “Toll Collector,” this style of bosal is readily seen. Having grown up around hackamore horses, Russell’s bosals appear to hang more flexibly than those I was used to seeing, and the headstalls attach further back. I wrote to a number of knowledgeable people—Lee Anderson, Gerald Mack, Ernie Morris, and Nate Wald—for their opinions about these double bosals, and the general consensus was that they were probably made of old or broken reatas. Two lengths of reata, stacked one over the other, with a heel knot of some kind braided, and a noseband either braided on, or a piece of leather laced or sewn in place would have been a reasonable copy, and easily made.
I question just how common these types of bosals were on the open range. If we use Russell’s art as the gauge, they were plentiful. However, in old photos, I have yet to find one pictured. One explanation might be that cowboys would not want their picture taken on a bronc in a hackamore, but instead would choose their best horse—presumably with a bridle setup—for the photo. Another could be that Russell just liked the look of that style of bosal, and had one handy for a model, sometimes painting them with a braided noseband, and sometimes with a laced one.
Of course, plenty of his subjects use bits; however, I wonder about the sheer number of silver-mounted bits and headstalls portrayed. Russell liked “horse jewelry,” and he decorated himself and his horses well, so he had a little bias in that direction, as do I. In looking through hundreds of old cowboy photos, I just don’t see that much silver in general use, and considering cowboy wages, it was probably less prevalent than shown in Russell’s artwork. It’s safe to assume that his cowboys were depicted “well.” An artist’s discretion.
But if these painted cowboys did have silver bits, Russell portrayed the corresponding horsemanship with precise accuracy. The training period of a Montana cow pony was very short in comparison to the five-year vaquero process. In the Northern ranges, a bronc twister had each horse for a month at most. The horses only received rudimentary training, then went on to the cowboy who began working cattle with them. Most of the cowboys didn’t have much finesse. Yet, if they did ride with a silver-mounted bit, the catalogs of the day reveal that almost all of those had spade or high half-breed mouthpieces in them. So, the fancy silver bits acted as “leverage” bits, and as the leverage against the curb strap increased, and the high port contacted the top of the horse’s mouth, the result is apparent—horses with high heads and gaped mouths. Charlie’s art reflects the way it was.
Another decoration of sorts that shows up in Russell’s art is rattlesnake skins. Many of Charlie’s cowboys have their saddle cantles decorated with rattlesnake skins, “Jerked Down” being a great example. If a freshly skinned snakeskin is put on a cantle, its natural glue will dry and permanently attach the skin to the saddle. I always thought this was for decoration or bragging rights. However, there was also folklore attached to the practice. Revered Western author J. Frank Dobie wrote that the skins were thought to prevent galls and saddle sores. Western novelist Elmer Kelton added that they would ward off rheumatism and prevent hemorrhoids. Since Eastern Montana has plenty of snakes, and many old time photos feature snakeskin-decorated saddles, it probably was a common practice.
No detail escaped Russell, right down to the brands his animal subjects carried. Stockgrower’s brand books of the era confirm the existence of many of them, and researchers are still able to discover to whom they were registered. Usually, the brands on the cattle are different from the ones on the cowboy’s horses. At the time, there were no fences and as many as 48 different brands might be represented in some of Montana’s cattle pools.
Some of Russell’s horses don’t have room on their hips to display any more brands, and he commonly shows three different brands on saddle horses. This is not a far-fetched representation, as Charlie’s own horse, Neenah, carried three brands—all of which he got in his first six years, before Charlie bought him. There must have been lots of buying, selling, and trading of horses in those days. One of the most common brands on Russell’s painted horses, the Rocking P, was among the irons on Neenah.
COWBOYS, HEAD TO TOE
In the 1880s and ’90s, the trousers of choice among cowpunchers were made by Oregon City Woolen Mills, in Oregon City, Calif. Teddy Blue Abbott, in his classic account of trail life, We Pointed them North, called them “California pants,” and paid $12 for his. Made from 100 percent pre-shrunk virgin wool—30 oz. to the yard—they were nearly waterproof. The pants were made loose in the legs and snug in the waist, with an adjustment tab in the back with buttons for suspenders. Though available in plaid, tan and grey were the favorite colors, and the pants were said to wear like iron—except in the seat, which wore out on the saddle. To prolong the life of the pants, it was common to sew foxing—usually made of buckskin—on the seat and down the insides of the legs. Many of Russell’s cowboys wore California pants with foxing on the seat, clearly visible in “In Without Knocking.”
Also common in Russell’s work are vests. These garments were worn year round, for ease of arm movement, and because, at the time, shirts did not have pockets. Almost all cowboys smoked, and they needed easy access to their “makins.” The four-pocket design of most vests provided that convenience. Vests—sometimes called waistcoats—could be left unbuttoned in the summer, and buttoned in winter for temperature regulation. Many had wool fronts and cotton backs. Close observers will notice a color variation from front to back in some of the vests Charlie painted, as the two different fabrics caught the sun differently.
Essential to a cowboy’s comfort and well-being was the Fish brand pommel slickers, developed in 1881 by Abner J. Tower, which sold for $3.50 each. On a wet or windy day, they were undoubtedly welcome because they covered a man from in front of the pommel, down to the ankles, and had a wide skirt with slits and gores for riding. They buttoned up the front and had a red flannel collar. The early ones had no pockets, but later, they had two side pockets so that pants pockets could be reached. As Russell’s paintings show, when not in use, they were usually rolled inside out and tied behind the cantle with saddle strings. Tower manufactured the slickers in two colors, black and yellow, with yellow being the most popular. The black ones were painted, and became stiff in winter, plus horses seemed to spook at them more than the yellow ones. Russell’s “A Rainy Morning” verifies this, as only one black slicker shows up in the painting.
Rain was a nuisance, but sunny days—then as now—were much more common in Eastern Montana. As such, wide-brimmed hats were standard in the cowboy uniform, though hat styles from the era were anything but consistent. Most everybody wanted a fur felt hat, and preferably beaver fur, as wool felt hats just did not keep their shape or offer the same level of water resistance. Most hats came from the manufacturer unshaped—just a flat out brim and a high rounded crown. The hat owner would dunk it in a horse trough to wet it or hold it over boiling water to dampen it with steam, then shape the crown and brim to suit himself. If the sun was the most common weather element cowboys dealt with on the open range, wind was a close second. To keep those hats on, stampede strings became a necessary addition. Most of the ones shown in Charlie’s art are looped under the chin or behind the head.
Cowboy boots evolved from cavalry types into close-fitting, high-topped, high-heeled riding boots. In 1885, Montgomery Ward’s catalog offered for the first time “Cow Boy’s Boots,” and continued to expand their line through the turn of the century. C.H. Hyer also offered cowboy boots through mail order, and custom boot makers set up shop in some places. Russell bought his boots custom made by a rancher who had been a shoemaker at Fort Maginnis, and liked the foot to fit tight and the heels high. In all his artwork, Russell portrays the boots of this time accurately. The boots had a narrow, rounded toe, heels that were two to three inches high, and tops that measured 15 to 17 inches tall and were stitched in fancy patterns which looked good and gave the tops strength. In Russell’s art, some cowboys tucked their pants into their boots, and some didn’t. The foot on these boots was snug, so they had pulls on them, and it was usually a two-man affair to get them off.
THE FULL PICTURE
From the hackamoreon a horse’s head to the brands on his hip and the hat on a cowboy’s head to the boots on his feet, I find it easy to lose myself in Russell’s work. The details of the trappings and gear add up to become more than the sum of their parts. They serve as proof of Russell’s cowboy credibility, and reveal his preferences and personal tastes, but the true genius of Russell’s craft is his singular ability to capture cowboy predicaments. I’m entranced in the captured moment of each action-packed Russell painting, imagining what will happen next. The animals’ expressions and foot placement tell me where their next steps are going. The coordination and focus of a horse’s eyes and ears tell me where he is looking. The position of the cowboy in his saddle tells me about his reaction to the situation.
Russell somehow captured an astounding amount of energy in a stop-action moment. Being able to recall scenes from cowboy life and transfer them to canvas is a testament to his photographic mind, sharp memory, and artistic skill. He left us a treasure trove of authentic situations, horses, and gear from the wild and wooly life of the open range cowboy of the late 1800s. His art is a true time capsule that accomplishes the rare feat of accuracy and affect.