Robin Gilliam Crawford
is the curator of the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock, Texas
Read diary excerpts of frontier wife Susan Newcomb
Up to the time of America's Civil War (1861-1865), ranching done by Anglo Texans was more commonly called stock raising. The ranch, a term borrowed from the Spanish "rancho," was then known as a stock farm. In the postwar years, both family businesses and international cattle companies expanded across the West, involving greater numbers of people, including the women.
In most cases, the family ranch was worked by the men: father, brothers, uncles, and cousins. Young men from around the area were hired to help out -- if the family could afford to pay wages. Otherwise, the men from neighboring ranches gathered cattle as a group, herding several families' animals to a central location for branding and sorting.
But what were the wives and daughters doing? Lots of food preparation, including tending the gardens, picking fruit or vegetables, canning or drying various foods, gathering eggs and plucking the occasional chicken, cooking hearty meals, and baking lots of bread. Then they had to bring in more water from the well; wash all the plates, cups, mixing bowls, baking pans, and utensils; and begin preparing the next meal.
If the wife had a better head for numbers than her husband, she might keep the records of stock increases, cattle or horse sales, supplies bought, and so on. She usually made up the orders for bulk goods such as flour, sugar, beans, and coffee to be bought when a couple of cowboys could be spared for a week or so to take a wagon into town. It was a potentially dangerous undertaking, since Indian attacks were still a real possibility into the 1870s. Sometimes this job would fall to the ladies when the ranch hands could not make the trip.
Life on a remote ranch was a matter of self-sufficiency, so the ladies usually made their own and the children's clothes and some of the men's things. Thankfully, sewing machines became more common after the Civil War. Only a few women continued to spin and weave cotton or wool as they had during the war. They did the family laundry (though hired cowboys usually had to wash and mend their own things), and all of the required ironing. While few outsiders would ever see them, the ladies tried to maintain a semblance of propriety in the way they dressed, and to keep the house clean and attractive.
Women who actually assisted with the cow works were a minority, and one or two frontier Amazons might even ride astride like a man, wearing trousers! This was the extreme, and such women would be "talked about" as socially suspect. More often, ranch wives and daughters rode sidesaddle, and if they had to ride a man's saddle they did it in very full skirts. Divided riding skirts did not appear until the end of the 19th century.
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The Open Range
Life for the Rancher's Wife
The Vaquero Origins of the Texas Cowboy
Lords of the Plains
African American Cowboys
Buffalo Soldiers on the Frontier
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