Chapter One: The Wild, Wild West
A Cowboy Needs A Horse
What are jinglebobs, heel chains, and rowels?
They're parts of a cowboy's spurs.
Did cowboys wear high heels to make them look taller?
Well, maybe in some of the movie cowboys. The real-life kind, however, wore them for two reasons: to keep their feet from slipping out of the stirrups and to put some extra distance between their feet and the muck when walking through fields full of cattle excrement.
How much water can a ten-gallon hat hold?
About three quarts. So, how did it get its name, you may well ask? Some say it was just a cowboy exaggeration about the size of the hat, but those who claim to know say that it's because the hat was advertised as being big enough for 10 galions. (Galions are those braids that decorated the crown.) Regardless, what most people don't know is that this classic cowboy hat style was first manufactured by John B. Stetson in that Wild West town of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Why were cowboys called cowpokes or cowpunchers?
Because poke and punch is what they literally did to cattle that balked at going up the ramps leading to railcars and packing plants.
Where did the Old West ranchers get their horses and cattle if they didn't transport them from back East?
Both mustangs and Texas longhorns ran wild through the plains when the first settlers moved west. It was just a matter of catching and domesticating them. Neither animal, though, was indigenous to the Americas -- they were descended from animals that had been brought over to Mexico by Spaniards in the 1500s. Over the intervening three centuries, feral herds of horses and longhorns had grazed their way up and across the continent.
When It Absolutely Needs To Get There In A Fortnight
How long did it take to get a letter from coast to coast by Pony Express?
In the middle of the 1800s, before the U.S. got wired with telegraph, you'd send a piece of mail from the East Coast to the West and not expect it to get there for months. A simple mail exchange of "Here's the contract; do we have a deal?" could require a half year or more before you got a response. In the frontier beyond the Mississippi River, there were no trains, not even roads to speak of, and most mail either went over land on a creeping stagecoach or by ship around South America.
People in business, government, and journalism hated waiting that long. So you could see how the Pony Express really seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. Your package was absolutely, positively guaranteed to get the nearly 2,000 miles from Sacramento to St. Louis in 10 days (15 in winter). Even adding a few more days for the trains to take your message the rest of the way to business centers in New York or Chicago, you can still see how a one-month turnaround time could be an exciting prospect.
That's how William Russell saw it anyway when the idea of the Central Overland Pony Express Company came to him. In order to have mail traveling at the fastest possible speed -- of horses galloping in a relay race against time -- he realized that was going to take hundreds of horses, scores of riders, and stations at reasonable intervals to trade horses and riders (horses every 10-15 miles, riders every 75). He also knew that traveling through Indian territory would be dangerous. He figured that he'd have to charge a bundle per letter to make it worth his while, but he hoped that would come down once he got the government contracts.
It cost $5 per half-ounce to send a package by Pony Express in 1860, which is the equivalent of about $95 in today's dollars. Despite the outrageous cost, the Pony Express still lost money on every letter it carried. Worst of all, the government contracts founder William Russell expected never materialized. With some relief, Russell closed the whole thing down two days after the first coast-to-coast telegraph line went online. In its 19 months of existence, the Pony Express delivered 34,753 pieces of mail and ended up nearly $200,000 in debt.
How many Pony Express riders were killed by Indians, outlaws, etc.?
It was a dangerous job, as indicated by the newspaper ads that recruited riders: "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." Surprisingly, though, the 183 riders (aged 11 through the mid-40s, despite the ad) survived pretty well. Only one was killed by Indians, although his pony knew the way and continued with the mail to the next station. For the danger, the riders were paid $100-150 a month (equivalent to about $1,900-2,750 in today's money).
East Is West & Ever The Train Shall Meet
Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, how were goods shipped to the western territories?
Some were carried across country, but it was an expensive and overly difficult task, coming across mountainous regions and prairie terrain. The easier, although far more distant, route west was by sea. Almost all goods, including those used to start work on the transcontinental railroad, were shipped around Cape Horn and across thousands of statute miles to reach western American destinations. The only transcontinental railroad building materials naturally found on the West Coast were timber (for various structures and cross ties), stone, and brick. Tools, rail, appliances, machines, and many of the laborers had to be shipped in from other locations.
Did slaves work on the transcontinental railroad?
No. By the time work began in the 1860s, the Civil War was already raging and slavery was on its way out. Instead, two work crews began laying track from the two ends of the railroad line, and they met in Utah. The laborers from the east were mostly Irish and the ones from the west, mostly Chinese.
What did the Native American word "how" mean, "How are ya?"
No, but good guess. You're not far off from what it's come to mean for most American movie watchers. "How," or something sounding similar, came from the language of the Sioux tribe. The word was used at the beginning of their sentences in the same way we would say, "Well," and then trounce off into a thought. Settlers may have misinterpreted and thought they were saying "hello." Or even, "How are ya?"
Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'
How often did gunmen do the Main Street quick-draw shoot-out duel like you see in the movies?
Not nearly as often as in the movies. In fact, there isn't a single documented case of it ever happening like the movies portray it. The whole quick-draw myth came from early dime novels. When Wyatt Earp was asked about quick-draw shoot-outs in the 1920s, he told an interviewer that the guy who drew his gun and shot quickly invariably missed. The way to survive a gunfight, Earp said, was to take a second before shooting to steady your hand and aim.
How dangerous was it to live in a Wild West town?
Not as dangerous as you'd think. As a matter of fact, the modern-day cliché of using the Wild West as a metaphor for the dangers of big cities does a grave disservice to the olden days. Take wild, wild Dodge City. Its absolutely worst year for violence was 1878; the total number of shooting deaths that year was five. Combine the shooting deaths for all of the cattle towns from 1870 to 1885, and you'll get a total of 45.
My great-grandmother told me she saw a bloody shoot-out in Nevada in the late 1800s. How come I can't find any record of it?
It could be that she fell for a small-town hoax. During the 1870s, Palisades, Nevada, got a reputation as one tough little town because train passengers on rest stops th...