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Arizona’s cow-punchers

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Arizona “cow-punchers” in a picturesque setting somewhere in Graham County around 1890.

Arizona cowboys were often referred to as “cow-punchers,” with their styles of riding and dress made up from a mix of the traditions of Texas and California cowboys.

California cowboys used 40-pound heavy saddles on their horses. The saddles were high and the stirrups almost made the rider stand up. They used tapaderos flaps, which would hang from the bottom of the stirrups, sometimes almost to the ground.

Texas cowboys used long, broad-horned saddles strapped loosely to their horses. They did not use tapaderos. It was said that the Texans rode in an “Apache Indian fashion” with their knees bent.

In addition to being referred to as a cow-puncher, an Arizona cowboy’s rope was known as a “lass” instead of a lasso. Some rode in the Texan style. Others rode in the Californian style, depending on where the cow-puncher came from.

Because early Arizona was primarily open range for many years, cattle could wander over an area of some 200 to 300 square miles for each herd. In early Arizona, each cattleman was the law for their domain.

While they may have put up with the branding of meandering calves by neighboring cattlemen, there were often deadly feuds between rival camps.

Eventually, those days were replaced by cattlemen’s associations with regular meetings to discuss business and set dates for spring and fall roundups.

Charles B. (Badger) Clark, Jr. wrote a song in 1906 about roundups.

One verse described the roundup as:

“A cavortin’ and snortin’ of horses gone wrong, with a hailstorm of cuss words, a sprinkle of song, and a bawlin’ of calves that don’t want to but must, and a smell of burnt hair and a swirlin’ of dust, and a rattle of battle ’mongst long horned cattle, and that is the heart of the round-up.

Wow! The round-up!”

Roundups were often called “rodeos” since they were a regular gathering of the clans. Cow-punchers could compare their skills to others at these gatherings.

Cow-punchers also had unique names. A roster from an Arizona roundup included “One Eyed” Pete, “Punch Bellied” Jake, “Bony” Waters, “Possum” Rawlings, “Two bits” Bates and “Kid.”

As the cow-punchers headed out to do their jobs, author George Wharton James described them as wearing “their chaps, high-topped boots, spurs, broad-brimmed sombreros, and with red, blue, green or yellow bandanas or silk handkerchiefs around their neck.”

At the end of the day, the cow-punchers would gather around the “grubwagon.” After the meal, the cow-punchers were supposed to put their dirty plates into a roundup pan. When a man forgot to do it, the cook would find him guilty of this heinous crime.

As punishment, the “villain” would be grabbed by the other cow-punchers, “stretched across the water barrel face downwards, and held there, while Cookie proceeds to administer with a pair of leather ‘chaps,’ the number of strokes named upon the posterior anatomy of the victim.”

As Arizona became more civilized, rodeos were relegated to arenas in many of the communities across the state. By the 1930s, these events would be front-page news in the local newspapers. Thousands of people would crowd into venues to watch talented cow-punchers compete in events that replicate the skills needed on the range.

While cow-punchers and rodeos still exist, their time seems to be fading as Arizona becomes more urbanized.

— Mike Miller. Photo courtesy of Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, History and Archives Division, Phoenix, # 95-3496.

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