History Trunks – Cowboys and Cattle Trails



On Wednesday we met to learn more about cowboys and cattle trails in Kansas using a history trunk from the Kansas State Historical Society. This period of history, while short, had and continues to have an impact on the state of Kansas and its economy.

We started our class by talking about what we knew about cowboys, and dispelling some myths about who was a cowboy, and what cowboys did. Cowboys in film and stories are often quite different than the reality – they did not often rescue people or chase down bandits (unless it was a cattle rustler going for their herd). They did, however, master the art of driving cattle, working a lasso, and enduring uncomfortable conditions on the trail.

We then took some to to view, try on and discuss the items in the trunk. The trunk included a hat, silk bandanna, leather chaps, leather boots, a pair of spurs, a pair of leather gloves, and two lariats, as well as an instructor guide and a photo book describing the items. The kids had fun trying on the clothes while we talked about the importance of each item to keep a cowboy protected from the sun, wind, rain and local environment. We also talked about how the clothes a cowboy wore told you about where they were from, especially the type of hat and type of chaps they wore.

One of the kids trying on the hat – it was a little big for him, but looked great with the rest of his outfit!

Learning about lariat materials from then and now

We talked about another item of cowboy gear – belt buckles – and how they were not just for decoration, but acted as a makeshift savings account for cowboys when the buckles were made out of silver or gold. The kids were given slips of paper and foil blanks to create their own belt buckles with designs they created for themselves. The kids drew their designs on the slips of paper, then laid them over the blanks to create a debossed image.

Working on a belt buckle design

Laying the design over the blank to create the debossed image

Here are some of their finished belt buckle designs:











We also talked about cattle – how they roamed freely on the Texas scrubland, how they needed to be corralled and branded before heading north to the Kansas rail towns, how cattle rustlers would take a brand and change it so they could steal the cattle. We talked about the importance of branding for ranches, and how they would create their own brand that was unlike someone else’s. We looked at different ways letters in a brand could be written, and then the kids were given paper and markers to work on creating their own brand.

After we created our own brands, the kids divided into teams to play a brand guessing game. The kids did a great job at deciphering the brands, and we had a tie for a while. Congrats to team A for their win on the third tie-breaker round!

We then took a break to sample some of the foods that would have been served on a chuck wagon – calico beans, cornbread and beef jerky. While the kids (and parents too) were eating, we talked about why ranchers assigned cooks for the trail, what kinds of foods would be served and why, and how important a good chuck wagon was to the success of a cattle drive. We also talked about how cowboys lived and worked on the trail – sleeping on the ground with just a bedroll and a saddle, bathing in streams (if at all), and the kind of work they did for 18 hours a day.

We talked about the length of the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas (around 1000 miles), how long most cattle drives were (two months, roughly), how much cowboys were paid ($1/day plus meals and horses provided), and how very few of the cowboys actually ended up wealthy after working a cattle drive (hint: they spent all their money in cattle towns). Finally, we talked about the biggest thing to stop the cattle drives – barbed wire – and how farmers had taken over what had been open land just 20 years before.

From there we had a short Q&A time with the kids and parents asking questions that they still had about cowboys. We also distributed worksheets that the kids could take home.

This trunk was a great springboard for our class about cowboys and cattle trails. Thanks so much to the Kansas Historical Society for the trunk – we look forward to receiving our next one!

If you are interested in learning more about cowboys, here are some great resources from the Johnson County Library that I used to prepare for this class:

Kid-friendly reference books
B is for Buckaroo: A Cowboy Alphabet by Whitney
Cowboys by Ross
Cowboys by Sandler
Cowboys and Longhorns: A Portrait of the Long Drive by Stanley
Cowboys of the Frontier by Sundling
Cowboys of the Wild West by Freedman
DK Eyewitness Cowboy
DK Eyewitness Wild West
Life on the Trail by Kalman
Voices of the Western Frontier by Garland
Yippee-Yay! A Book about Cowboys and Cowgirls by Gibbons

Biographies and autobiographies
Charles M. Russell by Hassrick – great examples of cowboy art
Cowboy Charlie by Winter
Home on the Range: John A. Lomax and His Cowboy Songs by Hopkinson
How to Get Rich on a Texas Cattle Drive by Olson
Outrageous Women of the American Frontier by Furbee

Western-themed tall tales and fiction
Buffalo Bill by d’Aulaire
Four Dollars and Fifty Cents by Kimmel
Pecos Bill by Braun
Pecos Bill by Kellogg
The Youngest Drover by Carter (takes place in Canada, but gives a real feel for the lifestyle)

General reference
African Americans in the West by Flamming
The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill by Warren
The Cattle Towns by Dykstra
The Chisholm Trail in American History by Sanford
Cowboys and Kansas by Hoy
The Cowman’s Southwest edited by Debo
Desperate Seed by Gray
Ghost Towns of Kansas by Fitzgerald
150 Years of Kansas Beef by Kastner and Tenhouse
Victorian West by Haywood
Wild, Woolly and Wicked by Drago

Many thanks to the families who attended the class!


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