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Makin’ A Hand

Makin’ a Hand, Ridin’ for the Brand, Code of the West: all terms that define a way of life that prevailed in sparsely populated, lawless areas of the American West. People had to govern themselves because law enforcement officers might be days, even weeks, away, or even dead. If you weren’t a square shooter, the neighbors would know soon enough. People loved to gossip back then too.

Timid men were not among them—the life did not fit ‘em.

Cowboy Creed Price, Sanford Ranch

The necessary skills needed to “make a hand” were crucial when working with livestock. The ability to rope wild cattle, ride a horse, and know where to be when the work got dicey was highly regarded. In some cases, split second decisions could mean life or death. “Makin’ a hand” is the highest form of a compliment.

Ridin’ for the Brand

“Ridin’ for the brand” was another term applied to loyal ranch employees. The brand is a ranch’s trademark, used to lay claim on ownership of livestock. Brand’s were usually registered with the county where the ranch was located. Under that brand is a legacy of ranching and pride of ownership and stewardship of the land. To hire on with that ranch means a cowboy is loyal to that brand. When that trail drover hired on to “go up the trail” he stayed with those Texas Longhorns day and night, until they were loaded on to the train cars at the Kansas railhead.

Son, a man’s brand

Is his own special mark

That says this is mine, leave it alone.

You hire out to a man,

Ride for his brand

And protect it like it was your own.

RED STEAGALL, Actor, Musician and Western Poet
Cowboy Casey Bright on Moon, Sanford Ranch

A hand shake means something, a man’s word is his bond, and good manners are always in style. The cowboy code still exists. You may be a bit skeptical, but it’s true. I’m around these kinds of people every day. Deals are still closed by a handshake, and business can be conducted in a high rise board room or leaning against the top rail of the horse pen.

In the Texas Panhandle you’ll hear a few “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, sirs”, and if you hang around too long the term “fixin’ to” will be repeated more than once — everybody is busy. I think that’s a holdover of the pioneer spirit that still exists in our DNA. Making something where there’s nothing. Respecting the land and another man’s property. Lending a hand when needed. Men who hold doors open for ladies, which can be credited to that strong-willed woman who raised him.

“Some of the proprieties were very carefully observed, too. For example, a woman, no matter whether she was a housewife, a dance hall girl or even a courtesan (and mind you, the last two were not necessarily the same), was treated with grave courtesy on the street. Any man who failed to observe this canon got into trouble.”

Eddie Foy, Vaudeville Comedienne about his time in Dodge City during its heyday as a Cowtown. “Clowning Through Life”, page 104.

The age-old cowboy code of courage, loyalty to the brand, working without complaints, facing trouble head on, and respect for women hold true in the western culture even today.

Cowboy Taylor Burkett, Sanford Ranch

Spring Cowboy Work

In about a month we will begin branding at the Sanford and I can’t begin to express into words how important the cowboys are that work that week. We couldn’t have a cow/calf operation without them. Their work ethic is second to none. These guys get up at dark-thirty, load their horse and travel to the ranch because they are in the saddle by first light. They’re back the next day, branding, ear tagging, and vaccinating several hundred cows before lunch. And they stay at it until the work is done, and then it’s on to the next ranch.

There’s No Quit in Cowboy

There are countless stories about the people of the American West who don’t back down from trouble, whether that’s relating to livestock, weather, hard-times, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even today, most rural people I know spend very little time on whining. The situation is dealt with head on, followed by common sense talk as in “what-a we do now?” and often times a lot of prayer. The situation then becomes a story to be retold, an experience to be analyzed. But “quit” is not in the equation.

What does the Code of the West mean to you?

I am in deep in the research for my next book about Cowtowns, railroads, and the cattle business, including the food of that era. I’ve been reading about the people and lawmen of those towns and about their bravery. In story after story, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and many others never hesitated—they ran full tilt towards the action which is one of the reasons they maintained a reputation that was larger than life.

Watch for “END OF TRAIL EATS: Cowboy-Approved Favorites from the Cowtown Cafe to the Saloon” with food, photographs and first-hand accounts from the late 1800s about life in a Cowtown (from TwoDot, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield).

You can Pre-Order a copy now from Barnes and Noble! Click here.

Photos by Natalie Bright, Sanford Ranch.

Cattle Trails of the Old West

Natalie Bright is an blogger, speaker, and author of fiction and nonfiction books for kids and adults. She writes romance with co-author Denise F. McAllister and historical fiction chapter books for ages 8-10. KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN‘ features authentic recipes from the cattle trail era along with ranch photography and history of the American WestComing early spring 2024, END OF TRAIL EATS will feature the food and history of Cowtowns.