The rugged mountains guarding the western entrance to Brown's Park wore a fresh dusting of snow in October 2007.

Photo by Tom Ross

The rugged mountains guarding the western entrance to Brown's Park wore a fresh dusting of snow in October 2007.

Tom Ross: I'm a lonesome cowdude, riding o'er the range

Steamboat Springs author, John Rolfe Burroughs, made lasting contributions to history


Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Have you ever stopped to wonder why people who herd cattle from horseback are referred to as cowboys and cowgirls instead of cowmen and cowwomen? Or perhaps cowgals and cowguys? Maybe even cowdudes and cowdudettes?

There is a very rational explanation for the term "cowboy" that is grounded in the historical development of the American West and the minimum wage. I have been writing about cowboys since I was in the third grade. However, I never understood the derivation of the word cowboy until this week. A friend delivered an autographed copy of the John Rolfe Burroughs classic, "Where the Old West Stayed Young" to my desk, and I can't wait to leave the newsroom and resume my reading.

So, set yourself down by the campfire, pour yourself a tin cup of strong cowdude coffee, and I'll share the author's explanation of how cowboys came to be cowboys.

Burroughs was a nationally known writer who grew up in Steamboat in an era when the streets were unpaved and everyone living in Old Town owned at least one dairy cow.

Burroughs confides that he was no cowboy, but he had a saddle horse of his own from a young age.

The writer devoted several books to Steamboat Springs, including "Steamboat in the Rockies" and "Headfirst in the Pickle Barrel," the account of his youth. He also preserved the legacy of one of Steamboat's favorite sons in "I Never Look Back: The Story of Buddy Werner."

"Where the Old West Stayed Young," however, focuses on a large expanse of neighboring Moffat County known to fur trappers, cattle queens and outlaws as Brown's Park.

Here's how the publisher, William Morrow and Co., described the book in 1962: "The remarkable history of Brown's Park told for the first time, together with an account of the rise and fall of the range cattle business in Northwestern Colorado and Southwestern Wyoming and much about cattle barons, sheep and sheep men, forest rangers, range wars, long riders, paid killers and other bad men."

I might add that the publisher left out "bad women," for they also can be found in the pages of the book.

"Where the Old West Stayed Young" won Burroughs an award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

Brown's Park is a sprawling open valley in the Rocky Mountains where travelers are never quite certain if they are in Colorado, Wyoming or Utah. If Montana novelist Thomas McGuane visited, he would quickly recognize it as "the High Lonesome." It remains a rare chunk of largely untamed American West. It's a place where native people found a mild climate, outlaws hid out and cattle barons wintered their cattle.

And that brings me to "cow boys."

In his prologue, Burroughs relates how Texas was an impoverished region immediately after the Civil War. However, one resource that Texans seized upon was the hundreds of thousands of unbranded cattle that ranged its southern plains. The long-horned beeves were the descendants of animals brought to the new world by Spaniards in the 16th century.

Texans undertook the dirty job of rounding up these semi-wild animals and branding them to make them their own. The biggest challenge they faced was trailing the cattle north to the nearest railheads in Kansas.

Prior to the Civil War, Burroughs wrote, the men who drove cattle across country to market were not called cowboys, but drovers.

The poorly fed Texas longhorns did not bring attractive prices, and the profit margins were slim. The would-be Texas cattle barons could not afford to pay the prevailing wages of $25 or $30 a month for grown men, Burroughs wrote.

Instead, they employed boys ages 12 to 15 who could be hired for as little as $5 a month and grub. These boys were given the heavy responsibility of moving large herds across difficult and sometimes hostile ground. Many of them proved very capable.

Thus, the genesis of the term cowboy.

Eventually the great herds from Texas found their way to the lush grasslands of Northwest Colorado. But that's a story for Burroughs to tell.

There are three copies of "Where the Old West Stayed Young" in the collection at Bud Werner Memorial Library. Two of the three were checked out on Friday afternoon, and the third is kept under lock and key. The latter may be viewed only in the library.

It's a must for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of how the Yampa Valley fits into the taming of the West.


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