"Most of them were Southerners, and they were a wild reckless bunch. For Dress they wore wide brimmed beaver hats, black or brown with a low crown, fancy shirts, high heeled boots and sometimes a vest. Their clothes and saddles were all homemade. Most of them had an army coat with cape which was slicker and blanket too. Lay on your saddle blanket and cover up with a coat was about the only bed used on the Texas Trail at first. A few had a big buffalo robe to roll up in, but if they ever got good and wet , you never had time to dry them , so they were not popular. All had a pair of bullhide chaps or leggings they called them then. They were good in brush and wet weather, but in fine weather were left in the wagon."
- Edward Charles Abbot on Cowboys of the 1870s in his book "We Pointed Them North : Recollections of a Cowpuncher"
I often think of the modern image of the cowboy that we can thank hollywood and dime novels for giving us. Somehow these people seem to have existed in some kind of fairytale land where guns blazed and fights broke out all over the place. Where they wore big ten gallon hats and walked like John Wayne. The reality is much to dull, or is it?
The cowboys of the 1870s were simple men. Simple. Let's examine that word. Some definitions of the word according to Webster is :
-Having few parts
-Not special or unusual
-Free from elaboration or figuration
This is a great starting point for any impression.
Having Few Parts
So often you see very elaborate set ups, wether it's on a person, or their entire camp. Camp furniture litters their camp along with the latest in primitive appliances. A giant tent with all the luxuries of the 21st century neatly kept out of site, or not. Then you look at the person who has adorned themselves with an equal amount of lavish accoutrements. When I look around I see the west being portrayed as a wild shoot em up affair where all the different eras (70s, 80s and 90s) are lumped together for a sort of generic impression. A back to basics approach is needed.
A lot can be helped by narrowing your impression to a very specific moment in time. Why? Isn't that limiting? Why yes it is. But it's limiting in the best way. Because of your limitations it becomes that much easier to put together a solid impression. By us, for instance choosing to focus on the year of 1876 we cut out a very large portion of Old West firearms and are left with anything manufactured prior to that, still giving us plenty of options but giving us a very definitive line that we do not cross. Again, Having Few Parts. We also limit ourselves to certain hat styles and cuts of clothing which we find the difference in by closely looking at the photographic evidence of the time period. Suddenly, you start to focus more on the subtle differences that make the 1880s different from the 1870s, even though it's a very short time frame.
If we are focusing on the 1870s, we can read the quote above and know that the accoutrements of the cowboy were nothing fancy. The description he gives of this "...wild reckless bunch" shows us the cowboy wasn't to particular about where he threw down his bedroll which didn't consist of a tarp, or a tent or a camp chair, or a camp box with all the dressings...you know what I'm driving at. Again, Having Few Parts.
Not Special or Unusual
So often going for that unique impression is the goal of so many, while the basics are left behind. Most times that thing that is chosen as Special or Unusual isn't even right to begin, or a bad copy of the original item in question. The best thing you can do is start with the most common impression. Nothing fancy, just a good solid impression of the common man of the time. Why? Because it was the most common, and the best representation of what was being seen during the time. If you have an event and there are 50 guys there and all 50 of them are US Marshall's...well, that doesn't really give a very good representation of what was common.
In reenacting it's just fine to be normal. We read the description of cowboys above that mentions buffalo robes. It mentions that they were not popular because of their weight when they got wet. It would be very easy for reenactors to just go ahead and use them because "I'm only gonna be out here for a weekend and I want to be comfortable." However, if every guy in the outfit has a buffalo robe, you have misrepresented the norm. If one guy has a buffalo robe, then you are staying more true to the actual time and place. Again, Not Special or Unusual.
Free From Elaboration or Figuration
It's easy to want to decorate yourself with all manner of accoutrements. I've seen on folks claiming to be cowboys wearing the following :
-Beaded neck knives
-Hats with all manner of gaudy hat bands
-Boots with decoration
-Giant Bowie Knives with big bone or horn handles
-Indian decoration (feathers, beads etc)
-All manner of hat styles from hollywood styles to simply later styles.
None of these things are going to help keep things Simple, and are in no way consistent with period examples of Cowboys or average Joe's of the west. It's best to steer very clear of these types of Elaboration or Figuration. The common man of the west were pretty free from all this.
With these points in mind, you will be able to represent the common man of the west even better and hopefully have even more fun doing it.