This item is a pair of worn leather chaps given to the museum in 1995. Chaps were and still are worn by cowboys and ranchers. This type of clothing is an essential piece of a cowboy’s attire that protect the legs of cowboys while riding horses and when walking through rough landscapes. Leather is a thick and durable material that is hard to penetrate. It makes it possible for a cowboy to walk safely through areas with thorns, burrs, stickers, and barbed wire. Chaps also help to protect the rider from friction related “saddle sores.”
During cattle drives leather chaps would have been crucial for cowboys. A cattle drive is when a herd of cattle are transported by foot from one place to another. These drives became very important in the 1840’s and 1850’s during the California Gold Rush. Due to the increase of wealth in California the demand for beef raised dramatically. Cattle from Texas was being driven and sold to California citizens for 50 to 200 dollars per head (between 1,500 and 6,000 dollars in today’s currency). Drives from Texas could last between five to six months. Later on in the 19th century, the Chisholm Trail became known. This trail is considered to have been one of the largest cattle drives in the country. At the most it is estimated that 600,000 to 700,000 cattle were driven from Texas through Oklahoma to Kansas in a single year.
On this trail a woman by the name of Mary O. Taylor Bunton (known as Mollie) made the ride with her husband James Howell Bunton, from Sweetwater, Texas to Coolidge, Kansas in 1886. Out of fear of being left alone on their ranch she decided that she would join the cattle drive. During that time it was considered inappropriate for a woman to ride on a cattle drive, making her one of the few cowgirls of the Old West. Despite speculation and doubt Mollie was determined to make the drive. She was one of few women (possibly the only) to make this drive and was named the “Queen of the Old Chisholm Trail” when it was over. Years later in 1915 Mollie made her cattle drive experiences into a book, “A Bride on the Old Chisholm Trail in 1886.” Years later in 1948 at the motion picture premier of “Red River” Mollie was honored since it was believed that she was the only woman to make it up the dangerous trail.
“Red River” is one of countless movies based on cowboy life and cattle drives. These motion pictures became extremely popular in the 20th century, later they were known as western movies. The star of this movie was the famous John Wayne, considered to some as the face of western films. Wayne’s career thrived for over 50 years, making an appearance in nearly 200 films and starring in 142 of them. Most of his movies Wayne is either a cowboy, a ranger, or something of the sort. In the early 1970’s he was offered a role in Larry McMurtry’s “The Streets of Laredo“. However, Wayne turned down the role and the film was forgotten until 1985 when McMurtry wrote a prequel novel called “Lonesome Dove.”
“Lonesome Dove” was turned into a miniseries in 1989. It starred Robert Duvall and Tommy-Lee Jones as two retired Texas Rangers who decide to drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana. The story is inspired by the real life accounts of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. The tale features the two men and their partners’ experiences on the trail. They face numerous life threatening adventures including floods, snakes, and Indians. These experiences plus many more would have been incidents that other real life cowboys went through.