The Legacy of the Wyoming Stock Saddle



Saddle Up and Saddle Over

The Migration of Saddles and Saddlemakers onto the Western Great Plains

By Roger Blomquist, Ph.D. (ABD)

On a small stand in a dark room, sits a lone saddle in the house of Harold Mapes' widow.  Near the Snake River and in the evening shadows of the Grand Teton Mountains, this quiet house is part of the Triangle X Ranch, which is now a dude ranch and hosts a river rafting business directed by Harold's grandson.  Harold was born about 1884 and worked along the United States‑Mexican border, transporting illegal aliens back to their homeland.  Later he joined the Mexican Revolution to fight with Pancho Villa.  He rode in this saddle while he fought south of the border, having three horses shot out from underneath him and the saddle still bears a hole where one of these horses was shot through the leather skirt.  The horse, while shot, was still able to get Harold back to the safety of camp before it died.  This saddle, which was made by Rufus Sarson of Aspen, Colorado, was the one Howard rode when he was reported to be the first white man to explore and map the mainland of western Mexico.  This saddle also served him well as he engaged in rodeos around central and western Mexico.  Later he rode in it to Wyoming to settle on the ranch site.[1]

          Just as was true for the saddle of Harold Mapes, saddles have migrated to, and evolved in, the area of the Great Plains.  In countries with horses, saddles were developed and refined for war; less common were the saddles used for pleasure.  Civilian saddles are far more common today because no horse cavalry exists in today's Army.  In the western half of the United States the stock saddle, or cowboy saddle, was, and still is the overwhelming favorite.[2]

          I have found that the origin of the development of the saddle in Wyoming and other parts of the Great Plains can be explained with two analogies, a cobweb and a reservoir.  First the cobweb.  Taking a look at the craftsmen of saddlemaking shows that they came from all over the country, studied with various saddlemakers, and then either moved out on their own or to another saddlemaker.  To add to this web were the mobile cowboys who would bring a saddle from one area and have another saddle built to match, and the design of the saddle would catch on with the maker or cowboys in the area.  So this cobweb theory states that saddlemakers came from various parts of the United States to converge in the cattle and railroad centers of the West to provide the best saddles they could for the working cowboy, and to become as prosperous as they could while doing so.  The points of origin for the saddlemakers who moved to Wyoming and the Great Plains and where they converged in common points in Wyoming, plus the various locations from which the saddles came to be modified by those saddlemakers form lines which, when plotted on a map, would look much like a cobweb.

          Cheyenne, located at the upper area of the Southern Plains, was one of the biggest saddle producers and cattle centers in the old West.[3]  The ideas and cattle which moved up from Texas through Colorado hit the Cheyenne area and continued up the Northern Plains into Canada.  The mountains were a natural barrier between Cheyenne and the northern part of Wyoming and southern Montana.  Miles City became the saddle center for Montana, and industrially and culturally, Sheridan, Wyoming, was closer to Miles City than Cheyenne.  Miles City was the cattle center of that geographic area, so the styles that were used in Sheridan came more from the saddles of Montana, Oregon, and California, than from their southern neighbors in Cheyenne and further south in Texas.  Both of these saddles came originally from Mexico, and their lineage can be trace back to the saddle which Cortez brought from Spain in 1519.  One style moved north through Mexico, into Texas, and up the cattle trails until it reached E. L. Gallatin, who was an early Wyoming saddlemaker in Denver, Colorado, and Cheyenne, Wyoming.  The other style followed a reverse migration path up to the Pacific Coast of California and Oregon, then east across the Rockies into the cattle lands of Montana and northern Wyoming.

          The reservoir analogy fits the movement of the saddle in a different way.  As a dam is completed and the hydraulic flow of a river or stream behind the dam is restricted, the basin begins to fill with water.  Since the ground of a valley floor is usually uneven, water will not collect in a single body as in a concrete swimming pool.  Instead it will first collect in the lowest area, fill it, then spill over into other low areas.  Because of the unevenness of the ground there will soon be several pools connected by corridors of water, and as this water level rises, these corridors of water widen and the pools deepen and enlarge.  Eventually, as the water continues to rise, the peaks of the basin above water become smaller and the surface area of the water becomes larger until the peaks are covered and the reservoir is formed.  This principle applies to the development and distribution of the saddle.  As the cattle migrated to new pastures on the plains, the cattle trails created new corridors between each of these pools of cattle, thus creating pools of saddle styles, and as more and more cowboys and cattle moved around, so did the styles of saddles.  At one point in time a cowboy, or saddlemaker, could tell the home area of a cowboy by the saddle he used and clothing he wore.[4]  This can be compared to when the pools and corridors of a reservoir are small and then later, as the pools began to deepen and enlarge, an observer could still tell the general area the cowboy had been working in, but the lines became blurred, until eventually, the lake is full.  There are no more peaks or valleys showing; all of the saddles generally look alike and an observer cannot tell if the cowboy is from California, Utah, Texas, Wyoming, or Nebraska.

           In each area where cattle were raised, the local cowboys would develop their own style of ranching which best suited the local environment.  Since environment dictates culture, the culture of the cowboys would alter from one area to another.  For instance, the cowboys of Texas would tie the rope to the saddle horn when roping a cow causing there to be a sudden jolt to the horse, rider, and saddle.  On the west coast, the cowboys would wrap, or dally[5] their rope around the horn, allowing it to feed out as the cow would reach the end of their rope, thus greatly decreasing the jar to horse, rider, and saddle.  Because of these differences, the saddles were designed and built differently.

          In the time line of history, this article begins when saddles were quite distinct from one another and ends when mechanized travel blurs the saddle designs so that it is almost impossible to determine with any certainty where the cowboy, or his rig, originated because by this time the saddle was no longer migrating, but firmly entrenched throughout the plains and losing its distinction.  During the nineteenth century, the stock saddle represented a mobile home to the cowboy.  It carried him and his saddlebags with food and personal items, slicker and coat, blanket and bedroll, canteen, rope, and tools of the trade.  At night he rolled out his bed and used his saddle for a backrest and pillow.  During the last half of the nineteenth century, the saddle was a working tool in the Americas, as it had never been before or since.  At times the cowboys lived in their saddles all day, everyday, not just traveling, but working as well, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the Plains were no longer open range, and the saddle again began to change purpose.   Now, instead of being a mobile home for the cowboy, it became a daily tool that he pulled out of the tack room in the morning, saddled up, rode out into the field to work cattle for the day, and then unsaddled at the barn. 

          When first created in times of antiquity, the saddle was made of padded fabric; later it was built with a rigid frame, as we know it today.  While it provided more comfort than riding bareback, it did not add much in the way of utility.  The oldest saddle that we can document is from ancient Greece.  Even during these early times the makers knew that saddles should not come in contact with the backbone of the horse.[6]  The use of the saddle tree[7] with stirrups developed in Asia during the first millenium AD and later the Asians developed the idea of using full foot stirrups.  Using them as a platform to distribute body weight allowed the rider to stay better balanced while the horse whirled in battle.[8]  This also allowed riders to stay balanced while swinging a heavy sword or other weapon.  Without stirrups, riders must use their hips and pressure from their thighs and calves to stay mounted and maintain balance.  This is why the nomadic horse cultures of the American Plains, which did not use these saddles for the men, successfully used short bows that worked on isometric action.  It is much easier to swing an axe or sword, or shoot a gun, if the riders are able to distribute their weight through their feet instead of hips. 

          These saddles came to America by two separate routes; by way of the East Coast, and the other through New Spain and Mexico.   European war saddles were designed to lock the riders in place, making it more difficult to unhorse them in games or battle.   In medieval England, for example, in addition to providing comfort and added balance, these saddles were used by knights to keep their armored bodies on the horse. Where before the saddles were merely complements to the way of warfare, they were now essential.  With advancements in firearms and the discontinuance of warring knights, the saddles became lighter.  High pommels and cantles disappeared and became merely a padded seat with small stirrups and leathers.  Still in use today, these English saddles have been referred to by some western riders as postage stamp saddles because of their small size.  Their design demands that the rider become one with the horse and communicate by leg touch and learn exquisite balance requiring more skill to ride than a western saddle.  These saddles came to the East Coast of the United States and were used by mounted travelers, early militia, and for gentlemen's sports.  There were also side saddles and the military McClellan saddles during and after the Civil War.  While these saddles have their place in the equine world, they are far too delicate to hold up as a working saddle for western cattle and because of their function had no real inpact on the devolpment of the western saddle.[9]

          Spanish explorers arriving with Hernan Cortez brought the other type of saddle to this country and the Royal Armor Museum in Madrid, Spain, has one of these sixteenth‑century saddles, which is very similar in design to those of medieval England.[10]  Cortez brought cattle with him to the New World, beginning the cattle industry on the American continents and the cowboy saddle that we know today.  The saddle that Cortez rode was a military saddle, but since the Spanish vaqueros were working cattle, they found they had to make modifications to suit the style of ranching being developed.  First, the ranchers in New Spain, and later Mexico, made design changes, making it functional for the work in central America.  They designed the saddle to be more open, allowing the rider to dismount more easily than for war and with the use of the lariat, they developed the horn to have a place to fasten it.  The modern origins of our western saddles are evident in the Mexican saddle that crossed the Rio Grande with the cattle into what is now the United States.  The Mexicans had modified the pommel from a tool to keep the rider from being ejected during battle to a snubbing post on which to tie a rope. The Native American women’s saddles are also a derivative of this Spanish saddle.  It too has side bars connected fore and aft designed in principle and function from the Spanish model accompanying the horses northward.  It was modified to seat Indian women and replace the dog harness to pull the travois.  The warrior’s saddle design was was in effect a stuffed seat pad and a wrap around girth reflecfting none of the vaquero saddle designs or characteristics.

          Except for some cosmetic changes, the saddle tree that the Mexicans used is basically the same tree in use today, the Texas saddlers began to modify this Mexican saddle even more to fit their purposes. [11] The same process was happening in California, but their styles of saddles developed differently because Californio saddles were far more elegant than the ones from the Texas frontier, as reflected in their culture.[12]  The Texas style saddle moved up the trails until it reached Denver and Cheyenne and became the epitome of the working‑cowboy's saddle of that region.   As the makers of Colorado and southeast Wyoming were creating the Plains saddle, the Californio‑style saddles migrated to Montana.[13]

          As the U. S. military moved back into the Crow and Sioux lands in the early 1870s, they began to open the way for Anglo invasion.  Beginning with the removal of President Ulysses S Grant's peace policy, to the Battle of Slim Buttes and the Northern Cheyenne Wars, the vast majority of free roaming Native Americans found themselves living on reservations.  By the end of 1876, they were forced off the plains and surrounding areas, allowing the cattle industry to move in.  This gave rise to the need for modification of the Texas saddle and the development of the Plains saddle in Cheyenne by Gallatin, and it also allowed the migration of the Californio‑style saddle into Montana and northern Wyoming.  After open grazing ended and there were no more long drives, the saddlemakers became less concerned with endurance of the rider and more with short performance, as reflected in the widening of the swells in the 1920s.

Saddles and their styles follow a pendulum swing of extremes.  The range cowboy lived a nomadic life and usually owned only what he could carry with him from ranch to ranch.  The cowboys did not accumulate and transport large amounts of material possessions, therefore they would buy the best quality items to ensure long life and durability.  Because of this, cowboys and saddlemakers were looking constantly for ways to make a cowboy’s rig distinctive from the rest for marketing purposes.  They would either create a higher cantle or pommel, expose the rigging, or cover it with the pommel leather, and they could have large, ornate tapaderos which were three times larger than required for the job they performed, because of style.  There were two things a cowboy could be proud of as he went from ranch to ranch, one was his ability to ride, the other was the rig upon which he rode.  The better quality saddle and bigger name of the maker, the higher in social circles the cowboy would be considered.

Will James, who was a cowboy in the Old West, wrote his experiences in Cowboys North and South, in which he describes two distinct cowboy cultures on each side of the Continental Divide. [14]   In the Plains region he includes Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, and Texas.  Oregon, Idaho, California, and Nevada were “what you might call the other territory, and acrost [sic] the line, they're as true cowmen there as on the east side of that line, only they work different; the cause of it is the country.”[15]  On each side of this line, they worked in such a style as suited the landscape best.  Out on the Plains, there was a need to be able to throw a rope at a cow from up to 60 feet away because the cow had ample room to run, but in the more mountainous regions, with more trees, a cowboy did not have the room to throw a rope from such a long distance.  It was because of this and other differences in the cowboy's work style that the saddle in California developed differently than on the Plains.  The cattle, cowboys, and saddles moved up through Colorado to Wyoming, bringing their culture along with them, and once they arrived in Cheyenne, the saddlemakers took the Texas saddle and modified it to better suit their needs.  The Spanish cattle of California moved up the coast to Washington and Oregon; once the industry was firmly entrenched, the surplus cattle were sold to miners and cattlemen in Montana.  As the cowboys moved with the herds, and then stayed in the new areas, the saddle and work styles came with them.  Miles City, Montana, then followed the pattern set forth by Cheyenne.  Where Cheyenne developed the Cheyenne saddle, Miles City developed the “¾ rigged” saddle.  It looked very much like the Californio saddle, but the rigging was moved forward, moving the saddle to the rear on the horse’s back and was developed as a hybred between the two styles.

Without cattle drives across the Plains, the design of the saddle continued to change, modestly at first, then more drastically, dramatizing the changes in society.  The swells enlarged, the cantle lowered and all but disappeared.  The role of the horse was changing so dramatically that during the 1920s, tractor dealers were taking horses as trade‑ins from farmers, and then destroying the horses in order to eliminate the competition.[16]  Each of these components of the saddle developed with slight differences in each region depending upon the environmental requirements.  As cattle moved to Wyoming along the two different routes discussed, the cowboys and saddles followed them.  It was to these centers that saddlemakers converged in order to gain the greatest volume of business, but it must be noted that cattle were brought to Wyoming by westward migrating pioneers during this time as well.   Many personal accounts mention that they had to abandon their worn out stock, or trade two for one, in order to complete their journey. Many of these cattle stayed and multiplied in Wyoming, but since they were brought out by families and discarded as waste, instead of brought out by professionals as an investment and because the eastern saddles had no real imfluence, they will not be considered in the migrational movement of the saddle.  The map depicts the general movement of cattle and thus the saddle from Mexico both up the Pacific Coast and then eastward, and also through Texas, up the Plains to Cheyenne.

          The area around Sheridan and southern Montana was rather unique in that it was the meeting ground for these two styles of saddles and cowboying.  One of these extremes in styles was the width of the swells when at the turn of the century the swells became just wide enough for the rider to get a good grip on the saddle when riding.  That was function.  Later, as the pendulum of style swung to the extreme, so did the width of the swells, reaching measurements greater than 20 inches. One story, as related by Glenn Vernam, is that Will Thomas claimed that the idea originated with him when he sawed a croquet ball in half, fastened each piece to each side of the pommel, and covered it all with leather.[17]  Jo Mora stated that he once saw one of these saddles with swells that were twenty-two inches wide, which was made during the height of their popularity.[18] One of the great uses of these saddles was to compete in rodeos, giving the greater edge to the rider who had the larger swells and cantles.  Because of this advantage, the professional rodeo commission decided to standardize the requirements of the saddles ridden for competition, giving all cowboys an equal chance.  After this, the style changed once again to a moderate saddle.  The size of the swells decreased to a modest bulge and the cantle height dropped to only a slight rise instead of the high back it had been for so many years. With a high cantle, these saddles could be extremely dangerous if the rider became trapped and was unable to get out if the horse was bucking.  After the 1920s the pendulum swing of styles changed again, the extreme swells lost their popularity and the cantles all but disappeared. 

          The evolution of the Cheyenne saddle is easy to distinguish, first was the raw tree saddle with the mochila cover and the double rig which E. L. Gallatin modified to become the first of the Cheyenne saddles.  Later, Frank A. Meanea added the Cheyenne roll to the list of characteristics and then the added side jockeys that were not integrated into the seat leather, but fastened with the leather rosettes.  Later came the full seat, which replaced the half seat of the Plains.  Also, the rigging was no longer exposed, but covered under the pommel leather like the Californio saddles had always been.

Following the changes of the Sheridan saddle is more difficult.  The high horn, centerfire rig, and small, rounded skirts remained characteristic without the obvious changes of the Cheyenne saddle.  It is not until the saddlemakers of Montana developed the 3/4 rig did this saddle exhibit much change.  About this time, the distinguishing characteristics became blurred because of the close proximity of the two areas.                             

Cheyenne was dominated by square skirts and lower horns, while Sheridan was dominated by rounded skirts and taller, Californio style horns.  The Cheyenne saddles were ½ seat in design, while the Californio style was a full seat.  The Cheyenne saddle had an exposed “Sam Stagg” rigging while the Californio saddle rigging was covered under the leather on the pommel.  The Californio rigging was a centerfire single rig.  The cinch was in the middle of the saddle wrapping around the horse’s girth.  The Plains style had double rigging at the front and back of the saddle.  With this double rig and the shorter horn, the cowboy could tie his rope to the horn and rope a full-sized cow for branding.  The higher Californio horn, again, was for dallying purposes, letting out the tension of the rope to slow down the cow. 

Once these two styles met in Montana, they blended to form a new style.  When the Oregon cattlemen arrived in Montana, their single-rigged saddles were looked upon more favorably than by the cowboys of the Texas tradition.  The saddlemakers of Miles City developed a style of saddle that would work better in their part of the country.  The single-rigged saddle creates a triangle of force as it is applied to the horse.  The straps that wrap over the saddle go over the pommel and cantle, then down to the rigging ring to which the cinch is attached.  The points on the cantle and pommel of contact are the two upper points of the triangle, and the cinch ring is the lower point.  With this fastened to the horse, the physical forces holding the saddle down create this triangle.  The Plains style saddle, with its double rigging, creates a square of force.  While it has the same two pressure points on the cantle and pommel, instead of bisecting together at the cinch ring, each force is taken straight down to two separate rings and two separate cinches connected by a lateral tie.  This is why they work so well for the different styles of roping for which they are used.  In many cases, the cowboys of Montana were roping calves to brand because they were younger herds than had been out on the Texas ranges, so they did not need the great strength of the double rigging.  The cattle were also worked in a more confined area geographically than the cattle of Texas and the open Plains.

The men who migrated to the plains area to make these saddles came from many backgrounds and economic circumstances.  Most would be considered lower and middle class, but some, such as John Collins of Omaha Nebraska, had high level political connections, and some, such as Gallatin, Meanea and Otto Ernst, were able to attain success as businessmen and serve the needs of the cattle industry for many years.

          The story of Wyoming’s lower eastern makers is dominated by the Cheyenne triad: E. L. Gallatin, Collins Brothers (John S. and Gilbert H.) and  Frank Meanea, and their presence is so strongly felt that James Laird dedicated an entire book to them.[19]  There were others who were present during this time, but they either worked for one of these three makers, or their contribution was minimal.  Gallatin opened the first saddleshop in Cheyenne  and defined the Cheyenne saddle that was to dominate the Plains.  His influence was felt along the western edge of the Plains because he helped establish S. C. Gallup in business in Pueblo, had a branch in Denver as well as Cheyenne, and established his nephew Theodore Meanea in a saddetree making business in Denver and nephew Frank Meanea as a saddlemaker.  The Collins Brothers established their business in Omaha before they expanded further west.  Their saddles were selling in Cheyenne through a mail order business in competition with Gallatin before they opened a branch shop there, and they also established shops in Montana.  Frank Meanea took over his uncle’s shop when he left Cheyenne because of health reasons.  It is possible to see the lines of a cobweb developing just with these makers. 

          Meanea developed the Cheyenne roll which has proven to be popular up to the present day.  When his uncle, Gallatin, developed the Cheyenne, or Plains, saddle, he modified the exposed double-rigged Texas saddle by moving the mochila covering over the saddle, to skirts underneath the tree.  The Collins Brothers contribution was to the quality of saddle, building the best and most comfortable saddle they could.  These are the three main makers on which authors focus when speaking of the Plains style, or Cheyenne, saddle.

          Lohlein & Sigwart took over the Collins Brothers’ Wyoming shop, and today many of their saddles are in museums around that state.  Many saddlemakers took the route that John A. Donnel did by becoming cowboys first and then moving into saddlemaking by having a natural aptitude for leather work and repairing their saddles and those of surrounding ranches.  Donnel sold his business to a large firm, Knox and Tanner, who continued to produce saddles with his brand name for many years.  Many were itinerant saddlemakers such as E. J. Owenhouse, who stayed in Cheyenne and Rawlins for some time before moving on to Montana, following the trade and avoiding competition to make their living.  George E. Robbins was another maker who came from the East, stayed in Wyoming for a few years, then moved on to Montana.  James Mattas moved in the opposite direction; he left Montana to go to Wyoming.

          At one point, John Collins, of the Collins Brothers, teamed up with John Morrison in Cheyenne and Omaha.  Most references to these two place them in Omaha, but they are listed in the Cheyenne and Wyoming business directories as local merchants so it is unclear if they just had a branch in Cheyenne, or if they were actually located there.  The Laramie Saddle Company bought Lohlein and Sigwart Saddlery, continuing the traditions of both them and the Collins Brothers, whom they replaced.  Joseph Lohlein went on to Thermopolis to make saddles on his own, and his son Fred moved to Reno to become a noted saddlemaker.  The Schmidt Brothers were another family team who separated; one went east and the other west.  Jake, who went west, later returned and settled in Big Piney, Wyoming.  W. H. Holliday Company operated in Laramie for over 15 years.  Blake Miller worked for many saddlemakers before starting his own business in Casper.  Raphael Gutierrez joined with Bill Phillips for a few years to make saddles in Cheyenne, but they went separate ways.  Gutierrez went to San Francisco, and it is not known what happened to Phillips.  Bad Bob Meldrum finished his prison term in the Wyoming State Prison, moved to Walcott, Wyoming, and began making saddles.  Fred Dooley left Missouri for Cheyenne to make saddles.  Ed Stok worked for Otto Ernst and the Connelly Brothers before moving to Gillette, Newcastle, and eventually Meeker, Colorado, to make saddles under his own name.  J. W. Spencer was a very early maker in the Evanston area during the 1870s.  He sold out to Frederick Nye in 1881, who continued the business until he sold it to A. S. Hare. 

Sheridan must have been dominated by the big saddlemakers of Montana and Cheyenne, because many of the makers in the northern part of Wyoming had multiple business interests, relying on more than just saddles.  The makers in Cheyenne seemed to have enough business that they could dedicate all of their time to the industry alone.  Andrew Eads, like Frank Meanea, started his leather trade by repairing harnesses for the railroad.  He opened the first saddle shop in Sheridan County.  Once the railroad moved on from Bighorn City, he followed it to Sheridan and opened the first saddle shop in that city as well.  Sheridan was settled in 1882, which means that when Eads moved to the county in 1890, Sheridan had been without a saddlemaker for almost a decade.  Frank Morrow served as Sheriff as well as making saddles.  He worked on his own at first, and then joined up with Frank Eldred.  Later, they sold their business to Otto Ernst.  Before Otto Ernst worked on his own, he teamed up with John Buckley.  This partnership lasted for five years before John sold out to Otto and moved to Lander, Wyoming, and then Monterey, California.  Otto Ernst is the biggest name in saddlemaking in the Sheridan area.  His business lasted from 1902, when he joined with John Buckley, up into the 1970s.  Otto Ernst looked to the future and expanded towards it instead of just trying to hold on to the past.  He sold tires for automobiles and used a paneled automobile to travel the West selling his saddles.  His son Ernie closed the tire business and focused on saddles and ranch supplies when he took over the business and Otto’s brother John managed the Sheridan Saddle Company for awhile.  Frank Eldred was also a lay minister at Saint Luke’s Protestant Episcopal Church, and had many business dealings outside of saddlemaking.  When Eldred moved out of the building he had been making saddles in, George Parmeter moved his existing saddle making business into it.  Percy Wilkerson was one of the larger makers of the Sheridan area, working in Buffalo, 30 miles south of Sheridan.  He also had a soft drink parlor and sold bootleg liquor.

R. H. Oliver was a saddlemaker in Buffalo, Wyoming, and also managed the Buffalo-Sheridan Stage and Automobile Line, which according to the local business directories, the stage line only lasted for a year or two.  Dave Shelly made the “famous Cody stock saddles” and carried a full line of accouterments.   Rueben Bloomberg was another maker who left saddlemaking in Montana to move to Sheridan.  Rudy Mudra began working for him and then later bought the shop from him.  Edward Krenz worked for Ernst before he moved off on his own.  He prospered until he sold his shop to Ernst’s son Ernie in 1942.  Elmer Burroughs was a saddlemaker in Basin, Wyoming.  Playing on his name, his trademark was two burros facing each other.  Edward Bohlin was the end of the legacy of the saddlemakers of the old West and Wyoming.  After he closed his saddle shop in Cody, he moved to Hollywood to become the most famous saddlemaker of the 20th century.  He made saddles and holsters for the biggest stars of the early westerns, including Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne.

          These saddlemakers were selling saddles through mail order businesses as well as to walk-in clientele.  Their catalogs show a variety of styles which would appeal to both lines of customers.  While the catalogs stated that the makers would make any custom changes that the customer wanted, they showed a vast majority of their saddles with the local style of rigging.  Frank Meanea’s first and twelfth catalogs show all but one of the saddles with a double rigging, and the Visalia Stock Saddle Company of San Francisco,  shows approximately the same proportion of single-rigged saddles for the West Coast.  I could not find any copies of catalogs from the Sheridan saddlemakers, so could not determine what they were advertising during this time period.  From the extant specimens that the author encountered in Wyoming for this time period, there seems to be a fairly even split in styles because of the mix of cowboys from both Texas and West Coast. 

At the beginning of the cattle industry in North America, the influences on the saddle were dictated mainly by geography.  The difference in geography not only determined the way the cowboy worked with cattle, but isolated these styles because of small numbers of cowboys in a vast expanse of country spanning multiple states throughout the Plains and the West.  The constant in the development of the saddle in the West, and in particular Wyoming, was the environmental requirements on the cattle industry, such as the various roping techniques used in the different areas.  Secondary to this was style.  There were a few distinctively different styles within the geographic area, but generally, the saddles were very similar.  For instance, Meanea created the Cheyenne roll, which was copied by many saddlemakers, but it did not change the function of the saddle as it was being used for work.  The same was true with the patterns stamped or carved into the leather.  There were many different styles, but they did not change the function of the saddle.  It was not until the beginning of the 1920s that style began to overrun function.  Since the cattle were no longer being raised in an open, free-range society, the cowboy’s lifestyle changed.  The work being done was close to home on a single ranch, with the beginning of motorized transport for cattle to the railroads.  The cowboys and saddlemakers looked to rodeo competition for ways to make new developments in saddles that would appeal to new customers.

Because of Victorian social mores, women’s roles in cattle drives were of a minimal nature because of the mixing of genders in such a confined area.  While women didn’t  participate in the large cattle drives, they did work on the homeranch with some freqency.  Unless a rancher was running enough cattle to hire sufficient amounts of men to work them the ranches would be a family run business, which meant that father, mother and children would be working the cattle at branding time and round up.  The women of the ranch became an integral part of the ranch work that took place outside of the house and domestic chores.  In 1899 Wyoming ranch wife B. B. Brooks wrote “But I think most ranch women will bear me out in saying that unless the women. . . be always ready to do anything that comes along, . . . the ranch is not a success.”[20]  Another account is of Charlotta, who rode herd with her father until her younger brother was old enough to take over.[21]  Elsie and Amy Cooksley migrated to Sheridan, Wyoming with their family from England and were herding their cattle at ages fourteen and seventeen respectively.  “We were the only girls that ever rode with the roundup.  I don’t know why unless it’s due to the fact that Dad sent us out to take care of our own stock and we got started doing it.”[22]

While I have not been able to find record yet of Black saddle makers, I did find the name of Raphael Philo Gutierrez, who was born in California in 1889 who opened up a shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1917.  Admitedly they had to exist, but my research in the plains area has been focused on Wyoming and I have no doubt that there were some further south, such as Texas and I hope to be able to find record of them in the future.  Many vaqueros and Black cowboys moved herds north and since many of saddle makers started out as cowboys making repairs on ranches, then logic dictates that they had to be making saddles even if their records have been lost.

          With mechanized travel, and the onset of the Depression, many of the old time saddlemakers closed their doors, thus ending an era of the West.  Cattle drives and these old saddle and harness makers went the way of the horse and buggy, becoming little more than a memory.  The impact of these makers and their saddles extends beyond just sitting astride a horse.  Will James was one of the cowboys who retired from an active life and wrote his cowboying experiences for succeeding generations who would never have the opportunity to know it.  In sharp contrast to the youth of today, he wrote:


Me, never being to school and having to pick up what I know in grammar from old magazines and saddle catalogs scattered in cow camps would find plenty of territory for improvement in the literary range, but as the editors and publishers seem to like my efforts the way I put ‘em out, which is natural and undiluded, and being that them same editors and publishers make a successful practice of putting out work that’ll suit the readers makes me feel confident enough to give my pen full swing without picking up the slack.[23]


Casey Mott is a working ranch cowboy living in Sheridan, Wyoming, today.  He is also a historic saddlemaker who has researched this area and time period.  While in conversation with me, he stated that there are still these lines drawn to some extent in the area.  Cowboys who come from the West, particularly Nevada, maintain more of a “buckaroo” attitude than those who come from Texas and other areas south of Sheridan.  The Nevada cowboy is more concerned with flash and style, these aspects being more important for him than anything.  This means that while he rides a quality saddle, he will not ride it once it begins to show wear.  When it is no longer in top condition, it is time to sell it and buy a new one.  The roots of this can be seen in the beautiful Californio saddles of the nineteenth century.  They were very graceful with classical lines.  The cowboy from Texas is more of a function sort of worker.  To him, the most important thing was to have the best saddle to ride, and then to ride it into the ground, repair it, and ride it again.  This attitude extends all throughout a cowboy’s wardrobe, including spurs and hats.  The roots of this can also be seen during the same time period when the Plains cowboys were riding plain saddles that were designed and built for heavy work.

          The 3/4 rigged saddle resulted when these two cultures began to blend.  It was the meeting of two worlds: the West coast and the Plains area.  The men who made them came from all areas, coming from further East, and then later, natives of the plains.  Regardless of where they were from, they all came and conformed to the requirements of the environment to produce a product that would work most efficiently for the area.  The saddle migratged and evolved, as society evolved, to match the continuing changes in technology and population growth.

With the saturation of cattle on the great plains, the migration of cattle, saddles, saddlemakers and cowboys slowed to a snail’s pace.  Cowboys would still drift, saddlemakers would look for a better market, but the resivoir had been filled and only minor circulation would continue.


[1]This story was related to the author by Harold Mapes' grandson, Harold Turner, at the Triangle X Ranch in Moose, Wyoming, in August, 1999.

[2]In all the years that the author has been riding, he has seen at least twenty western saddles for every English saddle.

[3]Paul Rossi, “Makers of the Forty Dollar Saddle,” Persimmon Hill 4, no. 2, (1974), 52.

[4]Will James, Cowboys North and South (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), 22.

[5]This is used as an industry term.  It is defined as wrapping the slack end of the rope, which the cowboy still has in his hand, twice around the horn.  This double wrap provides enough friction to keep the cow from pulling the rope out of the cowboy's hands.  David Dary states: "The Vaquero tied his reata to the base of the larger horn, then took his dallies.  The roping technique was called ‘da la vuelta'.  Cowboys north of the Rio Grande changed the Spanish name to ‘dally.'" David Dary, Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 32.

[6]Russel H. Beatie, Saddles (Norman: University of Okalahoma Press, 1981), 22.

[7]The saddletree is the foundation of the saddle.  It is made of wood to distribute the weight of the rider along the ribs of the horse's back.  Figure 6 is a version of a modern tree, but can still help the reader to understand the concept of the Asian development.

[8]Beatie, 28.

[9]These have been observed by the author during years of riding and conversing with both English and Western riders.

[10]Beatie, 44.

[11]The saddles that the Mexicans were using were covered only partially with leather, leaving the majority of the tree exposed.  The early Texas saddles were similarly covered with minor changes to the rigging.  Saddlemakers today still use this same style tree.  The only factor that would make these early trees not feasible for modern day use is that modern horses have wider backs, so the old trees do not fit comfortably.  By just widening these bars, modern saddlemakers are using essentially the same trees.

[12]The California ranch saddles have a very elegant look to them.  The horns are narrower and more decorative.  The Plains saddles were designed for hard work and their visual lines are coarse in comparison.

[13]William H. Forbis, The Cowboys (Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1973), 107.

[14]Will James, Cowboys North and South (Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1925).

[15]Ibid., 13.

[16]Dwight G. Bennett, “Century in Review,” Western Horseman, April 2000, 42.

[17]Glenn R. Vernam, Man on Horseback, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1964), 362.

[18]Jo Mora, Trail Dust and Saddle Leather (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 95.

[19]James R. Laird, The Cheyenne Saddle: A Study of Stock Saddles of E. L. Gallatin, Frank A. Meanea and the Collins Brothers  (Cheyenne: Vision Graphics Inc., 1982).

[20]Mrs. B. B. Brooks, “Ranch Life on the Big Muddy,” The Daily Sun Leader, Decenber 22, 1899, transcribed by Mae Cody for the WPA, WSAHD MSS-3944, 1. As quoted in Matthew Basso et. al. ed.s Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West (New York: Routledge, 2001), 150.

[21]Helen Sargent, “Charlotta Hartley Albert,” in Tales of the Seeds-Ke-Dee (Denver: Big Mountain Press, 1963), 354. As quoted in Matthew Basso et. al. ed.s Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West (New York: Routledge, 2001), 151.

[22]Interview with Elsie Cooksley Lloyd and Amy Cooksley Chubb by Theresa Jordan, Cowgirls: Women of the American West: An Oral History (new York: Doubleday, 1984), 7. As quoted in Matthew Basso et. al. ed.s Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West (New York: Routledge, 2001), 151.

[23]Will James, Cowboys North and South (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), vii-viii.