Plains Folk



The term “cowpoke” has fallen out of style and come to be regarded as corny. An exception persists among graduates of Oklahoma State University, whose athletic teams are known as the Cowboys, or Cowgirls as the case may be, or more commonly, with affection, as the Cowpokes, or just the Pokes.


In its original usage at the grassroots, the word cowpoke meant something else entirely. This gets us into one of those historical subjects that no one talks about, but was embedded in everyday life from colonial times on: the problem of breachy cows. A breachy cow is one who does not respect fences, who gets out all the time and becomes a nuisance to the neighbors.


I said this was a problem “from colonial times on” because I’ve been reading a book by Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. There was the problem that the land was vast, and domestic animals will roam, and so how are you going to keep them down on the farm?


Here on the prairies, on a large scale, the problem generally was worked out with what was known as a herd law. At first, as in colonial Virginia, there was open range. Farmers raising crops had to fence their fields to keep out livestock, which wandered at large.


After a while, though, as the country filled up, the farmers figured that the stockmen ought to restrain their beasts, preferably with good tight fences, so farmers no longer would have to guard their crops. They imposed the new order by enacting a herd law, generally on a county-option basis. With the herd law, stockmen had to fence or herd their livestock and keep them out of the crops, otherwise pay damages—animal liability, this is called.


There remained, though, the problem of the breachy cow—you know the type I’m talking about—the ornery cow that cannot be contained by any fence ever constructed by man. This summer, in a museum in Eastend, Saskatchewan, I was reminded of the inventive solution to the problem of the breachy cow. On the wall hung an iron device, which the label described as a “cowpoke.”


A cowpoke is an iron frame, commonly ovular, that hinges or latches to slip onto the head or neck of a cow. Extending above and below the frame are iron prongs, often with little spikes or barbs attached to them. The idea was that when the cow put her head between the wires of a fence, the cowpoke would restrain her, and she would back off.


I have found at least three patents for cowpokes of folk design: one by Thomas L. Courtney, of Petteway, Texas, in 1896; a second by Joel E. Horn, of Las Animas, Colorado, in 1902; and a third by Harrison H. Edgerle, of Cherryvale, Kansas, in 1905. The one that looks most practical to me, and most resembles the one I examined in Saskatchewan, is the patent by Mr. Horn, of Colorado. It has a latch and a cotter-pin so you could open it, slip it onto the cow’s neck, and then secure it.


Mr. Horn called his cowpoke a “breachy-cattle yoke.” “Under ordinary circumstances the yoke is not an annoyance to the animal wearing it and does not prevent or interfere with the animal’s grazing, moving about, or lying down,” Horn writes. “But when the animal attempts to get through a fence the arms . . . become engaged with the fence-wires . . . the barbs enter the neck and breast of the animal, thereby deterring it from any further attempt to get through the fence.”


I remain somewhat skeptical. And I know farmers generally had another, more direct, solution to which they resorted in the matter of breachy cows, if you know what I mean.


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