Cattle drives generally speaking were tight ships with regard to the personnel involved. Ranches couldn’t spare more men than were necessary, but conversely too few men could be a disaster if any problems were encountered which they almost certainly would be.
Trail Boss and Cook
The different roles were well defined. Apart from the Trail Boss and the Chuck Wagon Cook who were, comparatively speaking, highly paid and had very specific duties for which they needed to be fitted, the cowboys could in theory fulfil any one of those roles. The main difference was that some were more responsible and some were more unpleasant.
The one further exception to the interchangeability of roles and men was a position known as Wrangler. This was the least well paid at about $25 a month in the 1890’s, and was normally filled by a greenhorn who had ambitions to be a cowboy but who could not as yet be trusted with one of the formation positions round the herd.
The Wrangler was responsible for looking after the horses in the so-called ‘remuda’ when they weren’t being ridden by the cowboys, and of course there were always plenty of spare horses. He made sure they were fed and looked after, and rounded them up and kept them together. He would normally drive the horses at the front, where he would be near the Chuck Wagon. It was another of his responsibilities to help the Cook unhitch the wagon horses, gather firewood and do anything else that was required around the camp.
Sometimes, as part of his informal apprenticeship, the Wrangler might briefly change places with one of the cowboys. There was a lot to learn, and some cowboys were better suited to one position rather than another. However all positions tended to be paid the same – traditionally a dollar a day ‘found’ which meant that their food and general needs such as doctoring weren’t deducted, although by the 1890’s they might command a little more than $30 a month.
There were four job titles which reflected the four positions around the moving herd. These were: Point, Swing, Flank and Drag.
The Point Man, also called Point Rider or Lead Rider, had the most responsible and the most pleasant job. He was the one who rode at the front, choosing the precise route and controlling the speed of the herd. For some large herds it might be necessary to have two Point Men. They would normally be experienced cowboys who knew the country over which they were travelling.
The Swing Riders worked as a parallel pair, riding about a third way back along the herd from the Point Man. They had to be on the look-out for any cattle which decided to wander off or break away in a different direction, and when the herd came to turn, they helped the Point Man to keep the formation. If for any reason the Point Man left his position, it would normally be a Swing Rider who would substitute for him.
Flank Riders, again a pair, had similar jobs to the Swing Riders but were positioned two-thirds way back along the herd. There was more emphasis in their job on cutting strays back into the herd and on keeping the cattle bunched because there was a tendency for the formation to fan out at this point.
The worst job was Drag Rider. Because of that, pecking orders being what they are, it was normally a job done by relatively novice cowboys. Working as a pair, they had to ride along in the cloud of dust kicked up by all the animals’ hooves and try to get the slower cattle to keep up. The constant to-ing and fro-ing, as well as the poor visibility and poor breathability owing to the dust, made this job a frustrating one, and cowboys couldn’t wait to move up the ranks.