Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Timeline
Timeline Home Page
Rise of Industrial America
The American West
Beef and Beans

A cowboy's work was less glamorous than portrayed in Western movies. The work itself could be difficult and yet monotonous. Depending on the season, cowboys could work in blistering heat or bitter cold. The diet, as these accounts from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 show, varied little from meal to meal. As you read these accounts, try to decipher some of the slang used by these long-retired cowboys. What do you make of the fact that all three cowboys describe similar diets? How would you react to such a diet, particularly after a long day of work in the heat or cold?

John Robinson

"We used a tent for our shelter, and between it and the chuckwagon we had our home. We had no regular cook. The cooking was done by the one who reached the camp first. My brother cooked the breakfast generally, while the rest of us saddled the hosses. . . .Our diet consisted of beef mainly, with beans next on the menu, then came the sour-dough bread and canned vegetables. We would have wild game occasionally, which was plentiful in those days."

View the entire interview with John Robinson. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

Lee D. Leverett

"The Graham lad that did the cooking was just a fair-to-middling cocky. He could boil, bake and burn beans , but no matter how he dished out the stuff we lined our flue with the whistle-berries. Beef and beans were the main flue liners. We would have beans and beef for breakfast, then beef and beans for dinner, and at supper time we would get some more beef and beans.

"The beef and bean fare would be backed up with sour-dough bread. I want to say right here that the belly-cheater didn't learn to bake bread from the teaching of Mr. John Bun, the inventor of the bun. Sometimes the bread would come up in fair shape, and then not so anyone would hanker or it. The bread was a hit and miss proposition, with more misses than hits.

"One time, Red rolled a chunk of the bread into a ball and, sort of playful like, threw it at a steer. It hit the critter in the eye, and I'll be damned if it didn't knock the critter's eye out.

"But, kick as we may about the chuck, there was always all that we wanted, and none of us lost any leaf lard from eating it. Facts is, we were all as strong as a hoss in power, and smell as well.

"We had the beef-bean order broken a little with canned vegetables, and there was always plenty of black coffee. Then at times some of us would shoot wild game."

View the entire interview with Lee Leverett. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

Henry Young

". . . We had our own cooky. 'Dog Face' is the only name, I recall, we had for him. He was a good cook and made dandy sour-dough bread, was a good bean cook, too. Lots of times he fixed us bean-hole beans , that is, beans cooked in a hole. Dog Face would dig a hole in the ground, line the hole with stone, then build a fire in the hole and keep it burning for several hours. Those stones would get pipping hot, then the hole was ready for the beans . He put the beans into an iron kettle, with a tight cover, set it in the hole and covered it with sand. There they would be left for several hours. He seasoned the whistle-berries with bacon and molasses. I am telling you, those beans were fitting to eat. Beef, beans, a few canned vegetables and dried fruit was the chief chuck on which we lived. Half of the time we ate the chuck sitting on our haunches behind the chuck wagon."

View the entire interview with Henry Young. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

Click on the photograph below to view a larger version of the image. Click on the text to view bibliographical records. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

Camp Wagon on a Texas roundup

View additional photographs from Detroit Publishing Company, or look for additional documents in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.