“All you need is confidence and cowboy boots.” – Unknown
What’s a cowboy without his boots? Under-dressed and unprepared.
For so many Americans, cowboy boots are more than just a style choice. They’re workwear, protective gear, and a lifestyle all rolled into one.
Since the earliest days of the American West, cowboy boots have provided hard-working men and women with the comfort, protection, and support that made it possible to explore and settle the continental United States.
Surprising History of Cowboy Boots
Where Did Cowboy Boots Come From?
Cowboy boots as we know them today were inspired by a number of different sources.
For as long as riding horses has been a primary mode of transportation and travel, there have been boots crafted specifically for riding.
These riding boots typically featured a design that made them suitable to the activity—toes suited to sliding in and out of stirrups, higher heels, high shaft to protect against rubbing/friction, and a no-lace, pull-up design.
However, the modern cowboy boot design was heavily influenced by the vaqueros of Spain.
In Spain, lands were divided into haciendas, large estates that could hold mines, plantations, farms, or cattle ranches. The vaqueros were the ranchers who cared for the cattle on the haciendas.
They dressed in clothing specific for the task, including boots influenced by the Spanish riding boots. When that vaquero tradition came to the New World—specifically, Mexico—they brought with them those Spanish-inspired boots.
The vaqueros of Northern Mexico also drew inspiration for their boots from the military boots crafted specifically for cavalry riders. The blend of riding and military design made for a highly versatile, durable, and practical pair of boots well-suited to the rigors of life on the haciendas or open ranges.
American cowboys (also called cowpunchers, buckaroos, cowpokes, and cowhands) adopted the Mexican vaquero style of footwear.
Two of the first American bootmakers to begin crafting cowboy boots were Texas-based H. J. “Daddy Joe” Justin of Justin Boots and Charles Hyer of Hyer Boots from Kansas.
Cowboy boots were first advertised in 1871, with a full-page ad run in the Abilene Weekly Chronicle in Abilene, Kansas by bootmaker T.C. McInerney.
What Did the Original Cowboy Boots Look Like?
Early vaquero-inspired cowboy boots were heavily inspired by both riding and military boots.
Features of the original cowboy boots include:
- Pointed, round, or “tribal” toe (elongated with a sharp point)
- 8 to 14-inch shaft height
- No laces
- Tall heel
Mexican cowboy boots were also the first to feature skins rather than just leather, as well as the more colorful boots (imitating the colors of Mexican ranches).
Cowboy Boots in the Industrial Age
Thanks to the technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution, mass-production of certain styles of boots became possible.
One style that became popular among the cowboys in the early 1800s was the Wellington style of boot.
Wellington boots weren’t always the “rubber wellies” we’re familiar with today. In fact, they were once military-style riding boots, named after the Duke of Wellington, the English general who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte.
Wellington boots were a modified version of Hessian boots. They shortened the shaft, rounded the toe, and added a higher heel, which made them more practical for riding and fighting than Hessian boots.
Because of their design, they were ideal for cowboys as well as military cavalry. The fact that they could be mass-produced in the U.S. meant they were highly popular as well as affordable.
Up until around the 1860s, they were among the most sought-after types of boots among cowboys.
The Birth of Cowboy Dress Boots
Between the 1850s and 1910s, cattle was a major source of wealth in the American West. It’s estimated that within those decades, more than 27 million cattle made the journey from Texas to Kansas. From there, they’d be shipped out to Louisiana and beyond, all over the Eastern United States.
No surprise, then, that cowboy boots became so popular during this period (particularly during the 1860s to 1880s). After all, thousands of cowboys were needed to move so much cattle.
However, the life of a cowboy was hard, the work days were long, and the cowboys’ boots were prone to getting hard wear and tear. Cowboys who wore dress boots to work typically found those boots were quickly ruined.
It was during the 1860s that bootmakers had the brilliant idea to start crafting cowboy dress boots—cowboy-style boots that could be used for work, but which could also be worn into town or for more formal occasions.
These dress cowboy boots began adopting more fashionable elements, including an underslung heel, top stitching, and cutouts in the shape of natural elements or geometric shapes.
The “New” Cowboy Boots: Roper Boots
Roper boots were actually crafted in specific response to the prevalence of rodeos, which became truly popular in the United States during the 1800s.
Spanish and Mexican vaqueros had been holding rodeos for years (the Spanish, as far back as the 16th century), but the first American rodeos only took place in the 1820s and 1830s. These events were informal, with riders from both sides of the border pitting their work skills (riding, roping, etc.) against each other in various competitions.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, rodeos became popular around the Midwestern and Southern United States. The first was held in 1869, in Deer Trail, Colorado. These were competitive events between cowboys from all around the country.
However, the first officially “professional” rodeo took place in 1888, in Prescott, Arizona. At the event, admission was charged and prizes were awarded to the winners of the various skill challenges.
Over the next few decades, rodeos became a common source of public entertainment. Wild West shows were often held at rodeos, with the likes of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody entertaining the crowds with their daring displays of horsemanship and skill.
One of the main events in rodeos was (and still is) the calf roping event. In this event, cowboys mounted on horseback lasso a running calf, dismount, and restrain it by tying their three legs together.
The fact that cowboys had to dismount and run during calf roping events led to the creation of the roper boot.
Roper boots have a lower heel and shorter shaft, both design features that allow for greater flexibility and mobility in and out of the saddle. Some even feature laces to ensure the boots grip their riders’ feet securely when mounting or dismounting in a hurry.
Our Modern Cowboy Boots
Thanks to “Old Westerns” produced during the early days of Hollywood, cowboy boots saw a huge surge in popularity during the 1930s and 1940s. No longer were they just workwear, but they became a style choice.
Modern cowboy boots leaned far more heavily into the “function” than the “form”. Features of these boots included:
- More decorative designs and stitching patterns
- More bright, bold colors
- More exotic materials
- A sharper-pointed (and sometimes elongated) toe
These modern cowboy boots remain popular today. Though they’re far from the most practical for wearing for a hard day of riding, they’re eye-catching and dressy enough to be the footwear of choice not only in the Southern and Midwestern United States, but all around the country.
The Cowboy Boot of Today
Today’s cowboy boot comes in a variety of styles, but at their core, they remain very much the same: a practical pair of boots well-suited to a life of hard work on ranches and farms.
Cowboy boots will feature a long (8+ inches) shaft high enough to protect your feet from rubbing against your horse’s side, your stirrups, or the brush and scrub you ride through. The leather used will be tough enough to endure the rigors of long hours of daily use.
The heel will usually be between 1” and 2” in height, tall enough to keep them securely planted in your stirrups. Roper boots and walking boots will usually have lower heels (1” to 1½”) but the design (thicker and underslung) will remain the same.
The toe will usually be pointed, round, “regular” (a.k.a. traditional), snip, or almond that allow you to slide them easily in and out of the stirrups, or square for more comfort for long hours of walking.
Most of all, they’ll be built sturdy enough that they’ll provide you with years of regular use. An investment in a good-quality pair of cowboy boots from brands like Tecovas, Ariat, or Chisos is always smart because they’re footwear crafted to last you a decade or more.
Saddle Up, Partner
The cowboy boot was born out of necessity, footwear crafted specifically for a hard life of work, but they’ve evolved to be a truly stylish and versatile choice for any rancher, farmer, or working man.
Though those available today are all “modernized” versions of the 1800s-era boots, brands like Tecovas and Ariat are still building cowboy boots with the same values and heritage designs that made them the go-to workwear so popular all those years ago.
What was the original purpose of cowboy boots?
Cowboy boots were originally built to protect cowboys while ranching, farming, and riding. Their high shaft provided protection against friction and abrasions, the tight fit provided ankle and foot support, the high heel ensured the boots remained snug in the stirrups, and the rounded or pointed toe allowed cowboys to easily slide their feet in and out of stirrups for quick mounting and dismounting.
Who started wearing cowboy boots first?
The first cowboy boots were worn by the vaqueros of Spain and Northern Mexico. Originally patterned after the Spanish riding boots with inspiration drawn from Spanish cavalry (military) boots, they were adopted by American ranchers who saw the value of their design.
When was the first pair of cowboy boots made?
Credit for the construction of the first pair of cowboy boots is traditionally ascribed to Charles Hyer, of Hyer Boots in Olathe, Kansas. It’s said that a Colorado cowboy passing through Olathe on his way home from the stockyards in Kansas City asked him to craft a pair of boots with a high top, scalloped front and back, pointed toe, and high, slanted heel. The cowboy loved his boots so much he told everyone back in Colorado about them, and the orders for more boots came flooding in.