The Van Trump Report

Interesting History of America’s Cowboy Boots

There are few things more symbolic of America than the iconic cowboy boot. While no one knows who actually invented the supremely versatile footwear, the history of cowboy boots is very similar to that of the United States with several different cultures influencing the design we know today.

Boots made specifically for riding horses have been around for centuries and dozens of cultures around the globe have their own unique style. In Europe, calvary uniforms adopted what’s known as “Hessian” style boots, marked by a tall shaft that reached nearly to the knee, rounded toes, and a low heel.

Starting in the early 19th century, a slightly modified version of this style, the “Wellington,” mostly replaced the Hessian boots used by the British military. Named for the man who designed them,, the Duke of Wellington, the boots stopped mid-calf, had low heels, and were suitable for both riding and informal wear.

Wellington boots were also mass produced in America, which made them a popular choice for calvary units here as well. But following the Civil War, as many former soldiers headed west to farm and raise cattle, their old military boots proved ill-suited for long hours riding on trails through thick brush and running creeks.

Here is where we get into “myth” territory. Sometime in the mid-1800s, a cowboy in either Texas or Kansas gave a shoemaker different specifications for a new pair of boots. He asked for a higher shaft to protect against rattlesnakes, thistles, and other trail hazards. He also added a scalloped top so they were easier to pull on, as well as a looser fit so he could easily slip it off if he fell off his saddle or got hung up on something. A pointed toe was also added to make getting in and out of stirrups easier, along with a slanted heel to better grip them. They were made of thick leather to better protect the wearer with the stitching all on the outside to prevent the leather from buckling and the stitching from rubbing the cowboy’s legs raw.

We’ll never really know if just one ingenious cowboy invented the new American cowboy boot, but one strong and noticeable influence was the boot style worn by “Vaqueros.” The vaqueros of the Americas were the horsemen and cattle herders of “New Spain,” who first came to America in the late 1600s and settled in what’s now Mexico and later the American Southwest. With them, they brought their cattle raising traditions as well as their footwear. Notably, many vaquero boots had pointed toes and higher, stacked heels.

The earliest makers of the American cowboy boot style were concentrated in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma cattle areas. At least two of them are still around today.

HYER Boots” was established in 1875 in Olathe, Kansas, by Charles H. Hyer. He and his brother Ed made their first pair of American cowboy boots in 1880, which the company also claims was the very first. What we do know for sure is the little shop was soon enough flooded with requests from cowboys all over the west for new custom boots. The company’s first mail-order catalog appeared in 1890 and by 1919, the company was selling more than 15,000 pairs of boots a year. At one point during the 20th century, Hyer Boot Company was the largest manufacturer of handmade boots in America.

The other early American cowboy boot-maker was Herman Joseph Justin, namesake of of “Justin Boots“, who opened up shop in Burlington, Texas (now Spanish Fort, TX) in the late 1800s. The then fledgling town, right on the Chisholm Trail, served as a main supply depot for cowboys and ranchers. Justin later made the strategic decision to move to Nocona, Texas, which was near the newly constructed Missouri-Kansas-Texas railway. Annie Justin, H.J.’s wife, developed a fit kit in the early 1890s, which included a tape measure and instructions for taking one’s measurements for a pair of custom fit boots. Cowboys carried the fit kits with them on their journeys, becoming Justin’s first traveling sales force. (Sources: Kansas Historical Society, Wikipedia, Buffalo Jackson Trading Co., Hankering for History)

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