American Cowboy Chaps: Then and Now

By Charlotte Raby

 For everyone who loves western romances, no cowboy fantasy would be complete without envisioning (at least once) our heroic wrangler in full Wild West regalia, which, of course, always includes chaps.

 Many sources consider the historical beginning of chaps to have started with Mexican Vaqueros in the 1800’s, but really, they were used over thirty thousand years ago and evolved into what we consider them to be today.

Nomadic peoples of the Upper Paleolithic era (30-50 thousand years ago) learned how to make and sew leather into clothing, as evidenced by their cave drawings, leather-scraping tools, and bone and thorn needles discovered in Spain.  These people most likely discovered animal skins on the forest floor which had been tanned naturally by tannins excreted from rotting vegetation. In 2010, archeologists found tangible evidence in the Swiss Alps: leather leggings created during the Neolithic period. They were 4200 years old, made from goat skin, and tanned with birch bark.  Prehistoric people gave us the concepts of making and sewing leather, as well as dyeing, bleaching, and decorating it.

Native American Leggins

 Now fast forward to the 1500’s. The Plains and Eastern Native American tribes had been sewing and wearing leather clothing, including leggings, for quite some time. The leggings evolved from hides with forelegs tied at the ankle and hind legs either tied the waist or tucked into belts to fitted styles. They were cut and sewn, first with a front seam, then later with a side seam to aid horseback riding. In 1534, Louisiana was a French colony; Mountain men travelled extensively, interacting with many Native American tribes, and most likely took the idea of leather leggings and passed it along. Although Louisiana was ceded to Spain and Britain in 1762, the French continued to settle the land through the mid 1800’s.

 Enter the Mexican Vaqueros. They initially used thick hide as an apron tied to the saddle horn that covered the horse’s breast and rider’s legs. These were called Arma (weapon, armor). Eventually, Armitas were created, which tied around the leg, extending to just below the knee and covering only the exposed part of the leg.  Later, Armitas became like short trousers one would step into and pull up.  In the 1840’s these evolved into what we know of today as chaps and were called chaparreras and chaparajos (the j sounds like h).  The root of these words is chapa, meaning sheet; the word chapara follows, which means plate.

Although a strict Spanish pronunciation of chaps would give a hard ch sound, we can’t forget French influence on languages and cultures throughout the American West (and I would be interested in exploring chappen from 1275 Middle English and Dutch! But . . . later.). The Spanish Chapara translates to plaque in French, which translates to plate in English. French and Spanish are closely related Romance Languages; therefore, French influence explains why in the American West, chaps is pronounced with a soft ch as in Charlemagne.  

The four styles of chaps from the 1800’s have changed very little since then.

Fringed Shotgun Chaps

Shotgun chaps (left), so named because the long tight fitting legs resemble shotgun barrels, were made to step into and were tight and often difficult to remove. Later, buckles and snaps were used, but today most come with a full length zipper along the outer leg. They were made from the leather of deer, elk, calf, goat, or wild animals. Today, they’re also made using nylon and ultra suede fabrics.

Batwing Chaps

Bat Wing chaps (left) are long and tie around the thigh only. They have a wide flap of leather from the knee to the ankle that covers the rider’s boots and spurs and provides greater freedom of movement and ventilation in warmer climes.


Woolies (right) are made of hide with the hair on from buffalo, bear, and Angora goat, and were most often worn in the northern parts of the country, where cowboys needed protection from freezing rain, snow, and frigid temperatures.


Chinks (left) are short chaps, coming to below the knee. Fancy Chinks were worn by women in western shows in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

In the western United States today, Shotgun chaps are worn for dressage and work; Bat Wings are seen in rodeos and western shows, but sometimes still used for work, and Chinks and still worn by working cowboys around the barn and on cattle drives, and by farriers.

Chaps were an important part of a cowboy’s tack, and most cowboys went through two to three sets a year. Today, approximately 50% of cattle drives are accomplished on horseback with the riders wearing chaps, and modern working cowboys wear them around the barn. Of course, all rodeo and show riders wear colorful, fancy chaps. Sewing patterns and various materials can be used by the home-sewer to make her own.  See the sources listed below to read more about chaps and see pictures of historical and modern chaps. 


     (Dress Clothing of the Plains Indians by Ronald P. Kock; University of OK press, 1977)

      (“Leather Fashionable in Prehistoric Times” by Dan Vergano, June 8, 2010)

My Homeschooling Roots

This was originally published in 2008 on a homeschooling blog.

I have been a die-hard homeschooling mom for many years. Yet I don’t know how the initial urge came upon me or how it settled into conviction nearly ten years before my children were born. I had accredited it to a friend who said, while in the midst of planning her wedding, that she would home school her future children. Suddenly, I knew without a doubt that I would, too, and became utterly committed in that instant. But how could that be? I had never heard of homeschooling.

       Or had I?

       It makes sense that somehow, the homeschooling idea had been planted long before and that my friend’s comment triggered recognition of my deep rooted belief. Yet, the impetus of what has structured my family’s lives for the last twelve years has remained a mystery until now.

       Recently, one of my daughters came home from an activity humming a tune that she had learned from her friends, and which she said she couldn’t get out of her head. I knew the song very well and sang it for her. She wanted to know more about its source, so my husband and I shared with our two daughters one of our favorite childhood television shows –The Addams Family. As we laughed together, I was a little disconcerted to find myself feeling a communion with the kooky Addams Family. I dismissed it as a wistful nostalgia that one often feels when revisiting their past. However, as the feeling continued to grow, a truant officer arrived at the Addams’ home to explain why Gomez had to send his children to school. Gomez replied, “Why have children if you’re just going to send them away? I’m against the whole thing!” And then it hit me: the Addams Family homeschooled!

       It got better. The parallels of their life style and attitudes to those of modern homeschooling families are uncanny. Truly. My husband asked if I was sure that I wanted to equate homeschoolers to the Addams Family, and I understood his meaning. Like the Addams Family, homeschooling families are considered the fringe of normal society, those strange people with unfathomable motives and ideas who spend every waking moment with their children, who are shunned and feared by others.

       But, that’s just the point. 

       Sending their children to school never occurred to the Addams Family as it also often never enters the minds of their modern counterparts. That we will keep our children at home is understood from the beginning, or becomes a strong desire as the time to send them away looms ever nearer. As Gomez said, “I don’t think I can stand to be away from them, Morticia!” Maintaining family connections throughout the day feels right. Indeed, Gomez explained to the officer how Mamá (the grandmother) educated the children, especially in music, art, ballet, and history, while Uncle Fester worked with them in science. Most modern homeschooling families emphasize many of the under-funded and more humane aspects of society, like the arts and the sciences. True, we do it without dynamite and daggers (well, most of us do, anyway), but the fact is that homeschooling is a family affair.

       Just as Morticia, an accomplished horticulturalist, includes her children in the feeding and care of her poisonous and carnivorous plants, and Gomez includes them in planning toy-train crashes and the mechanics of dungeon torture devices, homeschooling parents include their children in all aspects of their own daily lives and hobbies. In addition to regular academic subjects, homeschooled children are exposed at an early age to all of the humanities, in-depth science, a multitude of field trips and experts, museums, finance, logic, cooking, sewing, robotics, gardening, Latin, Chinese. And all of this is usually done before the end-of-day bell rings in traditional schools, but often naturally continues into the evenings and weekends.

       The home of the Addams Family is a natural history museum, with a two-headed turtle, a preserved Hun warrior and giant Kodiak bear, and other taxidermy specimens and items of interest. Wednesday, their six year old daughter, breeds thoroughbred spiders, and Pugsly builds things. A typical homeschooling family’s home looks much the same, with most surfaces covered by the children’s various projects, such as breeding worms, dioramas, hundreds of books, bugs, rocks, written reports, musical instruments, owl pellets, goat hearts, mummifying chickens. The kitchen counter holds their experiments on gases; the dining room table displays their physics experiment on magnetic motors. And of course, all of this is mixed in with their parents’ paraphernalia of various hobbies and interests.

       The Addams Family enjoys their evenings together in the family room, at work on their own projects, communicating openly. Morticia might be knitting while Gomez has a drink and cigar with the newspaper; the children play on the carpet and Lurch plays the harpsichord. A homeschooling family looks much the same. The mother might be knitting while the father will have a drink with the paper; the children play on the carpet and play the harpsichord.

       Both families often allow their children to seek out their own activities and gifts, without being bound to traditional roles and modes of thinking. When it comes right down to it, the Addams Family is bonded, loving, communicative, and supportive. The adults love their kids, they love being with them as much as possible, and they love talking with them. The family enjoys a hands-on approach to nearly all of their learning endeavors. I felt such a strong sense of connection to little Wednesday, when she learned about Marie Antoinette from Mamá and had Pugsly chop off her doll’s head before they ran gleefully out to the cemetery to bury her.

       Mystery solved.

       I can’t wait to find out what I learned from The Munsters!