Sturgis, Dakota Territory, c. 1888
Photographed by J.C.H. Grabill
Source: Library of Congress
Every occupation has its slang, and the cowboys of the American frontier were no exception to the rule. The Dictionary of the American West by Winfred Blevins (1993, Facts on File Books, New York) lists hundreds of colorful phrases cowboys used to describe their lives on the open range. The website "Western Slang, Lingo, and Phrases" is another large collection of cowboy talk.
The men of the saddle were, of course, familiar with the idea of "treeing" a wild animal -- that is, pursuing the animal until it ran up a tree to escape . According to Blevins, the cowboys took this term and gave it a Wild West twist -- "treeing a town".
When cowboys "treed" a town, they were on their worst behavior -- drinking, shouting, fighting, shooting their guns, and riding wildly down the streets. The residents, terrified for their safety, took refuge in their homes, refusing to come out until the cowboys left. If the sheriff was too intimidated to interfere, the cowboys said they had "treed the sheriff" too.
They also used the phrase "up a tree" to describe situations where someone was in trouble without a way to escape.
I looked around the internet this evening for a story where a cowboy was up a tree in the literal sense of the words. I thought I might find a story of a cowboy who climbed a tree to escape a herd of stampeding cattle.
Instead I found an 1889 account of a couple who were treed with their minister. A young man and his lady were engaged to be married, but were quarreling badly at a dance. When the dance ended at 4:00 a.m., their preacher decided to walk them home so he could help them work out their problem.
As they walked along, an aggressive Texas steer charged them. The young man went up one tree, and the preacher boosted the lady into a second tree before he scrambled into a third tree.
With the steer menacing them from below, the two young people feared for their lives. They settled their differences quickly and asked to be married. The preacher agreed, so they joined hands from their respective trees and said their vows. Soon thereafter, a wagon came by and they were rescued. Source: "Papers Past."
I also read the story of modern-day cowboy David George. George, a 53-year-old ranch foreman in Australia, fell from his horse and probably suffered a blow to the head. He seems to have wandered for a time, in a semi-conscious state.
When George regained his senses, he realized that he was in a swamp and the sun was going down. He climbed a tree to spend the night and was treed there by a couple of large crocodiles for six days. He was able to improve his perch slightly by building a little platform with sticks, but he couldn't come down from the tree.
Meanwhile, his horse went home without him, and a search was conducted. He was finally rescued when a helicopter pilot spotted him waving his shirt. (Source: Indopia)
I have been treed in the figurative sense a few times (that is, unable to see a solution), but I truly hope I'm never treed in the literal sense. I'm too old to climb trees!