Spanish influence pervades the vocabulary of the cowboy so it is not surprising to learn that the word “chaps” (pronounced “chaps”) comes from the Spanish chaparreras meaning “leg armour.”
Originally a part of the saddle, they were called armas and came with the vaquero to California where they were adapted to fit over the legs.
The California armas eventually came to be called chaparreras, and were quickly adopted by the English-speaking cowboys of California. From there they spread with the Spanish cattle into Oregon where they proved very useful in the sagebrush country of the interior. Their name was soon shortened to “chaps” and some of the early drovers into British Columbia wore them for protection from the brush and thorns found along the narrow trails.
The earliest chaps in British Columbia were a closed-leg chap consisting of two long tubes of leather into which the legs were stuck and joined into a belt at the waist.
The seam was sewn on the outside of each leg with enough leather left to be cut into a fringe, an adaptation that seems to have been borrowed from the Native legging. The way the two legs tapered down to the ankle reminded the drovers of the two barrels of a shotgun with a choke at the muzzle, so they called them “shotgun chaps.”
Shotgun chaps were light, warm and water-resistant to a certain extent. But the cowboys found that oiling the chaps to make them more waterproof also made them stiff and uncomfortable in cold weather, so they started covering them with pelts of various kinds to provide more warmth in cold weather and more water resistance. Soon the chaps themselves were made of the pelts from bear, goat, deer and other animals with the hair left on the outside. These “woollies,” as they were called, became very popular in the harsh northern climate of British Columbia. They also offered protection from bruises when a rider was thrown against a fence or tree by a mean horse. By the turn of the century, cowboys in B.C. almost universally wore “woollies,” most often made from long, thick-haired Angora goatskins.
The main drawback to shotgun chaps and woollies was the difficulty in getting them on and off. Since they were tight to the leg, they had to be pulled on over sock feet before the boots and spurs were put on. This was awkward and time consuming. Soon a chap was developed that buckled over the legs with snaps so the cowboy could simply fasten the belt and then reach down and snap the legs in place.
This design allowed for a flap of leather to extend beyond the side of the legs much like wings hanging back from the legs. As this flap became more pronounced, the particular style came to be known as “bat wing” chaps. The plain leather surface could be decorated with silver conchos and leather tooling or overlays..
The earliest chaps buckled at the back and were laced together at the front. The straight belt with a full lace front proved dangerous if a rider was pitched forward on the saddle horn. If he was hung up, it was very difficult to extract himself. Over the years the lacing at the front became less and less and chaps were designed with a distinct dip in the front centre. In more recent times the two sides of the chap were joined by a single thin lace, which would break easily if the rider was hung up.
Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch.