Cowboy boots are an indelible image of the American West. Along with horse riding, the open range, cattle drives, and gunfights at dawn, this sturdy leather footwear has been closely associated with the ranchers that, in our popular imagination, settled the Wild West – and with good reason. And yet, these boots, which seem inseparable from the cowboy that gives them their name, actually only arrived in the West after a long evolution from Mongolia by way of England.
Strange as it may seem, the first mention of leather riding boots comes from descriptions of invading Mongol armies. These boots were adapted in many forms throughout Europe over the centuries. A popular form of boot became the Hessian, which was noted for its raised heel and pointed toe, both of which facilitated stirrup use. It was also fit rather loosely and was made of hardened leather. Hessian boots also typically had decorative tassels, which pointed to an early interest in style.
Hessians underwent an important (and unforeseen) evolution when the Duke of Wellington asked a shoemaker for a pair of modified boots. Instead of hardened leather, Wellington wanted a softer, more comfortable calfskin construction. He also suggested a tighter fit and a lower cut. The resulting style turned out to be wildly popular, and his shoe was adopted around the world. American soldiers in the Civil War, among others, wore Wellingtons into battle. After the war was over, they brought their prized and durable boots home with them, and when veterans began settling the West, the cowboy boot was born.