The cowboy’s bedroll, unlike bedrolls or sleeping bags used by modern-day campers, was much, much more than a sleeping bag. The bedroll served as his “mini-home” on the range.
In its most elaborate form, a bedroll contained a whole host of personal possessions wrapped in canvas (when canvas could be found) or sometimes just in make-shift heavy grain sack cloth. Tied up or strapped within such a bedroll might be a “sugan” (also spelled “sougan” or “suggan” and several other very creative ways) or two and the cowboy’s “war bag” or “possibles sack.” In fact, a well-planned and well-stocked bedroll carefully wrapped and tied might be slung across a horse’s back behind the saddle, or if it was too large and burdensome and the cowboy was a working cowboy, his bedroll might be slung off the side of a chuck wagon or tucked down in the bed of the chuck wagon along with all the crew’s cooking utensils.
Smaller bedrolls for “portability” may have been mounted on the cowboy’s horse, but not the true, masterpieces of portable homes like a serious, full-grown bedroll. Which means we should ask — what were these mysterious “sugans” or “war bags,” and how did they work for the average cowboy?
Sugans — These were heavy blankets, or more often quilts, that contained some substance and if possible some padding that made them warm for cover. The same term is sometimes used for a small tarp or canvas that could be drapped over a tree branch or propped up with sticks to form a rudimentary one-man tent. So a sugan might be a tent, or you might think of it as a sleeping bag. The important thing in winters on the range in Texas or across the Great Plains was that sugans should provide both shelter and warmth as much as possible.
War Bags or Possible Sacks — If you think about those terms, you may figure this one out. These were canvas bags or often just old grain or flower sacks in which the cowboy kept prized possessions. They could be grabbed up and taken along in a hurry. Quoting from Winfred Blevins’ “Dictionary of the American West”:
“In the days of the open range, a snoop probably would have found some town clothing, the makings (for cigarettes), cartridges and maybe some letters from home in it [the war bag].”
A modern-day bedroll is much less colorful and exciting. In cowboy terms, “bedroll” was equivalent to an entire one-person camping setup. In modern terms a “bedroll” really just refers to a good sleeping bag.
The old “cowboy ways” of using bedroll appeals to me the most. It makes a bedroll into a portable campsite, a portable home away from home.