The Cowboy Life

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The Cowboy Life

Nat Love ...149
E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott ...167
Agnes Morley Cleaveland ...179

When most people think of the American West, they think of cowboys. Historian Walter P. Webb described this heroic image in The Great Plains:

There is something romantic about him. He lives on horseback as do the Bedouins [members of nomadic desert tribes in Africa]; he fights on horseback, as did the knights of chivalry; he goes armed with a strange new weapon which he uses ambidextrously and precisely; he swears like a trooper, drinks like a fish, wears clothes like an actor, and fights like a devil. He is gracious to ladies, reserved toward strangers, generous to his friends and brutal to his enemies. He is a cowboy, a typical Westerner.

This stereotype of the cowboy is the West's most recognizable contribution to our national mythology. But what was the cowboy's life really like? And what about the women who also lived in the cattle country of the West? This chapter presents the tales of two real cowboys and a cowgirl.

Cattle country

In reality the era of the cowboy only lasted a few decades, from just after the Civil War (1861–65) to about 1890. Before the Civil War, many Texans owned cattle but few got rich from it. After the Civil War, however, rising beef prices in the northeastern regions of the country created a new demand for cheap meat and railroads that were built during the Civil War made it possible to ship beef from the Midwest. Suddenly cattle that were worth four dollars in Texas were worth forty dollars if they could be brought to northern markets. The only problem facing cattle ranchers was how to get the cattle to market. Their answer was the cattle drive, in which cowboys drove thousands of cattle northward to railheads (the end point of a railway line) in Kansas. From there the cattle could be shipped east and much money could be made. This is how the cattle boom began.

For two decades, cowboys drove cattle from ranches in Texas, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, and other western states to a variety of railheads. The cattle were then shipped east for slaughter and sale in eastern cities. All across the western regions, ranchers hired tough young men to ride out onto the range (open, unfenced grasslands) and bring all the cattle marked with the rancher's brand back to the ranch to ready them for the drive.

Cattle drives were lead by a trail boss, whose job it was to hire the other cowboys for the drive, plan the route (making sure they would have sources for water), locate campsites, and lead his cattle north. One cowboy was hired for every 250 to 300 head of cattle; this meant that a typical herd of 2,000 to 3,000 longhorns would require eight to twelve cowboys. The cowboys looked after the animals on the trail, kept them moving along the trail, and tried to prevent them from breaking into a stampede. The cook, usually an older cowboy, often called the Old Lady, was one of the most important members of a cattle drive crew. A good cook kept the cowboys happy with good "grub," tended wounds, and took care of other domestic duties. He was the second-highest-paid member of the crew behind the trail boss. The lowest-paid member of the crew was the wrangler, a younger cowboy who looked after the herd of workhorses.

A herd on trail moved about ten miles a day. Leading the way was the trail boss and the Old Lady with his wagon. To the side of the herd rode most of the cowboys, who kept wandering cattle from separating from the rest of the herd. Bringing up the rear, and eating the dust of several thousand shuffling cattle, were the drag men. Cowboys joked that the drag was where a cowboy learned to curse.

Driving a herd of cattle across prairies was hard, dangerous work, for the terrain was difficult and the cattle could get spooked and stampede at any time. The difficulties increased when the cowboys crossed lands controlled by hostile Native American tribes or patrolled by cattle rustlers (thieves who stole cattle). Despite such problems, many of the cowboys found real pleasure in the independence and camaraderie of life on the trail, not to mention the rip-roaring fun they had once they arrived in town. With pockets full of money and eager for excitement, cowboys helped create the Wild West that is celebrated in films and fiction.

After 1885 a number of factors led to the end of the cowboy era. The increased settlement of Kansas led to the closing of the major cattle towns, including Abilene and Dodge City, and expanding railroad lines meant that ranchers didn't have to drive their cattle to faraway railheads. Huge blizzards that struck the plains in 1886 and 1887 killed off cattle by the thousands in the northern plains, proving that cattle couldn't just be left to fend for themselves. Finally, farmers claimed more western land, and ranchers were forced to purchase and fence land for their cattle. Men who were once cowboys now became mere farmhands, but the legend of the cowboy lives on in novels, films, and television shows that celebrate the tough and fiercely independent American cowboy.

The accounts of real cowboys and one cowgirl excerpted below provide evidence that will let you judge the accuracy of the cowboy legend. Nat Love became a cowboy at a young age and wrote about his colorful adventures as he traveled across the Great Plains. Because Love was one of a very few African Americans to record their experiences on the range, his The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick" has been of great interest to historians, though many have been disappointed at how little Love's race seemed to matter to him. E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott also became a cowboy at a young age. Although he never achieved the fame of Nat Love, his autobiography, We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, gives a detailed account of a cowboy's life. In No Life for a Lady, Agnes Morley Cleaveland offers her unique perspective as a woman who tended a ranch in southwestern New Mexico late in the nineteenth century.