COWBOYS. The heirs of ancient pastoral traditions, cowboys have worked as mounted herders on the cattle ranges of the American West for more than three centuries. They First rose to national prominence as an occupational group, however, with the rapid expansion of the western range cattle industry during the second half of the nineteenth century. Cowboy life attracted young, unmarried men, most of them in their late teens and early twenties, from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds. Whatever their age and upbringing, cowboys, sometimes called "cowhands," "cowpunchers," or "buckaroos," pursued a demanding and sometimes dangerous occupation that required stamina, athleticism, and a specialized knowledge of horses and cattle.
At roundup time cowhands lived undomiciled for months at a time gathering, sorting, branding, and driving cattle. They Typically worked in crews consisting of ten or twelve men under the command of a range boss and supported a cook and a chuck wagon, which carried the outfit's food and bedrolls. Each cowboy maintained a string of a half-dozen or more horses, which he changed periodically throughout the work day. Despite toiling long hours, often under difficult conditions, for wages that in the 1880s ranged from $25 to $30 per month, cowboys were self-reliant, fiercely independent, and rarely organized labor unions or engaged in strikes.
Skilled ropers and riders, American cowboys employed tools and techniques perfected by Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) in Mexico and the southwestern United States. They Snared livestock with ropes made of rawhide or Manila hemp and rode heavy stock saddles equipped with a horn, which served as a snubbing posts while roping. Cowboys also adopted a distinctive, often colorful style of dress that reflected the requirements of the job, the local work environment, and personal taste. Most wore wide-brimmed hats to protect their head from sun and weather, tall-topped boots with underslung heels to help secure their feet in the saddle stirrups, and spurs, sometimes embellished with silver, to motivate their horses. In brush-infested regions they also donned leather leggings, called chaps, shorthand for the Spanish term chaparejos. Most ranchers, however, banned the wearing of firearms along with drinking and gambling.
During the era of the open range, cowboy work was seasonal, lasting from spring until fall. Ranchers laid off most of their cowboys during the winter months, retaining only a few to keep track of their herds and watch for cattle thieves, Many of whom were out-of-work ranch hands. Driving cattle to railhead markets usually fell to separate crews of professional drovers hired by independent contractors.
By the mid-1880s, the open range style of cattle ranching had given way to more organized methods. The
advent of barbed wire fences, which divided the range into ever smaller pastures, allowed the separation and upgrading of cattle herds, reduced the number of hands needed to tend them, and changed cowboy life and work forever. In the new order, cowboys were often called upon to cut hay, fix windmills, and build fences as well as ride the range. Married cowboys became more common as twentieth-century advances in transportation and communication and denser settlement patterns mitigated rural isolation. The eventual introduction of motor vehicles and horse trailers which, along with better roads, allowed cowboys to return to their homes and families after each day's work, gradually eliminated chuck wagon–based roundups.
Amid the inexorable economic and social changes that swept away the open range and the unfettered lifestyle of the horseback cowboy, there emerged a more enduring cowboy of legend. By the turn of the twentieth century, literature, art, and popular culture had rescued cowboys from historical anonymity and negative stereotypes and replaced them with a rugged, chivalrous hero. The writings of such authors as Theodore Roosevelt, Owen Wister, and Zane Grey; the art of Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell; and the theatrics of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, shaped and polished the image of the cowboy hero, whose independence, individualism, bravery, and common sense became the ideal of American masculinity. Later, motion picture and television portrayals by such actors as William S. Hart, Tom Mix, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers, further defined and reinforced the model, as did countless novels and short stories. The sport of rodeo also played a part in establishing the cowboy's heroic image, while dude ranches offered western tourists the chance to vicariously participate by dressing in western style clothing, riding horses, herding cattle, and imagining the open range. Meanwhile, shrewd merchants and advertisers capitalized on the universal appeal of cow boy imagery to sell a vast array products from cologne to cigarettes.
Dary, David. Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Price, B. Byron. Cowboys of the American West. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Books, 1996.
Rollins, Philip Ashton. The Cowboy: An Unconventional History of Civilization on the Old-Time Cattle Range. New York: Scribners, 1936.
Savage, William W., Jr. The Cowboy Hero. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
Savage, William W., Jr., ed. Cowboy Life: Reconstructing an American Myth. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975.
After the American Civil War (1861–65), the states located just west of the Mississippi River experienced a boom in the cattle business. Those who were hired to tend the cattle and guide them across open lands on drives from pasture to ranch to market were called cowboys. The golden age of the cattle drives in the 1870s and 1880s increased the number of cowboys and established them as part of western folklore. While the work of cowboys was not new, it gained attention as a romantic and heroic livelihood during this time.
The first cattle were unloaded in America during Spanish explorer Hernándo Cortés's (1485–1547) conquest of Mexico in 1519. A tradition of tending the cattle arose, and the first cowboys, known as vaque-ros, developed methods for herding and handling cattle in open lands. Americans adopted these practices as the cattle industry moved north through the southwest to the northern Great Plains.
The most familiar aspects of the vaquero tradition were maintained in the unique but highly practical dress of cowboys. The high crown and broad brim of a felt hat kept the sun out of a cowboy's face, provided a scoop for water, and, doubled over, served as a pillow at night. A bandana protected the cowboy's nose and mouth from dust and debris while leather chaps protected his legs from brush, thorns, and cacti. Boots with spurs, the design of the saddle, and lassos were all similarly practical and essential to the cowboy's needs.
A cowboy was a hired hand with a long and difficult job in a challenging environment. Although their work required skill, cowboys were not highly respected, and their pay was often minimal. A cowboy typically did not own land or cattle and usually claimed his horse, saddle, and gear as his only possessions.
Early stereotypes of cowboys were often negative, with images of unhindered celebrations in saloons, illiteracy, and lawlessness. Adventure books, Western exhibitions and shows, and popular movies all helped to change that image. Eventually, cowboys became respected for the long hours and tough nature of their work. By the 1950's, cowboys had become folk heroes.
The cowboy glamorized by legend, however, began to disappear in the 1890s. As the free and open ranges became more and more settled and fenced, the role of the cowboy changed. Cattle became confined to pastures on ranches, and railroads and trucks transported cattle to markets. Today cowboys are ranch hands who enjoy ranch-cooked meals, the shade of a truck, and a bed every night.