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The cowboy, a person who rounded up and "drove" large herds of cattle, figured prominently in U.S. life from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s. During this 20-year period the cattle industry in the West grew rapidly.

After the Civil War (186165) demand for beef increased, and butchers in the East and North were willing to pay handsomely for it. At the same time, large herds of cattle, produced by bulls and cows left behind by the early Spanish settlers, roamed freely on the open ranges of Texas. Seeing the business opportunity, cattle ranchers hired cowboys to round up the cattle, brand them (burn the skin with a rancher's mark or symbol), release them again onto the open range, protect them from rustlers, and at the end of the grazing season, round them up. The cowboys then ran a trail driveguiding the cattle as far as 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) to the nearest railhead, where the animals were loaded into railcars and transported eastward. The train terminals at Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas, made those cities into "cow towns," frontier boom towns of the cattle industry.

By 1870 cattle ranches had spread northward into present-day Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. Between 1860 and 1880, the cattle population in these areas increased from 130,000 to 4.5 million. Where the cattle went, so did the cowboys, conducting roundups twice a year. Though there were probably no more than 100,000 cowboys (also called cowpokes or cowhands) in the West, they captured the American imagination and came to symbolize the days of the "Wild West." (As many as 25 percent of the mounted cowboys were African Americans.) The innovation of barbed wire (1874) allowed ranchers to fence in their lands, and by the 1880s the railroads reached into previously remote areas. The long cattle drives became a thing of the past and the need for cowboys declined.

See also: Cow Towns, Barbed Wire, Open Range, Chisholm Trail, Prairie, Longhorn Cattle

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cow·boy / ˈkouˌboi/ • n. 1. a man, typically one on horseback, who herds and tends cattle, esp. in the western U.S. and as represented in westerns and novels. 2. inf. a person who is reckless or careless. • v. [intr.] work as a cowboy: Sonora, Mexico, where he learned to cowboy.PHRASES: cowboy up inf. mount a brave effort to overcome a formidable obstacle.

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Cowboy ★★★ 1958

Western roundup based on the memoirs of tenderfoot-turned-cowpoke Frank Harris. Harris (Lemmon) is a Chicago hotel clerk who meets cattle boss Tom Reece (Ford) who's in the city on business. Losing his money in a poker game, Reece reluctantly accepts a loan from Harris in exchange for a piece of his cattle business. So Harris and Reece hit the dusty trail on a cattle drive that takes them into Mexico where Harris falls in love with Maria (Kashfi), the daughter of a wealthy rancher, and gradually turns from city slicker into hardened trail boss. Good cast, no fuss. From the book “Reminiscences As a Cowboy” by Harris. 92m/C VHS, DVD . Jack Lemmon, Glenn Ford, Anna Kashfi, Brian Donlevy, Dick York, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Richard Jaeckel, King Donovan; D: Delmer Daves; W: Edmund H. North; C: Charles Lawton Jr.; M: George Duning.

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cowboy (cowhand) US ranch hand. Traditionally living and working in the West, cowboys increased after the Civil War. They have been romanticized in books and films as a symbol of the rugged independence, colour and vigour of the old ‘Wild West’. See also gaucho

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