Cowboys In Life and Legend
for NCCAT Seminar, June 2005
by Richard W. Slatta
material reprinted from The Cowboy Encyclopedia
1994 by ABC-CLIO ** 1996 W. W. Norton
- Work Life
- Conflicting Views of the Cowboy
- Dress and Equipment
- Social Realities
- Economic Realities
- Primary Sources and Memoirs about Cowboy Life
- Ride Back to the Cowboys Life and Legend Home Page
Etymologists trace the use of the term cowboy back to 1000 AD in Ireland. Swift used it in 1705, logically enough, to describe a boy who tends cows. Modern usage, first in hyphenated form, dates from the 1830s in Texas. Colonel John S. "Rip" Ford used the word cow-boy to describe the Texan border raider who drove off Mexican cattle during the 1830s. The term carried a tinge of wildness, of life at the fringes of law and "civilization."
After the American Civil War, Westerners applied the term cowboy to ranch hands, rather than cattle thieves. The Denver Republican (October 1, 1883) observed that "it matters not what age, if a man works on a salary and rides after the herd, he is called a `cowboy.'" A cowboy, then as now, is a man who works at least part of the year as a salaried ranch hand. Ranchers or "cowmen" owned land and cattle; cowboys did not own land and seldom owned cattle.
The cowboy of the American West, a dashing figure in popular novels and films, was in reality a poorly paid laborer engaged in difficult, dirty, often monotonous work. During the years after the Civil War the range cattle industry spread northward from Texas. During the 1870s cowboying spread to the Southwest and the northern plains. Although some of the young men who worked on these ranches were from the northeastern states, a majority were probably southerners. Many had fought for the Confederacy.
RACE: Unlike most movie depictions, not all cowboys were white. Racial distribution varied from place-to-place. Mostly Anglo cowboys worked the Montana ranges. Further south, however, in Texas, for example, perhaps one-third of the hands may have been African-Americans or Mexican-Americans.
WORK LIFE: The Cowboy's work year centered on two big events, the roundup and the long drive. Roundups were held in the spring and often also in the fall. After cowboys had herded cattle to a central location, they branded newborn calves, castrated and dehorned older animals, and, in the spring, chose the cattle to be taken to market.
From 1865 to 1880 at least 3.5 million cattle were driven in herds of between 1,500 and 3,000 from southern Texas to cattle towns on rail lines in Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The route most frequently used was the Chisholm Trail which went to Abilene, Kansas. Working up to 20 hours a day, cowboys drove the animals from one watering place to the next. They had to guard against predators (two- and four-footed), straying cattle, and stampedes at night. For his hard and dirty work the typical cowboy earned between $25 and $40 a month.
By about 1890 much of the range had been fenced. The westward extension of the railroads eliminated the need for the long cattle drives. The "good old days" of epic drives and open range riding came to an end. At this point, however, dime novels wild west shows, and books such as Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902) offered the nostalgic public a stalwart, romantic cowboy hero. Although far removed from the drab truth, the image of excitement, freedom, and drama continues to dominate popular accounts of the cattle frontier.
VIEWS OF THE COWBOY: The cowboy generated conflicting appraisals. When observed at the end of a long trail drive, "hellin' 'round town," cowboys attracted little praise. The Topeka Commonwealth (August 15, 1871), painted an unflattering portrait of the cowboy on a tear.The Texas cattle herder is a character, the like of which can be found nowhere else on earth. Of course he is unlearned and illiterate, with but few wants and meager ambition. His diet is principally navy plug and whiskey and the occupation dearest to his heart is gambling. His dress consists of a flannel shirt with a handkerchief encircling his neck, butternut pants and a pair of long boots, in which are always the legs of his pants. His head is covered by a sombrero, which is a Mexican hat with a high crown and a brim of enormous dimensions. He generally wears a revolver on each side of his person, which he will use with as little hesitation on a man as on a wild animal. Such a character is dangerous and desperate and each one has generally killed his man.The unsympathetic writer went on to catalog the cowboy's additional sins of swearing, fighting, and aversion to authority.
As the ranching industry matured during the 1880s, many observers saw little improvement in cowboy character. The Las Vegas Optic (New Mexico, June 28, 1881) reported an unfavorable opinion.It is possible that there is not a wilder or more lawless set of men in any country that pretends to be civilized than the gangs of semi-nomads that live in some of our frontier States and Territories and are referred to in our dispatches as "the cowboy boys." Many of them have emigrated from our States in order to escape the penalty of their crimes, and it is extremely doubtful whether there is one in their number who is not guilty of a penitentiary offense, while most of them merit the gallows. They are supposed to be herdsmen employed to watch vast herds of cattle, but they might more properly be known under any name that means desperate criminal. They roam about in sparsely settled villages with revolvers, pistols and knives in their belts, attacking every peaceable citizen met with. Now and then they take part in a dance, the sound of the music frequently being deadened by the crack of their pistols, and the hoe-down only being interrupted long enough to drag out the dead and wounded.
A similar assessment of cowboys appeared in the Rio Grande Republican (Las Cruces, New Mexico, December 13, 1884).Out in the Territories there are only two classes--the "cowboys" and the "tenderfeet." Such of the "cowboys" as are not professional thieves, murderers and miscellaneous blacklegs who fled to the frontier for reasons that require no explanation, are men who totally disregard all of the amenities of Eastern civilization, brook no restraint, and--fearing neither God, nor man or the devil--yielding allegiance to no law save their own untamed passions. He is the best man who can draw the quickest and kill the surest. A "cowboy" who has not killed his man--or to put it more correctly his score of "tenderfeet"--is without character standing, or respect. The "tenderfoot" who goes among them should first double his life insurance and then be sure he is "well-heeled."
These negative portrayals are not unlike those depicting Latin American horsemen as violent frontier criminals and ruffians living beyond the pale of civilization. While some cowboys in both hemispheres fit this mean stereotype, the majority did not. In fact, some writers recorded in glowing images the character of the American cowboy. William G. "Billy" Johnson worked the range during the 1880s. He recalled that "cowpunchers were square shooters, upright, and honest men. I never heard of a cowpuncher insulting a woman. If they were not up to par they were soon run out of the country." Other sources from the 1880s likewise reveal positive appraisals of cowboy character. The Texas Live Stock Journal (October 21, 1882) wrote glowingly of the cowboy's courage, chivalry, and loyalty.We deem it hardly necessary to say in the next place that the cowboy is a fearless animal. A man wanting in courage would be as much out of place in a cow-camp, as a fish would be on dry land. Indeed the life he is daily compelled to lead calls for the existence of the highest degree of cool calculating courage. As a natural consequence of this courage, he is not quarrelsome or a bully. As another necessary consequence to possessing true manly courage, the cowboy is as chivalrous as the famed knights of old. Rough he may be, and it may be that he is not a master in ball room etiquette, but no set of men have loftier reverence for women and no set of men would risk more in the defense of their person or their honor. Another and most notable of his characteristics is his entire devotion to the interests of his employer. We are certain no more faithful employee ever breathed than he; and when we assert that he is, par excellence, a model in this respect, we know that we will be sustained by every man who has had experience in this matter.
John Baumann (Fortnightly Review April 1,1887) decried the myth of the cowboy as a "long-haired ruffian. He is in the main a loyal, long-enduring, hard-working fellow, grit to the backbone, and tough as whipcord; performing his arduous and often dangerous duties, and living his comfortless life, without a word of complaint about the many privations he has to undergo." How can we account for such sharply conflicting visions of cowboy character? First, where the writer observed cowboys is important. Those who saw hands sweating at work on the range, riding, roping, and branding, remarked their strength, skill, courage, and hard work. Likewise, writers who saw cowboys in town, letting off steam after months on the trail or range, saw only lawlessness and debauchery in the cowboy's life. The few journalists who actually spent time on the range with working cowhands formed a positive view.
The time period of the observation can also be significant. The heyday of cowboy life lasted only a few brief decades. In the early 1870s, when Texas cowboys drove hundreds of thousands of cattle north to various railheads, unbridled frontier exuberance dominated their lives and actions. As a British traveler noted, "The Texans are, as far as true cowboyship goes, unrivaled: the best riders, hardy, and born to the business, the only drawback being their wild reputation. The others [from Missouri and Oregon] are less able but more orderly men."
Joseph G. McCoy offered the wealthy cattleman's vision of the cowboy. He recorded a reasonably balanced, if slightly condescending, views in his 1874 treatise on the cattle trade.He lives hard, works hard, has but few comforts and fewer necessities. He has but little, if any, taste for reading. He enjoys a coarse practical joke or a smutty story; loves danger but abhors labor of the common kind; never tires riding, never wants to walk, no matter how short the distance he desires to go. He would rather fight with pistols than pray; loves tobacco, liquor and women better than any other trinity. His life borders nearly upon that of an Indian. If he reads anything, it is in most cases a blood and thunder story of a sensational style. He enjoys his pipe, and relishes a practical joke on his comrades, or a corrupt tale, wherein abounds much vulgarity and animal propensity.
DRESS & EQUIPMENT: Anglo cowboy dress varied with climate and terrain. Cowboys in Canada and the United States had access to mass-manufactured equipment and clothing. As a result, Anglos made far fewer items by hand. Vaqueros would weave intricate leather lariats; cowboys bought hemp rope. Argentine gauchos fashioned their boots from the legskins of a colt; cowboys in the West purchased high-heeled boots at the store. William Timmons (Twilight on the Range, 1962) recalled from his days on the range that cowboys had a particular ritual for dressing and undressing.A cowboy undresses upward: boots off, then socks, pants, and shirt. He never goes deeper than that. After he has removed the top layer he takes his hat off and lays his boots on the brim, so the hat won't blow away during the night. Spurs are never taken off boots. In the morning a cowboy begins dressing downward. First he puts on his hat, then his shirt, and takes out of his shirt pocket his Bull Durham and cigarette papers and rolls one to start the day. He finishes dressing by putting on his pants, socks, and boots. This is a habit that usually stays with a cowboy long after his days in the saddle are over. The cattle frontier in the United States featured more firearms than any other. However, cowboy gunplay has been exaggerated to titillate movie and pulp novel fans. Most hands were not particularly good shots nor were sidearms very accurate. Self-conscious of their image, most cowboys strapped on a six- shooter for photographs. But a sidearm was heavy and uncomfortable. On trail drives or roundups, most cowboys left their pistols in the chuckwagon.
During the 1880s, particularly on the northern ranges, cattle raising took on the trappings of big business. Cowhands were employees in large corporate enterprises. These big businesses had obligations to eastern and foreign stock holders who expected handsome returns on their investments. Ranchers under these circumstances ran businesses that showed little evidence of the wildness of the "Old West." SOCIAL REALITIES: Few ranchers in the American West faced labor shortages. Green kids, college graduates, immigrants, and sundry other men seemed willing to try their hand at cowboying. Ranchers could impose restrictions on their hands, such as forbidding gambling and drinking, and make them stick. Any grumblers or violators could be replaced quickly and easily with other men. Joseph Nimmo in 1886 recorded that "organization, discipline, and order characterize the new undertakings on the northern ranges." The northern cattle industry made cowboys less independent and more akin to other regimented workers of their time. The supposedly wild, hard-riding Texas cowboy gave way to responsible, loyal ranch hands.
Cowboys were no paragons of virtue, as many romantics and popularizers would have it. Nor were they the uncouth barbarians of the plains described by self-anointed spokesmen of civilization and culture. Externalities--principally the law and employers--imposed restrictions that shaped their lives. But cowboys lived as much as possible by their own internal codes of conduct. The cardinal virtues for the American cowboy were to do his best and to be cheerful, courageous, uncomplaining, helpful, and chivalrous. Of course, few cowboys maintained these ideals at all times in their lives.
Honesty, a man's word as his bond, is also associated with the cowboy in the popular mind. But examples exist of cowboy indifference to the truth and to the rights of others. A diary kept by Perry Davis describes a trail drive from South Dakota to Texas in 1894. Davis notes that in Wyoming they passed "a nice stream through a pasture where they charge twenty dollars for watering a herd. Watered before anyone sees us; no pay." A little further along, their horses ran through a fence. "Didn't pay for fences" records Davis. In fact, this trail crew committed so many misdemeanors that they became notorious. In northern Colorado, the boss of the "7D" outfit passed the crew Davis worked with. "Says he is glad to get ahead because we left a hard name and everyone was watching him whenever he stopped fearing he would steal fence posts or water as we did." It may be that Davis simply fell in with a trail boss a cut below the standards of the range. But his comments reveal a sense of use rights--open access to resources on the plains--typical of an earlier era in cowboy life. Latin American cowboys held the same opinion. They too believed in open access to animals, water, and grass on the plains. As laws imposed a private property ethic in place of communal use rights, conflict between politically dominant ranchers and range cowboys increased. The cowboy's low socioeconomic status didn't give him many life options. Generally not considered a "good catch," a cowboy often could not marry. Women, a scarce commodity on the cattle frontier, married ranchers and merchants, not poor, itinerant cowhands. Few hands could save enough of their meager wages to become ranchers themselves.
ECONOMIC REALITIES: Despite the lack of social and economic benefits, lots of men, mostly young, reveled in the cowboy life. The occupation continues to appeal to the individualist. Cowboy wages remain low. A 1989 summary of salaries by occupation placed the cowboy 247 out of 250 on the list. Men (and on occasion women) don't cowboy to get rich. Many want the avoid shackles of modernity that fetter urbanites. Cowboys do nicely without office gossip, FAX machine, mortgage, and leaf blower.Good hands require little but they do demand respect. If they don't get it, they are willing to say, along with Johnny Paycheck, "take this job and shove it." But good hands working for good ranchers will "ride for the brand." As a century ago, they'll ride the extra mile to find one lost calf. While cowboys are fewer these days, the cowboy spirit remains alive and well.
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