The American Cowboy
The History Cat Classroom
The American Cowboy
The gun slingers, hostile Indians, and cowboys. Picture this- a couple of lonely cowboys are herding their cattle across the plains when suddenly, out of nowhere, a war whoop sounds in the distance. All of a sudden, the Cowboys are being savagely attacked by hostile Indians. WildWestwas a time when America was filled with cattle rustlers,
These Hollywood cowboys must have been trained by Chuck Norris because, somehow, they manage to fight off an advancing horde with just a six-shooter. After the battle, they ride off into the setting sun. This story is true if you believe everything Hollywood tells you but sadly, this isn't Hollywood, so get ready for the story of the real cowboys.
The story of the cowboy was only a short time in American history- about 60 years, from 1830-1890. The cowboy played a huge part in bridging two eras of American history: the move west and the coming of the railroads. During this time, the population of the United States was booming. Millions of emigrants were moving west in search of cheap land and better opportunities. America was growing up fast. It had transformed itself from a tiny nation of 4 million farmers in 1790 to an industrialized world power with almost 100 million people by 1900. The 19th century was going to see some huge changes for the United States (and the world). Things like factories, skyscrapers, steamboats, and railroads were transforming the way Americans lived, worked, and traveled. Whole cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and St. Louis sprung up almost overnight. America became a beacon for millions of immigrants (mostly Europeans) who wanted to find cheap land and freedom across the ocean. This is why only the greenest of cowboys would be stuck with this job.
Cowboys were ranch hands- employed by the ranch owners to make sure that their cattle made it safely to the railhead (towns with a train station). Since no railway lines ran between Texas and the nearest railhead in Kansas or St. Louis (a distance of about 1,000 miles), the next best thing was a good old-fashioned cattle drive.
A cattle drive was a highly organized event and started off with a round-up and a branding of the cattle. Cattle that were too young, too sick, or too old were separated from the herd and left on the ranch. The Cowboys would then begin by roping any young mavericks (unbranded or orphaned calves) and brand them with a red-hot iron bearing the initials or symbol of the ranch owner. In the early days of ranching, most ranches were independently owned-small time type of deals. By the late 1800s, most ranches were owned by big companies.
Unknown Cowboy c. 1888
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The cowboy tradition goes back way farther than the American west. Spanish cowboys known as Vaqueros had been doing roundups
since the 1500's.
It didn’t take someone long to figure out a way to get Texas beef to hungry consumers in the east and voila- in comes the era of the cowboy. Actually, this is not quite true. Cowboys have been around ever since the Spanish first began pillaging for Aztec gold in the 1500s. The Spanish colonized Mexico and South America and brought with them horses and cattle which began to populate the American southwest after a few strays broke free. By the time Americans made it to Texas in the 1830’s, a strong tradition of rounding up the wild Texas cattle was already in place.
One of the biggest jobs of a cowboy was keeping records. Like a modern accountant they had to keep track of whose cattle made it to market and collect the payment.
So much for Hollywood.
Wanted: Cowboy who Can Sing
Between Texas and the railhead lay, 1,000 miles of anything goes. The biggest worry for any cowboy was keeping the dogies on the move - preferably in a straight line. Cows spooked easily and it didn’t take much to set off a stampede. Forget what Hollywood tells you about the dangers of being a cowboy- it wasn’t Indian attacks or cattle rustlers but stampedes that were the most feared. The Great Plains, through which all cattle trails crossed, had some of the most temperamental weather on the continent. Winter brought blizzards and bitter cold (nobody did a cattle drive during this season). Spring was the best time to set out but floods were common.
Summers brought violent lightning storms, wild fires, and tornadoes Add in a few stray coyotes roaming the plains and you have a perfect recipe for disaster. A big part of the job of a cowboy was to keep the dogies quiet and moving. Cowboys often sang trail songs for the purpose of keeping the cows calm. Each song served a specific purpose. Slow, sad songs was for quieting the herd. Happy “yip yip” songs got the herd moving faster. Singing was a prized skill among cowboys and most ranches wouldn't even hire a cowboy if he couldn't somewhat carry a tune.
If you've ever watched a spaghetti western from the 1960's, you might be under the impression that Cowboys and Indians were born to fight one another. But that’s Hollywood drama. In reality, Indians and cowboys rarely came into contact on the vast open range. The biggest threat to the cowboy came from nature itself or from other settlers. Cattle rustlers were a common problem on the open plains. These thieves took advantage of the isolation to try to rustle a few cows for themselves. Cattle rustlers would hide out in the brush, and then when the time was right, create a disturbance to spook the cattle and make off with a few heads in the confusion.
But it was the farmer that posed the biggest threat to the cowboy’s way of life. In fact, farming on the Great Plains killed the golden age of cow poking altogether. Driving a whole herd of cattle through a farmer’s field of wheat didn't play out too well. Soon conflicts, lawsuits, and occasionally violence broke out. Farmers began throwing up barbed wire fences as fast as they could buy it to keep the cattle off their land. Most towns passed laws preventing cowboys from entering with their herds. The cowboys found themselves unwelcome in territory they ruled just a decade earlier. Then along came the railroad, which had been steadily expanding west since the 1830's. By the 1890's the railroad connected the remote regions of the wild west to the populated east. The cowboy’s job was now obsolete as ranchers could just take their cattle to the railhead themselves. So much for romance.
Eyewitness: A cowboy in Dodge City