The History of the Great American Cowboy

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The History of the Great American Cowboy

The history of the cowboy is quintessential to the American West. Learn how American cowboys and their horses have evolved through the decades.

Though the cowboy way of life has often been portrayed as both romantic and heroic, the reality of how cowboys once lived is far different from that notion. Historically, being a cowboy meant spending long, lonely hours in the saddle, performing difficult and often dangerous tasks, and living life on the outskirts of society. 

Let’s dive into the history of the cowboy in America.

Vaqueros: The First Cowboys

In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico where they established ranches stocked with cattle and horses imported from Spain. On these expansive ranches, the Spanish enlisted indigenous Mexican cowboys to do much of the work of managing their livestock. 

Following much of the Spanish colonial ways of ranching, the cowboys would become known as vaqueros, coming from the Spanish word vaca, for cow. 

By the early 1700s, cattle ranching had spread into what is now Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The vaqueros continued to work these ranches, finely honing their roping skills using braided rawhide reatas. California would also become a hotspot of ranches with its own brand of vaqueros known as Californios, who rode with a hackamore and used a wrap called a dally (Spanish dar la vuelta) when roping cattle.

Vaqueros eventually became known as “buckaroos”, but the term is really just the Americanized version of the Spanish term.

Diversity on the Range

By the early 1800s, Anglo immigrants in America began to try their hand at ranching as well. This became more widespread after the Mexican/American War (1846-1848). The newcomers used the vaquero style of riding and ranching, and many intermarried with the old Spanish ranching families as well. 

Though not always depicted in Hollywood westerns, American cowboys and ranchers came from a wide array backgrounds and ethnicities, not only including the original Hispanic cowboys, but also African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese-Americans (often former railroad workers), as well as Western settlers from the eastern U.S. and Europe. 

In fact, during the Civil War (1861-1865), many white ranchers left to go fight, leaving enslaved people to manage their land and herds. This led to the increase of African American cowboys, many of whom would transition to paid ranch work after their emancipation. 

Life of the American Cowboy

Historically, cowboys mainly consisted of young men in need of a job. They would herd cattle, care for horses, make repairs to structures and fences (incidentally, the barb-wire fence was invented in the late 1800s), as well as work cattle drives. Occasionally, cowboys were enlisted to help build new frontier towns. They were often known as cowpokes, cowhands, or cowpunchers and averaged about $25-$40 per month in pay.

When living on a ranch, cowboys often shared a bunkhouse. To entertain themselves, they sometimes sang songs, played the guitar or harmonica, and wrote poetry. Many cowboys traveled as they worked, however, and this was always done on horseback. Contrary to popular belief, cowboys weren’t always welcome as they traveled. They had a reputation for being drunk, disorderly, and sometimes violent. Some even became renowned outlaws. 

Cowboy dress included large, wide-brimmed hats to protect them from the sun, boots, and bandanas worn over the lower half of their face to protect them from dust inevitably stirred up by the cattle. Some cowboys also wore chaps to protect their legs from cacti and rocky terrain. Their workdays typically spanned 15 hours, much of that time spent on a horse or doing physical labor. It was not a life for the faint of heart.

Cattle Drives

After the Civil War, the cattle industry became huge in Texas. In fact, the cattle had multiplied during the war, leaving an estimated five million cattle in Texas alone. As the demand for beef increased, ranchers hired cowboys to drive cattle north to Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missoui. 

In fact, the Four Sixes Ranch began when Captain Samuel “Burk” Burnett purchased a hundred cattle already marked with the Four Sixes brand. He later bought the rights to the brand and introduced Durhams and Herefords into his herd in order to improve the quality of meat. 

Cattle drives often followed the same routes from Texas north. The first route was established by Jesse Chisholm in 1865 as he drove cattle from San Antonio to Abilene, Kansas. Despite their popularity, cattle trails were often hazardous, with rivers to cross and run-ins with farmers and Native Americans protecting their land. The lure of high beef prices at the end of the journey kept cowboys invested in the job however. It was common to see as many as 2,000 cattle moved north along these trails, run by one trail boss and a dozen cowhands.

On the cattle drives, the cowboys had specific jobs. The Segundo (meaning “second in command”) rode up with the trail boss, while the Swings stayed on each side of the herd. Behind the Swings were the Flanks, and then finally, at the back of the herd, the Drag riders rode, enduring the worst of the dust in order to push the slow cattle up with the rest of the herd. The cook would drive a chuckwagon, essentially a kitchen on wheels, making meals each night over the campfire.

The wrangler, often the youngest of the crew, was tasked with caring for all the horses on the cattle drive. Each cowboy typically had three or four, so they could switch out as the horses tired. The wrangler’s job was to feed, saddle, and care for this herd and to drive the horses that weren’t being ridden.

Though there’s no doubt that cattle drives were mainly worked by men, a few women took part as well. One such woman was Lizzie Johnson Williams, who is thought to be the first woman to accompany her own cattle along the Chisholm Trail.

She came to be known as the Texas Cattle Queen and amassed quite a wealth, all due to cattle. Historical records show that several other women joined their husbands or drove their own cattle up the trails, showing that women could do the tough work of the cowboy as well. 

Horses of the American Cowboy

It could be argued that horses played an equally important part of settling the West as did cowboys and settlers. Before cars and highways, horses were the only way to travel over rugged and vast terrain. Horses also enabled cowboys to round up and herd skittish cattle.

No one particular breed was used by the cowboys of the old West, but predecessors of the American Quarter Horse, Appaloosas, Saddlebreds, Missouri Foxtrottters, Morgans, Mustangs, and even Arabians often served as mounts. Cowboys looked for horses with speed and stamina, not to mention the temperament to work around cattle. Not every horse made the cut.

Though horses were respected partners of the cowboy in those days, they were still essentially beasts of burden. Some were no doubt well cared for, but probably not by today’s standards. The horses likely ate a simple diet of grains and forage. Home remedies were often used in place of veterinary care and tobacco was often given as a dewormer.  

The Decline of the Cowboy Era

The heyday of open-range ranching and full-scale cattle drives only lasted about twenty years. In the winter of 1886-1887, thousands of cattle died during an extreme cold spell in parts of the West. Many believe this marked the beginning of the end of the cowboy era. As railroads became more prominent, there was less need for cattle drives. A cattle disease known as “Texas Fever” also led some states to prohibit the movement of cattle across state lines.

Though cattle drives continued up until the mid-1900s, they existed on an increasingly smaller scale. Many cowboys gave up the open trail life for work at private ranches. Privatization of land and the use of barbed wire fences only made cattle drives more difficult. 

Cowboys and their Horses Today

Though long-distance cattle drives no longer exist, cowboys have endured, working on ranches or competing in rodeos. From chaps to lariats and even the style of today’s Western saddles, the vaquero ways of riding and ranching can still be seen today. Though technology has progressed, seemingly at the speed of light, ranches of all sizes still employ horses to move and work cattle.

Today’s cowboys ride a variety of horse breeds, but the most popular is the American Quarter Horse, known for its speed and agility. Something else that’s changed is the way they care for their horses.

Though many horses still put in long hours at the ranch, they are no doubt better cared for with routine veterinary and farrier care, better-fitting tack, and feeding programs that better support the horse to increase their longevity and overall health. 

Today, many cowboys and cowgirls not only feed their horses top quality concentrates and hay, but also provide supplements to support joint health and digestion. They often provide minerals and vitamins that may be lacking in the horse’s diet as well. 

There’s no doubt that the lives of cowboys, cowgirls, and their horses are much improved today, and because of that, the Western way of life may very well continue for many generations to come. 

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