The Real Story of Cowboys

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Podcast Transcript

One of the most iconic images of America is the cowboy. Cowboys have defined genres of literature and movies and are the basis for entire types of fashion. 

But how did cowboys come about, what exactly did they do, and who exactly became cowboys? 

Perhaps most importantly, how realistic is our image of cowboys? 

Spoiler: It’s not very realistic at all.

Learn more about Cowboys, how they came to be, and how realistic their portrayal in media is, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In a previous episode, I asked the question, “How wild was the Wild West?”

The answer was not very, or at least not as wild as it appears on TV and movies. For example, there were no recorded quickdraw gunfights on Main Street ever recorded, even though they happen all the time in Westerns. 

In this episode, I want to focus on one element I addressed in the previous episode: cowboys. 

First, what is a cowboy exactly? 

A cowboy is a livestock herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, usually on horseback, and often performs various ranching and livestock management tasks.

Cowboys have origins in Europe. In England, someone who tended cattle was known as a cowherd, similar to how someone who tends sheep is known as a shepherd. 

A cowherd, however, is not a cowboy. The primary difference is that a cowherd would have tended cattle on foot, similar to a shepherd. 

The origins of the North American cowboy actually come from Spain.  In Spain, cowherds tended cattle on horseback. A Spanish cowboy was known as a vaquero. Vaquero comes from the Spanish word for cow, which means vaca

The first use of the word cowboy in print came in 1725 by the author Johnathan Swift, who used the word in reference to young boys who tended cattle. It wasn’t actually referencing what we think of as cowboys today. 

The origin of cowboys in North America actually came from Mexico. In Spain, there was a system that developed in the Middle Ages known as the hacienda system. Haciendas were estates that held large amounts of land. 

When the Spanish came to the New World, they brought the hacienda system with them. Along with the haciendas came the vaqueros and, perhaps more importantly, horses. 

The Hacienda system wasn’t just brought to Mexico. It was also brought to other countries in South America, including Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. 

Vaqueros adapted to different countries. In Argentina and Uruguay, they became known as gauchos, which is a topic for another episode. 

The haciendas spread throughout the American southwest into Texas, New Mexico, and California. 

Eventually, English-speaking settlers came along and began adapting and modifying the hacienda system into large ranches. 

The golden age of the cowboy is considered to have begun after the American Civil War. 

This period, beginning approximately around 1865, is notable for several reasons. 

The American Civil War profoundly changed the beef industry in the United States. For starters, the Union Army depleted much of the beef available in the North, causing shortages. 

At the same time, the trade in beef from Texas to the rest of the Confederacy was cut off due to Union control of the Mississippi River. While cattle couldn’t be sold for several years, they kept breeding, increasing the cattle population west of the Mississippi. By the end of the war, there were five million cattle in just in Texas.

Prior to the war, the Texas cattle industry was primarily for the production of tallow and leather, not for meat.

After the war, meat became the driving factor because a $5 head of cattle in the South could sell for $40 in the North. 

The result was a perfect storm of supply and demand. 

This demand was met due to the creation of the railroad. Railroad companies were looking for freight to haul, and cattle were perfect. They were large and heavy enough to be transported only by rail.

However, they had to be loaded onto railcars, which couldn’t be done just anywhere. That led to the development of cow towns. Cow towns were railheads where cattle could be loaded into railcars to be taken to cities like Chicago. 

The first cow town is considered to be Abline, Kansas. It was established by a cattleman named Joseph “Cowboy” McCoy.  The route that cattle took from Texas to Abline was known as the Chisholm Trail, named after a Scottish fur trader named Jesse Chisholm. 

The large cattle ranches of the West developed a system in which cattle were allowed to graze far away from stockyards and railheads. In fact, cattle spent much of the year grazing on the open range without any human oversight whatsoever.

This was possible because immediately after the war, most of the land in the west was still open prairie and hadn’t yet been divided and fenced with barbed wire. 

This system resulted in the need for cowboys. 

Cowboys would usually participate in two roundups each year in the spring and fall. Cattle drives were established in the 1830s, but they became much more important after the war. 

During a roundup, cowboys would gather cattle scattered over a large area and herd them into a central location, such as a corral or holding pen. Here, the cowboys would engage in such tasks as branding, tagging, and veterinary checks.

Once or twice a year, cattle would then be taken, sometimes long distances, to a cow town for sale and loading into rail cars.

Most cattle drives began in Texas and would go north, as far as Kansas or Missouri. 

A cattle drive could last two months, depending on the distance. It was a balance between how fast the cattle could walk and their weight on arrival. If you walked them too fast, they would lose too much weight. 

So, who were the cowboys? 

For starters, being a cowboy was a very low-status job. Little boys at the time did not dream of being a cowboy. 

Cowboys were usually young men, often Civil War veterans in the late 1860s, who earned about $1 per day. 

The ethnic makeup of cowboys was not what you usually see in the movies. Cowboys were actually quite diverse. 

About a quarter of all cowboys were black. They were freed slaves or the children of freed slaves. Being a cowboy was considered one of the better job options available after the war for emancipated men. 

Many black cowboys had been in charge of cattle herds during the war and continued to use the skills they developed after the war. It was also an opportunity to escape cities where they would otherwise suffer discrimination. 

Cowboys like Nat Love, Bill Picket, and Bob Lemmons were some of the most celebrated and accomplished cowboys of the 19th century. 

Other large groups of cowboys consisted of Mexicans, Native Americans, and European Immigrants. 

Cowgirls weren’t really a thing during the golden age of the cowboy. There were some women who worked on ranches, but there were no accounts of any women working on cattle drives alongside men. The idea of a cowgirl was the creation of Wild West shows who had women like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane as star attractions.

Another way that cowboys are often misrepresented in the media is where they work. Cowboys were usually out working on the plains amongst the cattle, alone in the middle of nowhere. If they weren’t out with the cattle, they would probably be working on a ranch and living in a bunkhouse with other cowboys. 

Cowboys certainly did go into town on occasion, but most movies often portray cowboys as doing something other than handling cattle. When they went into town, they would often blow their money, drinking and gambling. 

Cowboys were very similar in that respect to people who work in oil fields or remote mining sites. They would be out working for weeks or months at a time and then have an extended period of time off. 

During a cattle drive, about 3000 cattle would be accompanied by about ten cowboys. Each cowboy would bring with them about three horses. They would ride the horses until they were tired and then switch horses. 

The cowboys would usually work shifts so that someone would watch the cattle 24 hours a day. 

The most inexperienced cowboy was usually the wrangler, who was responsible for caring for the horses. 

The most prestigious position was that of cook. The cook drove the chuck wagon that contained all of the supplies the cowboys used when they were out in the field. In addition to cooking for the crew, the cook would often serve a doctor while they were out in the field. 

The dress of cowboys was extremely practical. Leather chaps were worn on the legs to protect them when riding through brush. 

Cowboy boots were designed to make it easy for the foot to fit into a stirrup while in the saddle. 

Almost all cowboys wore hats to protect themselves from the sun and the rain. However, the most popular hat amongst cowboys immediately after the war was the bowler hat. 

What became known as the cowboy hat was first released in 1865 by John B. Stetson. The hat didn’t initially look like what you think of as a cowboy hat. The brim was flat, as was the top of the hat. 

Over time, hats became deformed with indentations on the top and, later the brim of the hats being bent upward. At first, it was just an artifact from being used, and later it became a style choice.

Cowboys would often kill time by competing amongst themselves in skills that they used in their jobs. These contests consisted of bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback bronco riding, and barrel racing. This eventually evolved into formal rodeo competitions. 

The golden age of the cowboy began to come to an end in the 1880s due to a host of factors. 

Refrigerated rail cars were introduced in 1878, eliminating the need to ship live cattle to cities in the north and east. Slaughterhouses were built in many of the cow towns.

The other big change was the introduction of barbed wire in the 1880s. Ranches began to fence off their land, preventing the large-scale movement of cattle and cattle drives. 

There was also a series of weather events in the 1880s that hurt the cattle industry.  In 1883, there was a drought that stunted grass growth, which reduced the amount of feed. The winter of 1886-1887 saw a particularly brutal winter which killed thousands of cattle and dozens of cowboys. 

This is often given as the end of the post-war cattle boom and the end of the cowboy era. 

Cattle ranching became a much more settled activity centered on a particular ranch. A crew might still go out for an extended period, but not as long as they would have on longer cattle drives. 

While the golden age of the cowboy was rather short-lived and probably only lasted about twenty years, cowboys never disappeared entirely. 

Cattle drives continued until the 1940s, albeit not as long as the one which took place after the war. 

Although the number of cowboys shrunk throughout the 20th century, they never disappeared. Today, there are somewhere around 10,000 cowboys in the United States and Canada. 

The one thing that hasn’t changed is that being a cowboy is still not a high-paying job, but it is still very difficult and demanding.

The life of a cowboy wasn’t as glamorous or exciting as movies and television made it out to be. It was often a very lonely pursuit that required long hours of work under very difficult conditions.  

Despite all the changes that have taken place in the cattle industry over 150 years, the cowboy still has a place in the American West.