If you mention the word “Cowboy” an image of a man wearing a wide brimmed hat, boots, gun belt and sitting on a horse come to mind.
The cowboy is tall in the saddle and alone. He faces danger head on. He’s one man against nature and the outlaws. He is a folk hero; half real, half mythological. For many he conjures up the true spirit of America.
The American cowboy drove as many as two thousand cattle hundreds of miles to market enduring lighting, storms, drought, stampedes, rattlesnakes, Indians, and outlaws. They slept under the stars and ate chow at the chuckwagon.
SO just when did the word “Cowboy” first begin appearing in the English language? It can be traced back to the Conquistadors’ arrival in North America. Cowboy is the English translation of the Spanish word “Vaquero” which means herder of cattle.
The Vaquero history dates to medieval Spain and the hacienda system of ranching they developed.
The Conquistadors in the 16th century brought their domesticated cattle, horses and cattle raising traditions with them to Southwest America. Both regions had a dry climate with sparse grass requiring vast amount of land to manage herds of cattle. The great distance of land gave rise to the development of the horseback-mounted vaquero. The differences in terrain, climate, and the cattle handling practices from multiple cultures created the distinct styles of equipment, clothing, and animal husbandry of the American cowboy.
The American cowboy dressed with a purpose. The high-crowned, wide, floppy rimed hat protected them from the sun’s glare. It could be used as a watering cup and as a pillow when folded. The handkerchief around his neck could be used to protect him from dust. The vest had many pockets to hold cherished stuff. His boots usually had two-inch heels to help his feet better rest in the stirrups or to help dig into the ground while roping a calf. The chaps proved quite useful when chasing wayward steers through thorny mesquite. A bridle, lariat, a well-balanced six shooter, and a stock saddle completed the cowboy’s outfit.
The American cowboy is a mixture of Anglo and Hispanic culture. It began in Texas during the days of the Texas Republic and the spread of trail herds.
The Texas Republic was an enormous area claimed by the Spanish crown. The area was not necessarily superior to any other area of New Spain. But Spain had concerns that it was about to be controlled by the French. A Spanish investigative expedition was sent out and they discovered that hostile native had wiped out an established French colony.
The peaceful natives in the area greeted the expedition and announced their peaceful intentions by shouting “Thechas”, their word for friend. Tejas was later changed to Texias by Anglo immigrants and eventually called themselves Texians. Today, we know it as Texas and Texans.
In Texas, where the era of the cowboy all began, cattle grew wild and had few natural enemies. Texans gathered up the cattle and searched for better grass, fewer Indians, farmers, and outlaws. Prior to the invention of barbed wire, there was no practical way of containing cattle within boundaries. So, Texas cowmen established and maintained line camps along the borders. Their job was to keep the boss’s cattle in, foreign cattle out and keep them safe from harmful environmental elements. A cowhand had to be a good rider and roper and knowledgeable in the raising of cattle. Occasionally, the cowboy did blacksmithing, doctor cattle, fight fires, and stave off rustlers.
Evan G. Barnard, a Cherokee Strip cowpuncher in 1882 said “We always rode something like seventy-five feet away from the cattle, and sang a song or made some kind of noise,” “That was done so that the cattle would not be frightened if we happened to have to ride near them suddenly. If they heard us singing or humming a tune, they knew what was coming. Also, the noise we made kept the coyotes away from the herd. They often prowled around and scared the cows that had calves.”
By the end of the Civil War there were an estimated 5 million cattle. With the arrival of railroads came new trails to intercept them. Towns such as Abilene, Wichita, Ellsworth, and Dodge City enjoyed brief glory days of prosperity and endured the violence that came with it. By 1886 the open-range cattle business had made its way to Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, and California.
The American Cowboy was a diverse group of individuals. About one-third were African Americans. Many, such as Nat Love, moved massive herds of cattle. Nat Love drank with Billy the Kid and helped defend against the Indians.
Bass Reeves was a legend in the American West. He was born to slave parents and was the first U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Bass Reeves was one of the greatest old west heroes.
Women could hold their own in the Wild West. For example, Belle Star was part of the Jesse James, Cole Younger gang. Martha Jane Canary (Calamity Jane), a friend of “Wild Bill” Hickock, was known for “Indian” fighting.
The era of the open range and the great cattle drives lasted from 1866 to 1886. The dry summer of 1886 and the terrible winter of 1886 and ’87 virtually destroyed the cattle industry. The radio program and television show, “Gunsmoke” lasted longer the golden age of the cowboy.
That 30-year period of American history we know as the wild west began after the Civil War and ended around 1895. It was an era of myth-making cowboys, gunslingers, and saloon madams. It is, in fact, still regarded as defining uniquely American values and Characteristics.
And for me it will be missed.
Some Cowboy Facts
*The Colt six shooter became the official handgun of the Texas Ranger in 1847.
*The first cattle drive from Texas using the Chisholm Trail arrived at Abilene, KS in 1867.
*Joseph Glidden received a patent for his barbed wire invention in 1874.
*In 1883, the Alamo was purchased from the Catholic Church to preserve it as an historic shrine.
*That same year “Buffalo Bill” Cody staged his first Wild West Show at the Omaha fairgrounds.
*The lone cowboy is an American myth. Cattle were always driven by a group of drovers.
*Their workdays lasted fifteen hours, much of which was spent in the saddle.