Cowboys in America

Cattle moving through a dusty Western trail, complete with chaparral and cowboys holding up the rear.

Romanticized movie poster for the film Vaquero starring Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner and Howard Keel includes a man in cowboy hat holding a shotgun; the man and a woman in a posed embrace and a group of men galloping on horses.
1953 movie poster

An integral part of the story of America, the cowboy is a national icon, a romantic, rugged metaphor for America’s frontier past, Westward expansion and creation myths. Sensationalized by Hollywood and by real-life bad boys, the heroic, hard-working, hard-riding, free-thinking cowboy is inseparable from American history itself.

The Early 1800s: The Vaquero Age

America’s first cowboys came from Mexico. Beginning in the 1500s, vaqueros—the Spanish term for “cowboy”—were hired by ranchers to drive and tend to livestock between Mexico and what is now New Mexico and Texas. During the early 1800s, and leading up to Texas’s independence from Mexico in 1836, the number of English speaking settlers in the area increased. These American settlers took their cues from the vaquero culture, borrowing clothing styles and vocabulary and learning how to drive their cattle in the same way.

The vaquero influence persisted throughout the 1800s. Cowboys came from a variety of backgrounds, and included European immigrants, African Americans, Native Americans and Midwestern and Southern settlers. In the nineteenth century, one out of three American cowboys in the south was Mexican.

The Mid-1800s: Railroads and Cattle Trails

As America built railroads further and further west, fostering industry, transportation and white settlements in former Indian territories, the cowboy played a crucial part in the nation’s expansion. In the early 1800s, Texas cattleman had herded cows via the Shawnee Trail to cattle markets in St. Louis and Kansas City. During the 1860s and following the Civil War, they began herding via the Chisholm and Western trails towards the new railroads in Kansas, where livestock was then loaded into freight cars and transported to markets around the country.

In less than two decades cowboys herded more than six million cows and steers to the railroads. Most cowboys were young—the average age was 24—and hard-working men in need of quick cash, although the pay was low. The work was exhausting and lonely. Cowboys also helped establish towns, spending their money in the “cowtown” settlements across the west during their time off. Townspeople frowned on cowboys as lawless troublemakers who brought nothing but violence and immorality, and some even banned them from town.

A herd of buffalo grazing in a grassy field with white flowers.
Buffalo at Wind Cave National Park, Black Hills, South Dakota, 1948 (Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, Institute of Regional Studies, NDSU)

The Late 1800s: Home, Home on the Range

Ranching, or the raising of cattle or other livestock on range land, also expanded during the late nineteenth century. The forced removal of Native Americans and the clearing of the American frontier also resulted in the near extinction of the region’s many buffalo and bison. This land, now dominated by white homesteaders, was used for ranching.

Public lands on the Great Plains constituted “open range,” where any white settler could buy and raise cattle for grazing. The invention and distribution of barbed wire in the 1870s revolutionized the concept of privately owned land in the Midwest, fencing off homesteads suitable for farming and ranching—but also limiting the work to be done by cowboys.

Cowboy Culture

The cowboy’s relative isolation and work environment both contributed to the development of a distinct cowboy culture, based on the frontier values of the American West: self-reliance and individualism with a healthy dose of the blues. Cowboy poetry and songs soothed the cattle on long drives, as well as provided entertainment for lonely cowboys on the road.

We've reached the land of drought and heat,
Where nothing grows for man to eat
We do not live, we only stay
We are too poor to get away.

Dakota land, sweet Dakota land
As on the highest butte I stand
And look away across the plains
And wonder why it never rains.
'Til Gideon blows his trumpet sound
And says the rain has gone around.

—Lyrics from the traditional cowboy song “Sweet Dakota Land”

Dramatic photo of rodeo rider in leather vest, plaid shirt, denim jeans and cowboy boots coming out of the gate on a bucking bronco. horse. The horse and rider are in mid-air, the rider’s arm straight out, cowboy hat on his head, while the crowd watches.

The 1900s: The Rise of Privatization

With the rise of private landholdings in the late 1800s, the cattle driving industry had lost its cachet. Private landowners and “free grazers”—vaqueros and cowboys alike—locked horns over what was appropriate use for land whose ownership was also in question. By the 1890s, the wide-open ranges and cattle trails were gone and privatized, and the days of the long cattle drives to the railroads were over.

Smaller-scale cattle drives continued until the mid-1900s, with livestock herded from Arizona to New Mexico and throughout the southwestern United States. Most cowboys left the open trail and took jobs at one of the myriad of private ranches that were settling across the West. But as the work of actual cowboys declined in the U.S., the cowboy lifestyle continued to be popularized—and stereotyped—by a new Hollywood film genre: the Western movie.

Cowboys Today: A Disappearing Way of Life

The late 1900s were tough times for cowboys, ranchers, farmers and anyone working with the land in the U.S. Changing modes of food distribution and production, widespread urbanization and severe economic difficulties forced many to sell their land, go bankrupt, change professions, or take out large loans. As Vern Sager says in THE LAST COWBOY, “Don’t seem quite fair. A person works hard to make a little and gives it to the bank.”

Cowboys in the 21st century might seem like an anachronism, but as Sager demonstrates, their work still needs to be done. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, cowboys—included in the occupation category “support activities for animal production”—numbered 9,730 workers in 2003, making an average of $19,340 per year, working in ranches, stockyards and rodeos. About one-third of these workers were listed in the subcategory of “spectator sports,” making their living primarily at rodeos, circuses and theatrical venues as livestock handlers.

As the ranchers and cowboys of Sager’s generation age, who will be left to do their jobs? Despite decades of socioeconomic change, cowboys still don’t have health insurance—and they don’t retire. Times might be changing, but as a symbol of persistence, self-sufficiency and a hard work ethic, cowboys live on.


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