The American Cowboy
The white, American cowboy, romanticized through Hollywood Westerns, was anything but the typical cowboy during the westward expansion of the United States. Most often, cowboys were Latino or black, and constituted a lower economic class. With a decreasing amount of the “open range” for grazing in the 20th century, the number of cowboys began to shrink.
The popular concept of the American Cowboy is largely a creative myth. The earliest cattle herders bore little resemblance to the heroic, white Buffalo Bills of dime store novels or the rugged, enduring cowboys cast in dramatic and romantic light by artists like Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. With Owen Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian, the romantic image of the cowboy as a gallant loner with a strict code of honor was stamped on the mind of every American. The cowboy myth soon became the cornerstone of the Hollywood Western genre, celebrated by directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann, who cast the white cowboy as the pioneer of the great American frontier.
While it is true that cowboys were indeed an integral part of westward expansion and the early pioneer settlements of the 19th century, the reality is that the popular cowboy myth frequently leaves out the transplantation of Spanish herders into the American West. The American cowboy was often Latino or black, and if Anglo-American he was of a lower economic class. By the 1590s, the gaucho (Argentina), vaquero (Mexico), Ilanero (Venezuela) and huaso (Chile) were regularly hired by ranchers to drive livestock through much of the West, and for the next two centuries, they became an integral part of American cattle culture. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the population began to diversify, with new railways bringing in immigrants from Europe, Africa, the Midwest and the South. As these newcomers tried their hands in the ranching industry, the original Spanish cowhands became a minority, though their slang, ways of dress and cattle-herding methods persisted.
As the United States continued to expand westward, the cowboys followed. Transporting their herds to markets around the country, the mostly young men would drive their cattle farther and farther west as new railroads were built. Up until the late 1800s, huge swaths of public land on the Great Plains were considered “open range,” where white settlers or cowboys could freely lead animals to graze. But, around the turn of the 20th century, the land began to be privatized and the federal government expanded its powers. The “wild West” soon began to disappear, along with the freedoms that allowed for the ranching boom, leading many who sought work to do so on private ranches rather than the open range.
Today, true cowboys, in the original sense of the word, are few and far between, but they remain the quintessential symbol of the American Old West.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect figures for cowboys, but in 2003 there were fewer than 10,000 employees listed under “support activities for animal production,” with most employees working on ranches and in stockyards and rodeos. One third worked in “spectator sports,” primarily as livestock handlers at rodeos, circuses and other theatrical events.
» Coffin, Tristram P. “The Cowboy and Mythology.” In The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, R.W.B. Lewis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.
» Holly George-Warren. “Cowboy: How Hollywood Invented the Wild West.”
» Iber, Jorge. “Vaqueros in the Western Cattle Industry.” In The Cowboy Way: An Exploration of History and Culture, Paul Howard Carlson, Lubbock, Tex.: Texas Tech University Press, 2000.
» U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “May 2010 National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wages.”