Beginnings of Texas Ranching
Cattle ranching in Texas dates as far back as the 1710s, when herds introduced by the Spanish fed a local population of soldiers and missionaries in San Antonio. With the introduction of Spanish cattle came an established Mexican ranching tradition. Many Anglo settlers learned horse and ranching techniques from Mexican "vaqueros" and became cowmen in their own right. (See "The Vaquero Origins of the Texas Cowboy.")
During the 1840s and 1850s, ranches were small operations that principally supplied local populations with beef. The abundance of longhorn in Texas resulted in low prices at many local markets. In search of profits some ambitious ranchers hired crews to drive their animals to New Orleans and California where they found considerably higher prices. Other adventurous cowmen traveled north in search of buyers in Missouri, Illinois and Iowa. While some outfits reached these markets, the routes proved fraught with difficulty and danger. Lacking safe trails to reliable markets, ranching remained a small-scale enterprise.
During the Civil War, the plains of Texas were all but deserted. Many cowmen abandoned both homestead and cattle to serve on the frontlines. In their absence, longhorn bred and thrived. In the meantime, urban populations in the north and east grew and railroads spread across the mid-west. The emergence of "cow towns," accessible cities with railroad service across the Great Plains, gave ranchers the opportunity to ship cattle where the demand for beef was surging and prices were high.
Savvy entrepreneurs recognized a unique opportunity -- to build a business by selling a plentiful commodity that was often free for the taking. With the growth of ranching as an industry comes a demand for the skills of the "vaquero." The era of the cowboy is born.
Cowboys in the classic mold appeared in the 1850s, when cattle ranching in Texas emerged as a vital commercial enterprise distinct from other agricultural pursuits. In the same way that the sea lured bold rovers from Marblehead and Nantucket, the prospect of an adventurous life on the prairie appealed to young men of the West. Such an existence, a Texas writer observed in 1860:
is not devoid of risk, and affords to the aspiring mind of youth an
opportunity of a display of courage and prowess that is not found
in any other department of rural life. The young men that follow
this "Cow-Boy" life, notwithstanding its hardships and exposures,
generally become attached to it.
The word "cowboy," however, would not come into general use to describe cattle herders for another decade when it supplanted more familiar, if prosaic, terms like "stock keeper" and "stock hunter." Yet the trim new label fit, and perfectly described the age, occupation, and youthful outlook of most of the horseback herders to whom it was applied. "There were no old men among them," a Colorado newspaper reporter marveled after encountering a typical party of cattle drivers bound for the Republican River in the fall of 1885. "A man of 40 was looked upon as a patriarch, one who was entitled to be a candidate for admission to the home of the aged and infirm."
Most cowboys commenced their careers in their late teens or early twenties, although some began much earlier. Notwithstanding the humorous assertion of outspoken Texas cattleman Able H. "Shanghai" Pierce that it was "cheaper to hire cowboys than to raise them," range life came naturally to the rural bred. They were usually at home in the saddle at an early age and often began roping barnyard pigs and chickens as soon as they could wield a lariat. Boys as young as six often accompanied their fathers and older brothers on livestock drives or "cow hunts." In 1871, H. P. Cook escorted a herd of longhorns from Texas to Kansas, as a regular hand, at the age of 10. "Back in those days," Cook recalled matter-of-factly more than 70 years later, "lots of boys were good cowboys by the time they were 10 years old."
With the rapid expansion of the cattle industry during the two decades following the Civil War, recruits from every region of the United States and many foreign countries swelled the cowboy ranks. No group, however, surpassed in number and prominence than those who hailed from Texas. "Cowboys," wrote William A. Baillie-Grohman in the FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW in 1880:
can be divided into two classes: those hailing from the Lone Star State, Texas, the other recruited either from Eastern States, chiefly Missouri, or from the Pacific slopes....The Texans are, as far as true cowboyship goes, unrivaled; the best riders, hardy, and born to the business; the only drawback being their wild reputation. The others are less able but more orderly men.
Runaways and homeless drifters, displaced Civil War veterans and fugitives from justice, all sought sanctuary on the ranching frontier after the Civil War. More than a few of these footloose refugees went by assumed names and nearly every cowhand eventually acquired a nickname reflecting his place of birth or some distinguishing characteristic habit or occurrence.
Members of diverse ethnic groups, including sizable numbers of African Americans and Hispanics, also found work on western cattle ranches. (See "African American Cowboys.")
Although many women owned ranches and cattle, few females worked openly as regular hands. Some, however, overcame the gender boundaries and social stigmas that discouraged such behavior. Western newspapers occasionally carried intriguing, sometimes sensational reports of females in male attire working as cowhands, drovers, and cattle dealers. In 1877, for example, a jilted Nebraska maiden of 22 reportedly toiled as a cowboy for several months while tracking down an errant lover. Another woman spent four months in 1888 as a trail crew drover without being discovered. Three years earlier some 40 or 50 "cattle girls" were rumored riding the range near San Antonio, Texas. One report claimed that Buffalo Bill Cody tried unsuccessfully to recruit these women, described as "the finest riders in the West," for his Wild West show.
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