Cowboys Essay, Research Paper
Although the main existence of the cowboy lasted only about two decades, the
mark that they made on society, then and now, is significant. The cowboy was just a
regular person that worked hard and earned little. Although his life has been embellished
by movie makers and writers, he was just a regular American looking for a way to earn a
living. We usually think of cowboys as white males, however, there were also women and
people of all nationalities.
The word cowboy was coined in Ireland over a thousand years ago. It means a
hired rider who looks over cattle. During the years following the Civil War, the range
cattle industry developed, first in Texas, and then spread into the Southwest and the Great
Plains. And with this, the development of cowboys came. The most prominent time of
the cowboy lasted until about the mid 1880 s. The total number of cowboys never
amounted to more than 40,000. About 2/3 of the cowboys were white, and another 1/3
were either African -American or Mexican-American.
Cowboys clothing were comfortable, yet tough. His apparel consisted of boots,
pants, chaps, and his hat. His most significant piece of clothing was his boots, at a price of
at least two weeks of hard work. However, they were worth every cent. They helped
keep his foot in the stirrup, and protected his legs from rattlesnakes and thorns! Cowboys
also wore one-piece underwear, known as long-johns, all the time, except for in scorching
hot weather. These were very warm, but offered little protection. Which is why they
wore chaps as well. A cherished possession of the cowboy, was his hat. It offered him
protection from sun and rain and could be used as a pail or as a fan. Hats also differed
from one region of the country to another. In the windy northern plains, the brims were
narrower and the crowns were lower, so that the hat would not blow away. And in the
Southwest, the hat had a tall crown and a wide brim to offer maximum protection from the
Their work year centered around two main events, the round up and the extremely
lengthy cattle drive. During the year, the cattle wandered off in all directions. Twice a
year, in spring and in fall, round ups were held to gather these widely scattered longhorns,
to sort them out. A productive spring roundup might cover hundreds of square miles, and
last for several weeks. These roundups usually utilized up to four-hundred cowboys! The
roundups always closely followed a carefully worked out plan. Each group of the
cowboys were assigned to a chuckwagon. At the first light of dawn the men moved out.
Hiram Craig, a cowboy in the 1800 s described a Texas round up by saying;
The men, so sent out, all going in different directions formed a veritable spiders
web, with the roundup grounds in the center. As soon as the boys would get them
all together the cattle were on the run, and would make for the grounds. There
was little danger or chance for any of the cattle to be escaping, as the path of the
next man, and the nearer they came to the grounds, the more men would come
into sight- finally forming one big herd, and then the fun would start. (Freedman
The cowboys then spent the rest of the afternoon sorting through the cattle and
branding the new calves.
The other main job of the cowboy was to take the cattle up the trail. In Texas, a
four year old longhorn was worth about three or four dollars, up north however, the same
cow could be worth up to forty dollars! The excruciating journey took about a total of
three or four months to drive a herd from Texas to Kansas. At night time on the trail, the
watches rode slowly around the sleeping cattle, humming or singing softly. The cows
seemed to be calmed by this. The most popular trail was the Chisholm trail. Other trails
included the Goodnight Loving Trail and the Western Trail. A typical cattle trail drive
might involve up to three-thousand head of cattle, sixty or seventy horses and about 12
cowhands. The man that was in charge of this operation was called the Trail Boss. He
earned the most money, earning up to one-hundred dollars a month. Usually the most
popular man along the trail, was the cook. Although he earned only forty dollars a month,
he was the key to a contented trail crew.
At the end of the trails were cowtowns. The Cowboys arrived in these towns and
were ready for some amusement. Rum, cards, and women are the epigraphs in the
cowboy s graveyard said a 19th century cowhand. (Ross p. 20) When cowboys reached
the end of their trail and received their pay, of approximately thirty dollars a month, they
thought they deserved some excitement. And all of their excitement came from rum, cards
and women! The towns had a dilemma though, in deciding if they wanted the cowboys
there or not. The cowboys did bring in a lot of money and business for the town people.
However, the cowboys also brought in more gambling and prostitution. Some of these
cowtowns were Abilene, Ellsworth, and Wichita.
Throughout the trail the cowboys were faced with many dangers. The greatest
danger of all was being thrown from a horse, or being dragged along by a foot caught in
the stirrup. Most of the men also carried water bottles with them, to prevent heat
exhaustion. Many men died from dehydration on the plains. The prairies were also
exceptionally dangerous. The rattlesnakes poisonous bite killed men within an hour.
Another danger was being attacked by Indians. However, not many cowboys ever had
any problem with the Indians.
The lives of cowboys have been exaggerated and embellished by writers and
filmmakers. Many myths and untrue stories have been told about cowboys. A few of
these are their relationships with Indians, how law and order was handled, and the gender
and race of cowboys.
In most movies and stories cowboys are fearless and bold heroes. However, the
real cowboy was just a normal person trying to earn a living.
Cowboy hostility toward Native Americans, popular known in the movies as
Indians is another myth of the wild west. This particular myth arose because many of the
best stories set good apart from evil. The heroes of course, were always the cowboys.
The truth however, was quite different. Real cowboys had little reason to dislike Indians.
As a matter of fact, many cowboys were Indians!
There was one thing that both real and fictional cowboys had in common, and that
was the horse. But even there were significant differences. In films, fictional cowboys
always ride huge horses that never seem to get tired. However, in real life, cowboys
preferred smaller horses, usually ponies. The cowboys hardly ever rode the same horse
for a full day.
Another myth that has arisen from films is about law and order, and how it was
handled in the west. A Cowboy-Western film always ends with a gunfight. But in reality,
cowboys were not really gunfighters at all. They were really just cattle drivers. They did
carry guns, but, the only reason that they did was to protect themselves from man, and to
shoot a sick or wounded steer. .
The stereotypical cowboy was a white male in his early 20 s. Contrary to popular
belief there were several African-American Cowboys. Also, all of the cowboys were not
male, many of them were women.
At least one-third of cowboys were African-American. After the American Civil
War, all of the slaves were freed. Many of them were left without a home and without a
job. Many of these men decided to the life of a cowboy. One of these famous cowboys
was Nat Love. More commonly known as Deadwood Dick. He could ride and rope
with the best of them. Unfortunately, it was very difficult for an African-American to get
the job of a Trail Boss, due to the color of his skin. Although the blacks rarely make it
into history books, black men and women helped shape the Old West.
Another group of people that rarely make it into the history books are women. In
the late 1800 s most women stayed at home to care for their children and for their home.
However, some women were not afraid to put on men clothing and join the cowboys on
horseback. They worked along side their men, and even took over the ranches if their
husbands died. Some of these famous women were Little Britches, Cattle Annie, and
Calamity Jane. Many of the women even joined some of the outlaw gangs.
Throughout the main period of the cowboy, many famous ones are still
remembered today. From cowboys to outlaws, these famous figures remain well known
and even respected. A few of these famous people were Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, and
Buffalo Bill Cody was a popular figure that had been a rider, a scout in the Indian
Wars, and even a buffalo hunter. Buffalo Bill had fought against Indians and had
developed a deep respect for them. He did more than any other individual to create the
fiction of the exciting west. Buffalo Bill even created a television show to try to cash in
on the popularity of the Old West. Most of the show was myth and created a false image
of the cowboy. After the popularity of the show declined, Bill died in heavy poverty.
The cowboy-outlaw s have had hundreds of books and movies created about them.
Billy the Kid, is one of them, he was a genuine cowboy-outlaw. Billy s real name was
William H. Bonney. Billy the Kid killed his first person at the young age of only twelve
years old. He was captured twice but managed to escape both times. Billy was shot and
killed at the age of 21.
One of the most famous female cowboys was Belle Starr. Belle had an exciting
career that few women could ever match. She was known as the bandit queen. She
grew up in a wealthy home, however she soon grew tired of her civilized life. She had
two children by men friends. She did keep a couple of her more civilized qualities by
wearing a dress, and riding side-saddle. However, she did wear a revolver over her dress.
She was accused of many bank robberies and had several spent some time in jail. She was
eventually killed in an ambush.
The interest in cowboys today is as strong today as it has ever been. It is not that
people want to be cowboys, or even that they know what the life of the cowboy was really
like. The cowboy is no longer a historical fact, but a legend and a symbol. He stands for
the qualities that people believe are missing from their lives. He represents many qualities
that makes America special today. Some of these qualities are enterprise, toughness,
strength, individualism, and honor.