The cowboy played an important role during the era of U.S. westward expansion. Though they originated in Mexico, American cowboys created a style and reputation all their own. Throughout history, their iconic lifestyle has been glamorized in countless books, movies and television shows—but the rough, lonely and sometimes grueling work of a cowboy wasn’t for the faint of heart.
In 1519, shortly after the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they began to build ranches to raise cattle and other livestock. Horses were imported from Spain and put to work on the ranches.
Mexico’s native cowboys were called vaqueros, which comes from the Spanish word vaca (cow). Vaqueros were hired by ranchers to tend to the livestock and were known for their superior roping, riding and herding skills.
By the early 1700s, ranching made its way to present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and as far south as Argentina. When the California missions started in 1769, livestock practices were introduced to more areas in the West.
During the early 1800s, many English-speaking settlers migrated to the West and adopted aspects of the vaquero culture, including their clothing style and cattle-driving methods.
Cowboys came from diverse backgrounds and included African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans and settlers from the eastern United States and Europe.
Manifest Destiny and American Cowboys
In the mid-1800s, the United States built railroads that reached further west, and cowboys played a central part in the nation’s “Manifest Destiny” as Westward expansion led to an ever-shifting frontier.
Cowboys herded and rounded up livestock that were transported by rail around the country for sale.
To distinguish what cattle belonged to which ranch, cowboys would brand the animals by burning a special mark into their hides. It took between eight and 12 cowboys to move 3,000 head of cattle along cattle drives.
Open Range vs. Barbed Wire
By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, the Union Army had largely used up the supply of beef in the North, increasing the demand for beef. The expansion of the meat-packing industry also encouraged consumption of beef.
By 1866, millions of heads of longhorn cattle were rounded up and driven toward railroad depots. Cattle were sold to northern markets for as much as $40 per head.
Ranching continued to be widespread through the late 1800s. White settlers were permitted to claim public lands on the Great Plains as “open range” to raise purchased cattle.
But by the 1890s, most of the land became privatized after feuds over land ownership were settled and the use of barbed wire became widespread.
During the winter of 1886-1887, thousands of cattle died when temperatures reached well below freezing in parts of the West. Many scholars believe that this devastating winter was the beginning of the end for the cowboy era. Cattle drives continued, but on a smaller scale, up until the mid-1900s. Most cowboys gave up the open trail life and were hired by private ranch owners in the West.
Even though the cowboy’s role began to decline in the 1920s, Hollywood movies popularized the cowboy lifestyle with Westerns from the 1920s to the 1940s. These films featured stars like John Wayne, Buck Jones and Gene Autry. American audiences tuned in to see the fictional adventures of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Will Kane in “High Noon” and “Hopalong Cassidy” on screen. Comic book fans could read about The Black Rider and Kid Colt.
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Cowboys were mostly young men who needed cash. The average cowboy in the West made about $25 to $40 a month.
In addition to herding cattle, they also helped care for horses, repaired fences and buildings, worked cattle drives and in some cases helped establish frontier towns.
Cowboys occasionally developed a bad reputation for being lawless, and some were banned from certain establishments.
They typically wore large hats with wide brims to protect them from the sun, boots to help them ride horses and bandanas to guard them from dust. Some wore chaps on the outsides of their trousers to protect their legs from sharp cactus needles and rocky terrain.
When they lived on a ranch, cowboys shared a bunkhouse with each other. For entertainment, some sang songs, played the guitar or harmonica and wrote poetry.
Cowboys were referred to as cowpokes, buckaroos, cowhands and cowpunchers. The most experienced cowboy was called the Segundo (Spanish for “second”) and rode squarely with the trail boss.
Everyday work was difficult and laborious for cowboys. Workdays lasted about 15 hours, and much of that time was spent on a horse or doing other physical labor.
Some cowboys tested their skills against one another by performing in rodeos—competitions that were based on the daily tasks of a cowboy.
Rodeo activities included bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback bronco riding and barrel racing.
The first professional rodeo was held in Prescott, Arizona, in 1888. Since then, rodeos became—and continue to be—popular entertainment events in the United States, Mexico and elsewhere.
Over the years, the number of working cowboys has declined, but the occupation isn’t obsolete. The cowboy lifestyle and culture is still found in certain areas of the United States, albeit to a lesser degree than a century ago.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2003 there were about 9,730 workers in the category “support activities for animal production,” which included cowboys. These workers made an average of $19,340 per year.
While opportunities may have shifted, the American cowboy is still very much a part of life in the American West.
The History of the Vaquero, American Cowboy.
The Ways of the Cowboy, USHistory.org.
The Last Cowboy, PBS.
15 Places in the U.S. Where Cowboy Culture Is Alive and Well, Wide Open Country.
5 Amazing Facts You Never Knew About the American Cowboy, Ancestry.