Real Cowboys

0192-0605-2418-2133_tn.jpg            For many of us, the American cowboy is the ultimate fantasy hero—a strong, handsome hunk in a big hat and tight jeans—a hero who makes our hearts gallop.  But the mythic hero is based on real men who played a major role in taming the west.  And most of them were even tougher than the fantasy model.  They had to be.  Let’s take a look at them.           

The heyday of the real American cowboy lasted from the end of the Civil War to the mid-1880s.   The men who rode the cattle trails numbered about 40,000 in all.  The average age was 24.  They came from many walks of life.  Most were dirt poor.  Most—though not all—were uneducated.  Among them were mustered-out soldiers from the war, farm boys looking for adventure, outlaws on the run, black-sheep sons of European families, and even a future U.S. President—Teddy Roosevelt, who took up cowboying as an adventure.           

 The work they did—driving herds of longhorn cattle across rough country, sometimes for more than a thousand miles—was murderous.  Cattle were mean-tempered and dumber than fence posts.  They got lost and had to be found.  They got worms, mange and sickness and had to be doctored. They got mired and had to be pulled out.  They got stolen and had to be rescued.  They stampeded and had to be stopped.  And they demanded 24-7 care with no time off.  Being a cowboy was hard, filthy, dangerous work, all for a wage of about $30 a month plus meals.  This excerpt from a trail boss’s journal will give you an idea of what the life was like.  Upset our wagon in River & lost many cooking utencils…was on my Horse the whole night & it raining hard…Lost my Knife…There was one of our party Drowned today & several narrow escapes, I among them…Many men in trouble…Horses all give out & Men refused to do anything…Awful night…not having had a bite to eat for 60 hours…Flies terrible…Found a human skeleton today…”           

By the 1890s the great trail drives had ended and a new generation of cowboys had emerged, living and working on ranches, dressed in blue jeans and Stetsons.  But all of us who write about the West, owe a debt to those first tough, courageous REAL cowboys!           

 We’ll learn more about cowboys in future blogs.  Meanwhile, does anybody know some good cowboy stories?  Do you have a favorite cowboy movie?  A favorite cowboy character?           

For the research-minded, I’d like to mention my source—THE COWBOYS  from the Time-Life Books Old West Collection.  Happy Trails!

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I'm an internationally published romance author, coming up on 40 novels and novellas. Most of my stories have been Westerns for Harlequin Historicals, but I set stories in other times and places as well. I'll also be writing contemporary stories for Harlequin Desire, with the first release in January 2013. You can learn more on my web site.

27 thoughts on “Real Cowboys”

  1. Elizabeth: What a wonderful intriguing post! You’ve really summed up the cowboy well. I love the excerpt from the journal. I’ve got that terrific Time-Life book you mention on my research shelf. I agree that it’s priceless for anyone who is writing about the west.

    My favorite cowboy movie is “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” although I guess they were outlaws not cowboys. My favorite cowboy character is Kurt Russell in “Tombstone.”

  2. Elizabeth, there’s something about reading first-hand accounts of life in the old west that really brings the bravery of these men – and women – home. I have the whole Time-Life series on my shelf. They’re all terrific resources.

  3. Thanks, Lorraine and Margery. I have the whole Time-Life series, too. It’s the best. And I love Butch and Sundance. I grew up in Butch Cassidy country, about an hour from his birthplace.
    My favorite cowboy character is probably the un-hunky Gus from Lonesome Dove, played by Robert Duvall, but I may change my mind as I get reminded of others today. Thanks so much for you comments.
    Elizabeth

  4. Great Post. My fav. cowboy is Billy the Kid in the old movie Young Guns. Yes he was an outlaw but still a cowboy. And if you don’t count him then I’ll have to choose…I don’t know!! So I’m stickin’ with Billy the Kid 🙂

  5. What a fabulous post, Elizabeth. I knew being a cowboy was hard work, but it was worse than I thought. That blurb from the journal was interesting. There no way I could go 60 hours without eating. All those rough and tough guys really needed a soft place to land at night.

  6. Elizabeth,
    I have the entire set of Time-Life books too! I’d used them infinite times for research and I adore them.
    My favorite cowboys? Gary Cooper, Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker) and Roy Rogers! More on Roy tomorrow on my BlOG!

  7. Thanks for your comments, Buffie, Crystal and Charlene. Buffie, I love what you said about needing a soft place to land at night–hey that’s where our Western romances come in!
    Charlene I can hardly wait to read your post. I loved Roy and Dale and the whole gang!

  8. Elizabeth,
    Great excerpt about the cowboy life. It reminded me of the movie OPEN RANGE with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner. I can’t remember ever hearing such open, honest dialogue in a movie before. I felt it captured the very essense of what you shared here. Thanks.

  9. How can any writer write about the Old West without the Time Life series? I treasure my set, and in case of fire, that’s what I’ll rescue first. 🙂

    Rowdy Yates–my favorite cowboy of all. Why did Clint Eastwood have to age? I want him to be Rowdy forever!

  10. Y’know it’s really tough to choose one favorite cowboy. So many memorable ones and each have influenced the characters in my books in countless ways. Sam Elliot and Tom Selleck are two that I’d walk across burning sand without shoes and no water to see. In the gritty toughness department they were unequaled. And oh my, they were shore pretty to look at!!

  11. I have the Time-Life Old West set, too. Lonesome Dove remains my all-time favorite western, but I could watch Open Range any day of the week. Those Sacketts always do it for me. Sam Elliott in a hat and jeans :::sigh::: ditto Tom Selleck.

    Do you know how difficult is is to find a GOOD picture of Sam or Tom in cowboy duds? If anyone has good ones I’d be much obliged.

  12. I just realized I didn’t answer the question about my favorite cowboy movie. I really haven’t watched too many westerns. But I did like Young Guns. And I have to confess I really enjoyed City Slickers and City Slickers 2. They were too funny!

  13. I’ve been writing a book on spec where the hero is an over-the-hill lawman. When I think about who I’d like to play him in the movie (sure, dream on, lady)the choice is between Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot–if only they were a little younger. Sigh. They’re still pretty amazing. And the City Slickers movies were great fun–Jack Palance was one of a kind! And Rowdy? Oh, yeah…

  14. Elizabeth, have you watched the Jessie Stone movies? Not western, but he’s an alcoholic big city x-cop moved to small town and working for the sheriff’s dept. In one installment he had a girlfriend, but she was murdered by the bad guys. He’s still sexy. I never miss a one of them.

  15. I’ve seen a couple of those and you’re right, Cheryl. He’s still very sexy. Tom would work for my hero. Now all I need to do is finish the book and sell it to Hollywood! 🙂

  16. Sam Elliott as Sackett is the best cowboy without any doubt. Hubby was a fireman in Malibu near Sam’s house and met him and Katherine (Etta Place) a bunch of times. Said they are the most down-to-earth folks imaginable. And did he ever get me an autograph, heck no. Thanks for this amazing ride down the cowboy trail, Elizabeth. (Ps. Tom Selleck is good, too, and he’s wonderful as Jesse Stone…) Thanks again to you all for creating this wonderful website. See you tomorrow on your blog, Charlene!

  17. Great post, Elizabeth!

    I also have the Time-Life books, plus an entire wall of shelves with other old west resource books. One of my favorites is an ancient hardback I acquired after it was ousted from a library out in CA, titled, “The Book of the American West.” Great stuff! When I lived in Texas, I kept a saddle draped over a sawhorse and various bridles and tack hanging around the walls–just for atmosphere. My writing room was bigger then. (hey, everything’s bigger in Texas!) LOL!

    My vote for all-time best cowboy (or would it be more accurate to say western character) in recent years has to go with Sam Elliott. Love him! That voice… But I could list so many others from years ago. So many great old western character acters… So sad that most of them are gone now. John Wayne and Walter Brennan would be at the top of my long list. No, not really sexy hero material, but I miss them.

  18. Hangin’ up my spurs for the night. Thanks so much for your great comments. This has been my first experience with blogging, and you’ve made it great! I have learned so much from you all.
    Sleep tight, and enjoy Charlene’s blog on Friday.
    Hugs to all,
    Elizabeth

  19. Great post! I love all kinds of cowboys…love the ones already mentioned. I am looking forward to the new western remake of “3:10 to Yuma” with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale (yummy). My fave western tv show was probably The Young Riders (which wasn’t historically accurate, but had some cute guys). I used to love western Saturdays on the Family Channel growing up. By the time I was born westerns were not very popular. I loved the tv show remake of The Magnificent Seven too that was on a few years ago. Tombstone is one of my favorite western movies.

    Had to smile at the Rowdy Yates comment…Rawhide was/is a fave of my dad and he calls my nephew Rowdy (has since before he was born)…appropriate since our last name is Yates. He still watches reruns of Bonanza and Rifleman as well.

    I have always been fascinated with the west and one of my fave books is called Legends of the West…about the outlaws and stories from the old west. I also have Legends of the West collector stamps framed on my wall and a beautiful cowboy pic hanging in my room.

  20. In the Royal Zoo, in Royal, Nebraska. The tiniest zoo in existance, possibly, they have this horse that looks for all the world like a Shetland pony. Our school went there for a field trip and they talked about this horse and it’s some weird breed. The tour guide called it a Pre-historic horse.
    My daughter, probably seven? at the time, pipes up and says, “It can’t be prehistoric, because it’s standing right there.”
    So this bickering ensued between my daughter and her teacher and the tour guide with my daugher insisting no animal, standing there alive, could qualify as prehistoric and I just found it so funny that I’m sure I didn’t shush her as fast as I should have.
    When I finally got her to be quiet she just looks at me, so superior, rolls her eyes and says, “Those people are so gullible.”
    Like some traveling salesman had come by, door-to-door selling ‘prehistoric’ horses, and they’d fallen for it.
    I still start snickering when I think of it.
    Loved the horse post.

  21. Best cowboy movies? I love John Wayne. I think the best was The Sons of Katie Elder. I also loved … I think it was El Dorado, with Robert Mitchem the drunken sheriff and James Caan. Even with a bullet pressing against his spine, John Waye was tougher than a whole ranch full of bad guys.
    The Wyatt Earp movie with Kurt Russell. Excellent. Wasn’t Sam Elliot in that one? I loved Val Kilmer as the ailing gunman.
    The Outlaw Josie Wales.
    Shane.
    High Plains Drifter.

  22. Loved this post, Elizabeth!

    I’ve always been a huge fan of westerns and cowboys. My favorite western movies are Clint Eastwood westerns, the number one being TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES.

    Another favorite movie is LONESOME DOVE. As far as my favorite cowboy, that’s a tough one. I’d have to say Sam Elliott, and of course Clint Eastwood. Also, Robert DuVall as Gus McCray in Lonesome Dove.

    I have the Time-Life COWBOYS series, too and absolutely love them. What cowboy/western lover/writer enthusiant wouldn’t?

    Happy Trails!

    ~Carol

  23. I think I saw a photo of that tiny horse, Mary. And I’d agree with your daughter that it wasn’t prehistoric. The prehistoric horses were small but their feet had multiple toes showing, unlike modern horses which run on a single toenail. Todays tiny horses are almost certainly bred for smallness, wouldn’t you agree? Tell your little girl that I think she’s one smart cookie!
    And I love your choice of cowboys. John Wayne seemed to embody the American West.
    And I love your choices, too, Carol. Gus gets my vote. He wasn’t your typical handsome hunk, but he was the kind of man I’d follow anywhere (now where is he??).
    Thanks so much for your great comments

  24. Thank you for this post, Elizabeth! And the heads-up about the Time Life series. I am in the middle of reading the Rick Steber series, “Tales of the Wild West.” Illustrated by Don Gray. Bonanza Publishing. A wonderful collection, too, and not very expensive. Anne Seagraves also wrote a series on women of the West. Wesanne Publications. Also have a collection of Old West books (odd assortment, not one series) Libraries sold off when they no longer wanted them. Great for researching stories I’m writing of The Wild, Wild West. My favorite cowboy on TV for ALL time? James Garner as Maverick. Never missed a show. Please continue to post. Love this site.

  25. Thanks for the research recommendation, Kathleen. Since I don’t have any of those books, and they sound wonderful, I plan to save a copy of your post. The Time Life series is old and getting harder to find. I paid about $120.00 for my set at a used bookstore about 15 years ago. Well worth the price. You could still probably find them on ebay or maybe an estate sale. And wasn’t James Garner wonderful? I loved that twinkle in his eye!
    Elizabeth

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