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!