The history of American cowboys tells a fascinating story. The cowboy – the heroic figure of popular novels and films – was in reality an underpaid, under-thanked, but highly important laborer employed in difficult, dangerous, and sometimes dreary work
When Did It All Start?
The true beginning of the history of American cowboys began immediately after the Civil War. It was in these years the range cattle industry developed first in Texas, beginning in the 1860s, in the Southwest and on the northern Great Plains. Although some of the young men who worked on these ranches were from the northeastern states, probably a majority came from the South, and many had fought in the Civil War.
For their techniques and equipment, cowboys drew on both the Spanish traditions of northern Mexico and southern Texas and those of the Gulf coastal states.
The work year centered on two events: The roundup and the long drive. Roundups were held in the spring and often also in the fall. After the cowboys herded cattle to a central location, they branded newborn calves, castrated and dehorned older animals, and in the spring, chose the cattle to be taken to market.
The History of American Cowboys Makes One Thing Real Clear…
A cowboy’s best friend was often his horse. They depended on each other, the cowboy and his horse… and it is said they could herd cattle in their sleep. It is from this remarkable group of men that the fine art of breeding and training reining horses and cutting horses have evolved.
From 1865 to 1880, at least 3.5 million cattle were driven—in herds of between 1,500 and 3,000—from southern Texas to cattle towns in Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The route most frequently used was the Chisholm Trail, which went to Abilene, Kansas– one of the wildest towns in the west.
Working up to 20 hours a day, cowboys drove the animals from one watering place to the next, guarding against predators, straying cattle, and the dreaded stampedes at night. Cowboys daily faced many obstacles and dangers. For his hard and demanding work the typical cowboy earned between $25 and $40 a month.
The Turning Point in the History of American Cowboys…
Somewhere around 1890, the cattle ranges became fenced in and the growth of the railroads had eliminated the need for long cattle drives. Thus the era of the old-fashioned cowboy came to an end, and the working ranch cowboy began to evolve.
The history of the American cowboy covers a brief, but incredible, span in history. But the true grit, strength of character, and independent nature of the cowboy still lives large today. In fact, American cowboy symbols are everywhere you turn.