Western Cowboys

The Purpose of the Cowboy

A group of cowboys setting up a camp in the Great Plains, with their cattle behind them grazing the fields.

The cattle industry began after the Civil War, and went through a rapid period of growth during the 1860s to 1880s. At its peak, 1.4 million square miles of land were used by the cattle industry, stretching from Texas to Canada, and as far West as the Rocky Mountains. Cowboys would be responsible for herding cattle thousands of miles across the Great Plains to railroads where the cattle would be transported across the country to the eastern states to supply the meat packing industry.

These trips were called cattle drives, and typically lasted around 3 to 4 months, covering about 15 miles per day. The Cowboys would use trails such as the Goodnight-Loving Trail, the Western Trail, the Shawnee Trail, and the Chisholm Trail to herd cattle to the railroad centers for transportation. During this time, the cattle population rose from about 130,000 to 4.5 million in the West as the industry continued to grow. Cowboys became less needed when the invention of barbed wire provided a way for ranchers to keep their cattle secure, making cattle drives and the need of cowboys in the West decline in 1874. Railroad expansion during the 1880s contributed to the decline of Cowboys as well.

The Cowboy life of Teddy Roosevelt

A group of Cowboys following the train which President Roosevelt was riding in Colorado

Teddy Roosevelt had lived the life of a Cowboy for two years following the death of his wife and mother in February of 1884. Living this life shaped Roosevelt into a more self-confident and hardened man, which would later help him lead the Rough Riders on San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War, and during his presidency. Roosevelt told stories of his Cowboy life and the experiences he went through,

"As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely a convulsive action of his hands or whether he was trying to shoot at me" (Roosevelt, 135).

These types of stories gained a following a support from Cowboys and normal people alike for Roosevelt. Roosevelt, being looked upon as a heroic American figure, created a heroic value for Cowboys as well. People would then look up to Cowboys and think of them with the same values they did with Roosevelt. The time Roosevelt spend living as a Cowboy transformed him into a tough and respectable man because of the experiences he went through.

The Lore of the Cowboy

A scene from "The Highwaymen", a gunfight between four cowboys, a common scene in Western movies and shows from the time period.

The character of Cowboy during the 1800s was portrayed as a man who embodied American virtues such as bravery, independence, and freedom. The average American from the East envied the independent life of the Cowboy, when compared to the more basic and repetitive city life that city-folk lived. The life of an outdoorsman who roamed the countryside with a revolver at his hip appealed to many as a life they aspired to live. The West was the perfect place to foster this new dynamic character and life, as it was a land full of the unknown, prosperity, freedom, and adventure.

Stories would be told of the adventures these men went on, and were often fictionalized to appeal to the public. Cowboys themselves were good storytellers, which contributed to the spread of Cowboy lore. Stories were spread between Cowboys and other settlers while the Cowboys took part in cattle drives. These stories were also incorporated into movies and shows like "The Highwaymen". Gunfights became a prominent part of the fictionalization of the Cowboy in movies as well, with many stories of battles and bar-fights often being exaggerated or made up. Buffalo Bill produced shows telling tales of Cowboys and the adventures they went on, putting on shows across the country. These country-wide shows were put on across the country which furthered the lore of the Cowboy.

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