COWBOYS- THE CENTRAL STRAND OF THE WESTERN SAGA
An almost mythic aura surrounds the American cowboy. Though the average day was one long struggle with cows and dust and water and fire, cowboys became one of the most romantic of all American characters. They were cattlemen, hunters, Indian fighters, lawmen, and sometimes lawless men. The romance of the range is often as real as life.
The cowboy legend references many aspects of Southern manhood, most likely because the first cowboys came from the South. One was the incessant and highly skilled use of weapons, particularly the revolver. Another was unequaled skill in the riding of horses. A good cowboy could chase and rope a dodging, frantic steer on ground too rough for many Eastern horses even to walk on. With this horsemanship came a marked aversion to walking any substantial distance. This also was a Southern characteristic.
The tales of expert roping are factually based. However, roping was a difficult skill to learn. Those who began earliest often became as good as the legend, while those who started later in life only with difficulty attained any great degree of proficiency. Thus it was thought impossible to rope as well as legend asserts. The Mexicans were the best ropers, while the Texas cowboys were not far behind.
Hollywood legend reserves a very large place for the ‘Singing Cowboy’. However, enterprising B-Western producers didn’t invent the singing cowboy. Cowboys actually sang to the cows to calm them and prevent stampedes. However, very few cowboys sounded good- the dust and yelling quickly made the best of singers hoarse.
The legend of the Old West is usually punctuated with gun smoke. But this is not totally accurate. Some of this perspective probably arose from observing that many cowboys always carried side arms. Cowboys originally went armed in preparation for Indian raids. But even when the Indian threat abated, the land was still wild, and occasionally a rustler might try to ‘borrow’ some cows. And any fresh meat a cowboy might shoot provided a welcome addition to the next meal.
Some of the ‘violent’ reputation is actually the cowboys’ fault. Whenever in town or cow camp, they tended to be very playful. With increasing Eastern interest in the West came increased outside forays into the ‘Wild West’. The cowboys would sometimes assemble at the station and fire a few shots when the train rolled in. The gawking Easterners would then see them carry away the unfortunate man who had just been ‘killed’. In like manner, a visitor might ‘see’ or ‘hear’ of half-a-dozen murders or killings in a week.
There was some real violence. Being in rapid transition from frontier to settlement, law was often but loosely felt. In consequence, enterprising criminals seized on the wide opportunities for crime, and made havoc of many herds and lands. On a less serious note, cowboys were often a little too rough in ‘hurrahing’ a town, so many ended up afoul of the law for the disturbing the peace.
Cowboy legend often requires the dashing cowman to uphold the law or attempt some desperate rescue. Despite their lack of self-control at the end of the drive, cowboys were often some of the greatest friends to law-abiding inhabitants. Most of their value was their virtuosity with the pistol and rifle and unequaled horsemanship. Outlaws they hated, because the outlaws wore the same Mexican-style dress and brought down the detested reputation of dishonesty on the cowboys. They also provided able assistance to the army in preventing and revenging Indian raids.
The cowboy saga is in many facets true. The legends surrounding them are frequently at least partly true, and often spring from their Southern roots. Between fighting outlaws and Indians, cowboys were often one of the most potent sources of preserving law on the frontier- though not necessarily order. Cowboys were as real as the legend.
Henty, George Alfred. A Tale of the Western Plains. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006. (Reprint of the 1892 edition by Blackie & Son, Ltd.: Glasgow, 1892.)
Owsley, Frank. Plain Folk of the Old South. Louisiana State University Press, 1949.
Roosevelt, Theodore. Hunting Trips of a Ranchman & The Wilderness Hunter. New York: Random House, Inc., 1998.