to the myth and the reality of the West is the American cowboy.
His real life was a hard one and revolved around two annual
roundups, spring and fall, the subsequent drives to market, and
the time off in the cattle towns spending his hard earned money
on food, clothing, gambling, and prostitution.
During winter, many cowboys hired themselves
out to ranches near the cattle towns, where they repaired and
maintained equipment and buildings. On a long drive, there
was usually one cowboy for each 250 head of cattle.
Before a drive, a cowboy's duties included
riding out on the range and bringing together the scattered
cattle. The best cattle would be selected, roped, and branded,
and most male cattle were castrated. The cattle also needed to
be dehorned and examined and treated for infections. On the long
drives, the cowboys had to keep the cattle moving and in line.
The cattle had to be watched day and night
as they were prone to stampedes and straying. The work days
often lasted fourteen hours, with just six hours of sleep. It
was grueling, dusty work, with just a few minutes of relaxation
before and at the end of a long day.
On the trail, drinking, gambling, brawling,
and even cursing was often prohibited and fined. It was often
monotonous and boring work. Food was barely adequate and
consisted mostly of bacon, beans, bread, coffee, dried fruit,
and potatoes. On average, cowboys earned $30 to $40 per month
($661 to $881 in 2010 dollars).
Because of the heavy physical and emotional
toll, it was unusual for a cowboy to spend more than seven years
on the range. As open range ranching and the long drives gave
way to fenced in ranches in the 1880s, the glory days of the
cowboy came to an end, and the myths about the "free living"
cowboy began to emerge.
Many of the cowboys were veterans of the
Civil War, particularly from the Confederacy, who returned to
ruined home towns and found no future, so they went west looking
for opportunities. Some were Blacks, Hispanics, Native
Americans, and even Britons. Nearly all were in their twenties
The earliest cowboys in Texas learned their
trade, adapted their clothing, and took their jargon from the
Mexican vaqueros or "buckaroos", the heirs of Spanish cattlemen
from Andalusia in Spain. Chaps, the heavy protective leather
trousers worn by cowboys, got their name from the Spanish "chaparreras",
and the rope was derived from "la reata".
All the distinct clothing of the
cowboy - boots, saddles, hats, pants, chaps, slickers, bandannas,
gloves, and collar-less shirts - were practical and adaptable,
designed for protection and comfort. The cowboy hat quickly
developed the capability, even in the early years, to identify
its wearer as someone associated with the West.
The most enduring fashion adapted from the
cowboy, popular nearly worldwide today, are "blue jeans",
originally made by Levi Strauss for miners in 1850. It was the
cowboy hat, however, that came to symbolize the American West.
The modern rodeo or "Frontier Day" show is
the only American sport to evolve from an industry. It exists on
both the amateur and professional level, and it remains a
favorite form of entertainment in many towns of the West. Rodeos
combine the traditional skills of the range cowboy — calf and
steer roping, steer wrestling, team roping, bronco riding, and
horsemanship with the showmanship of bull riding, and barrel
More About the Cowboy
Regional traditions within
the United States
Florida Cowhunter or "Cracker cowboy"
Outside North America
Modern working cowboys
Horse equipment or
In popular culture