American cowboys were drawn from multiple sources. By the late
1860s, following the American Civil War and the expansion of the
cattle industry, former soldiers from both the Union and
Confederacy came west, seeking work, as did large numbers of
restless white men in general.
A significant number of African-American
freedmen also were drawn to cowboy life, in part because there
was not quite as much discrimination in the west as in other
areas of American society at the time. A significant number of
Mexicans and American Indians already living in the region also
worked as cowboys. Later, particularly after 1890, when American
policy promoted "assimilation" of Indian people, some Indian
boarding schools also taught ranching skills.
Today, some American Indians in the western
United States own cattle and small ranches, and many are still
employed as cowboys, especially on ranches located near Indian
Reservations. The "Indian Cowboy" also became a commonplace
sight on the rodeo circuit.
Because cowboys ranked low in the social
structure of the period, there are no firm figures on the actual
proportion of various races. One writer states that cowboys were
"… of two classes—those recruited from Texas and other States on
the eastern slope; and Mexicans, from the south-western region.
…" Census records suggest that about 15% of all cowboys were of
African-American ancestry - ranging from about 25% on the trail
drives out of Texas, to very few in the northwest.
Similarly, cowboys of Mexican descent also
averaged about 15% of the total, but were more common in Texas
and the southwest. Other estimates suggest that in the late 19th
century, one out of every three cowboys was a Mexican vaquero,
and 20% may have been African-American.
ethnicity, most cowboys came from lower social classes and the
pay was poor. The average cowboy earned approximately a dollar a
day, plus food, and, when near the home ranch, a bed in the
bunkhouse, usually a barracks-like building with a single open
the cowboys of the American West developed a personal culture of
their own, a blend of frontier and Victorian values that even
retained vestiges of chivalry. Such hazardous work in isolated
conditions also bred a tradition of self-dependence and
individualism, with great value put on personal honesty,
exemplified in songs and poetry.
However, some men were also drawn to the
frontier because they were attracted to men. Other times, in a
region where men significantly outnumbered women, even social
events normally attended by both sexes were at times all male,
and men could be found partnering up with one another for
dances. Homosexual acts between young, unmarried men occurred,
but cowboys culture itself was and remains deeply homophobic.
Though anti-sodomy laws were common in the Old West, they often
were only selectively enforced.
Development of the modern cowboy
The traditions of the working cowboy were
further etched into the minds of the general public with the
development of Wild West Shows in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, which showcased and romanticized the life of both
cowboys and American Indians. Beginning in the 1920s and
continuing to the present day, Western movies popularized the
cowboy lifestyle but also formed persistent stereotypes, both
positive and negative. In some cases, the cowboy and the violent
gunslinger are often associated with one another. On the other
hand, some actors who portrayed cowboys promoted positive
values, such as the "cowboy code" of Gene Autry, that encouraged
honorable behavior, respect and patriotism.
Likewise, cowboys in movies were often shown
fighting with American Indians. However, the reality was
that, while cowboys were armed against both predators and human
thieves, and often used their guns to run off people of any race
who attempted to steal, or rustle cattle, nearly all actual
armed conflicts occurred between Indian people and cavalry units
of the U.S. Army.
In reality, working ranch hands past and
present had very little time for anything other than the
constant, hard work involved in maintaining a ranch.
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