The official Cowboy Era occurred from 1866-1886 (http://www.blantonmuseum.org ). That final year, 1886, is well known in these parts as the end of open-range ranching due to a severe winter that resulted in heavy losses. Around the same time, the Homestead Act of 1862 fostered the rise of smaller, family-operated ranches, which further reduced the demand for wage-earning cowboys.
The American cowboy first appeared in Texas, and the job was modeled after the Spanish vaqueros, who tended cattle. Approximately one sixth of the American cowboys were Mexican and many others African American. While the role of tough cowboys was essential to owners of large cattle operations, much of their history is couched in myth. The real cowboy life was exhausting,crude, and muddy. Men were not big strapping John Wayne figures because only smaller men could ride the once wild, small horses.
Their physically challenging work, included the job of breaking horses, riding for weeks on the open range to round up cows in the fall, and spending long, frigid winters repairing the ranch and building new structures. As I learned from reading their history, when snowed in, cowboys spent long boring hours playing cards, boxing, and drinking.
Since the old west territories were usually lacking law and order, cowboys often took justice into their own, violent hands. The hard life took an early toll on their bodies; many of the cowboys from the east coast, lured west by the myth, left for more sedate, city jobs while still in their 20s. The Cowboy was not a Marlboro Man and nothing about the life was glamorous.
The cowboy culture lived beyond the official cowboy era. From what I can tell, the legends grew and those who identified as cowboys developed a strong sense of nationalism even to the point of ranking their importance in American history above early American settlers. For example, James F. Owen says in his book, Cowboy Values: Recapturing What America Once Stood For (2008, Lyons Press), “The spirit of the cowboy is the spirit of America.” I believe that other people would say that Jamestown settlers, Pilgrims, factory workers in large grimy cities, and Revolutionary and Civil war soldiers consider themselves part of the American spirit too.
In response to economic and moral problems facing this country, Owen suggests, “America needs the cowboy more than ever.” and urges us to recall the “Cowboy Legacy” and restore the “Code of the West”– the civilizing authority that developed due to lack of courts and laws. I am a bit more skeptical about Owen’s solutions to our problems, because the cowboy legacy, as far as I can tell, also includes sexism, racism, vigilantism, and other violence.
Despite the darker features of cowboy life, money makers, like Buffalo Bill Cody, managed to mold the mostly positive cowboy myth that prevails today and sell it to America and beyond. Wild West shows and week-long rodeos brought tourism dollars into the west. Frontier Days in Cheyenne still occurs every year during the last week in July and features a top-rated rodeo and big name country/western singers. Cowboy poetry gatherings occur all year. The image on the state of Wyoming license plate is a cowboy on a bucking bronco. The media-savvy sports world has immortalized the legacy through the the University of Wyoming mascot, which is of course, the Cowboy (and Cowgirl). Although they reside in Colorado, we root for the Denver Broncos. Wyoming state and county fairs adopt a cowboy/western theme each year and dressing up for an occasion often means wearing your best blue jeans and boots.
A few hard-working Cowboys still exist, even after the mechanization of ranching and farming. However, they are more likely to be called ranch managers or ranch hands. With tight profit margins, small ranchers cannot afford many cowboys, but absentee landowners still need capable managers and workers. I personally know ranch managers who do the job of original cowboys, including taking off on horses or 4-wheelers to round up cows in the fall from the summer pasture, feeding every day in the winter, assisting with calving 24 hours a day in the spring, and managing breeding again in the summer. The job is still physically exhausting, and despite this, cowboys are sometimes cowgirls. As a polling place worker, I always see a few cowboys and cowgirls come to vote, especially if another cowboy or rancher is running for office.
Cowboys also live on the in pro rodeo circuit. The PRCA (prorodeo.com) is the rodeo equivalent of NSACAR. Competitors rope, ride bucking broncs, tangle with bulls and perform all kinds of other feats to large audiences. Many rodeos are televised and the sport has it’s revered competitors. One of the final events of their season is the National Finals Rodeo, which takes place in Las Vegas every year, which A few people from our town attend.
And, by the way, should you ever need cowboy attire—boots, hats, jeans, Carhartt work clothes—come to Wheatland. Cowboy wear and ranch supplies are among the few things readily available here. I find it tempting to switch to cowboy-style clothing, but I feel a bit inauthentic when duded up. I am, after all, a city girl, and I have been told there is nothing worse than a city girl wearing her cowboy hat backwards, of which I am guilty. I have increased the number of jeans in my wardrobe, and I have a great pair of boots, but I wear those sparingly. I have ridden four wheelers at a local ranch to check on and round up cows in the fall, but I mostly wore my REI-style hiking fleece and sturdy hiking boots, quite a mix up of cultures!
I love the cowboy heartbeat that still resonates in Wyoming. I especially enjoy reading memoirs from genteel cowboys written during the original Cowboy Era. The events they describe are tough and raw, the tales they tell, shocking and awe-inspiring.
- Cowboys and Girls: Rustling At Band of Wild Petticoats. (midorisnyder.com)