The first cowboy actually began in Mexico. Known as Vaqueros from the Spanish word, vaquero, which means cow. After the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519, ranches were established and stocked with cattle and horses imported from Spain.
By the early 1700’s cattle ranching had spread north into what is now Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Starting in 1769, a chain of 21 Franciscan missions eventually stretched from San Diego to San Francisco, marking the beginning of California’s livestock industry.
In the new American Colonies, the “mountain men” were among the first to set out towards the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains trapping and trading their furs at rendezvous.
As news spread of the wide open territories, a western migration began. Masses who were looking for adventure and free, abundant land to homestead began to trek westward in wagon trains.
Everything Was Changing
The westward surge created new brands of people, one of them being a breed that eventually became known as the cowboy. The name sprung from working on a cattle ranch, ranch hands. Their jobs focused on the everyday work of feeding the stock, building and repairing fences and herding cattle from one grazing spot to another, spanning great distances from one season to another.
The word “cowboy” immediately brings a picture to mind of the wide brimmed cowboy hat, a necessity to keep the sun from scorching your face and eyes as they spent endless days in the saddle, driving the herd or working the range. Cowboy boots were another necessity with tall heels that would stay put in the stirrup. Tough, fabric in the pants and a kerchief around his neck to cover his face in sandstorms and soak up the sweat puddling down his neck from a hot day’s work. The kerchief actually came in handy for all sorts of things that came up out on the trail.
Other gear peculiar to a cowboy was a lasso, latched to his saddle, spurs attached to his boots to coax a slow horse on and, of course, his horse. A cowboy was pretty useless without this last item. A cowboy and his horse were a necessary team.
After so long in the saddle, riding a horse became second nature. He often had a bedroll attached to the saddle as well if he was “working the range” or on a long trail ride. Often a cowpoke would carry a harmonica to help pass the time and would croon to the herd of cattle to keep them calm and settled down in the evenings.
The Music of the West
Lots of old and modern-day songs sum up the life of a cowboy. “Home on the Range" is a classic western folk song sometimes called the "unofficial anthem" of the American West. Written in 1872 by Dr. Brewster M. Higley.
“Rock-a-Bye Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor is a gentle, crooning song. “There was a young cowboy who lives on the range. His horse and his saddle were his only companions, he works in the saddle and sleeps in the canyons, waiting for summer, his pastures to change...and as the moon rises he sits by the fire, thinking about women and glasses of beer. And closing his eyes as the doggies (cattle) retire, he sings out a song that is soft but it’s clear…. “
Naturally, the cowboy (or cowpoke) had tough, leathery tanned skin from working outdoors doing the rugged work that went with being a ranch hand. If he wasn’t out on the range or on a trail ride, cowboys would sleep in the bunkhouse living and eating in common quarters with the other ranch hands.
The Cowboy Way
As time went on, the cowboy became something of a legend. Cowboys have always had an aura of romance surrounding them. They were as wild and free as the wide open spaces they call home. A cowboy is an archetype of the “man’s man”. He was tough and tender hearted, capable and independent; he was also a gentleman.
A quote quipped, supposedly by John Wayne, on “the cowboy’s way” is “Talk Slow, Talk Low and Don’t Say Too Much.”
There are as many types of cowboys as there are songs about them. Hollywood, in their early movies, gets credit for creating the handsome hero wearing the white hat who got rid of all the bad guys and always got the girl in the end.
Then there were the outlaw cowboys who emerged from another migration, after the Great Civil War. Men leaving the ravages and still smoldering embers of the war behind and heading out west in search of adventure and a new life. The outlaws Jesse and Frank James were a product of this war and how they lost everything in a cruel and mean-hearted way. Their bitterness and resentment set them on the path leading to executing their revenge. They actually became folk heroes to the South’s cause.
Stories of striking it rich in the territory of California began another migration drawing crowds seeking their fortune in the gold and silver in the hills and streams. Boom towns grew up overnight. Lawlessness prevailed due to the lack of order and men would kill for their stake in a gold claim or even over a suspected cheat in a hand of poker. Another necessity to staying alive in this lawless era was the six shooter. Many a cowboy carried a Colt 45 as his companion then.
The Heart and Soul of the West
The public's fascination and romantic notions about what a cowboy is has survived for a century or more. The songs sung about them stir something in the soul, a restless quest for that magic and romance of the Wild West.
Movies also portray that mystique. Many are based on true stories of the old west and the men and women who became legends who live on in our memories and instill in us an admiration of the cowboy spirit.
“The Outlaw Cowboy Singers”, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings caution, in a song, “Mama’s don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Don’t let ‘em pick guitars or drive them old trucks, let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such…”
Cowboy hats and cowboy boots have grown in popularity today, worn by urban cowboys who drive a pickup truck instead of riding a horse and sleep in apartments instead of out on the trail. You see these hats and boots as everyday attire on ranchers still doing similar work as their predecessors did.
Here, in the western states and rural farm regions, these are common attire; cowboy boots and blue jeans. There are real cowboys alive and well today. They probably use pickup trucks and 4 wheelers instead of horses to round up cattle on the range and barbed wire fences stretch parallel along long, lonely highways to “contain” free-range cattle. This is today’s cowboy.
They congregate in droves, reliving the old west in racaus rodeos. Roping calves, riding bucking broncos and hefty bulls and barrel racing are major attractions for rodeo fans. Oversized, shiny silver belt buckles are a common site at the rodeo. In the background, familiar country songs are belted out over loudspeakers.
Times are changing and slowly old traditions are replaced. It is our hope that the heart and soul of the west will always carry on the traditions created by the cowboys of past, present, and future.