The cowboy is one of the most familiar figures of the Old West. The cowboys seen in films, on television, and in novels seem to lead exciting lives filled with adventure. Real cowboys, however, spent most of their time doing difficult, dirty, and often boring work. Most cowboys never fought Indians or rustlers (cattle thieves). But they did play an important part in a great Western business—cattle ranching.

People had been raising cattle for centuries. But many of the skills of the modern American cowboy developed in southern Texas before the American Civil War (1861–65). These techniques were a mixture of those used by Mexican herders (vaqueros) and by people who tended cattle in the Gulf states.

Early Texas cowboys learned to use horses to tend longhorns, the tall, lanky cattle of that region. They also developed much of the equipment that later cowboys were to make famous. Chaps protected a man's legs as he rode through the thick, thorny brush. A large, broad-brimmed hat, called a Stetson after a well-known manufacturer, shielded his face from the hot sun. Special spurs and a riding whip, or quirt, were needed to control his horse. A strong rope, or lariat, caught and held the powerful cattle. The air was often full of dust kicked up from pounding hooves. So a cowboy would cover his mouth with a colorful kerchief, called a bandana.

The Golden Age (1860's–80's)

When the Civil War ended, Americans in the northern and eastern states looked to Texas to supply meat for their dinner tables. Many farms had been neglected during the war. And much of the food had been used to feed the armies. A booming cattle industry developed. It started first in Texas and later in the western territories of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas.

Ranchers needed rugged men to do the hard work in this rapidly expanding business. Many cowboys were ex-soldiers. About one-third were freed black slaves and Mexicans. The average cowboy was 16 to 30 years old. He was paid very little money (about $1 a day). The work was often tedious.

Much of the country where the cowboys worked was unfenced "open range," where ranchers grazed their cattle. Cowboys spent long hours keeping track of the cattle. That included caring for the sick ones, and tending to the orphaned calves, or dogies.

The cowboy's most useful tool was his horse. He might wear out three or four of them in one day, riding up and down the cattle trails and over a ranch's great spaces. Some ranchers had their cowboys capture wild horses, called mustangs. But most raised their own or bought the ones they needed. A bronco was a horse being broken or trained. A wrangler cared for the horses and broncos. Many wranglers were young boys who were learning how to be cowboys.

Roundup Time

Every spring, cowboys from neighboring ranches herded in the cattle from the range to a central location. Ranchers identified their cattle by the brand, or unique mark, burned into the cattle's hides. They claimed new calves and branded them. They removed the sick cattle from the herds. Then they decided which would be taken north to market.

Before returning to their ranches at the end of the roundup, the cowboys would hold rodeos. These were contests in which they could compete and show off their skills.

Trail Drives

In the days before railroads provided direct links between Texas and the North and East, cowboys performed the important task of driving the herds northward to Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. There the cattle could be loaded onto freight cars and sent to slaughterhouses in Chicago and other big cities.

In March or April, the cowboys moved the cattle along the great cattle trails to Kansas "cow towns." There were usually 1,500 to 3,000 head to a herd. The Chisholm Trail started at the Mexican border and went to Abilene. The Great Western Trail led to Dodge City. The Shawnee Trail led to Kansas City and St. Louis. Sometimes the cowboys drove the cattle 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers).

The cowboy herders traveled about 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 kilometers) a day. They made sure the cattle had plenty of grass to eat and water to drink. They also kept them from straying too far from the herd. They often carried pistols or rifles. But these were used mainly to hunt for food, kill wild animals that threatened the herd, or control a stampede. (A stampede occurs when the cattle are frightened and they run away at great speed.) Only occasionally did cowboys have to worry about rustlers or desperadoes (bandits).

In the evenings, the cowboys would settle around a campfire to eat "prairie strawberries" (beans) and bacon that their cookie had prepared in the chuck wagon. They would then lay out their bedrolls to sleep under the open sky. They would "keep an ear to the ground" to listen for restless or roaming cattle.

End of an Era

The railroads pushed farther into the cattle country in the late 1800's. As a result, the ranching business and the cowboy's job changed dramatically. There was no longer a need to drive the cattle long distances to market. Cattle drives became a thing of the past. At the same time, ranchers began buying and leasing open range land for their own use. So cowboys soon began spending more of their time building and repairing the barbed-wire fences that divided property lines.

The demise of the trail drives and the open range system ended many of the cowboys' traditional duties. Today cowboys ride in pickup trucks as well as ride horses. But they still protect and care for cattle and do much of the difficult work on a ranch.


In the late 1800's the public became fascinated with these men on horseback. Cowboy heroes began to appear in short books called "dime novels" and in traveling "wild west shows." The shows grew immensely popular in the United States and Europe. The most famous of them featured William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody.

In 1902, Owen Wister's famous novel, The Virginian, was published. Many other authors, such as Zane Gray and Louis L'Amour, have written thousands of action-packed books with cowboys as heroes—and sometimes as villains.

The movie industry has also contributed greatly to cowboy folklore. The white-hatted "good guys" battle the black-hatted "bad guys." The bad guys are forever slinging six-shooters and brawling their way through cow-town saloons. Some of Hollywood's most popular actors, such as Roy Rogers and John Wayne, spent much of their careers playing cowboy heroes.

Television, too, helped celebrate the life of the cowboy, especially in the early 1950's through such shows as Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, and The Gene Autry Show.

The qualities of a cowboy (however real or fictitious they might be) are important to Americans because they symbolize what many believe are the traits of the true American spirit—strength, independence, and self-reliance. The days of the Old West are long gone. But the pioneer spirit lives on through the legend of the cowboy—the great American hero.

Elliott West
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

How to cite this article:

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West, Elliott. "Cowboy." . Scholastic Grolier Online,
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West, Elliott. "Cowboy." . Scholastic Grolier Online.
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SOURCE: The New Book of Knowledge

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