Learning About America: Everything You Have Ever Wanted To Know About Cowboys And The Wild West

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The Marlboro Man and the Rexall Ranger

When I was a kid, I had a cowboy outfit. Most little boys born in the US before about 1965 had one. My hat was red, my boots were black, and I even had gloves with fringe on them. Naturally, it came with a belt bearing two holsters for my cap-gun six-shooters. My dad says I rode my broomstick horse around so much that I wore a good inch and a half off the stick. But by the time I was four (1965), a new hero had emerged – the astronaut.

If you have seen the Pixar film “Toy Story,” you know that one day, all the boys wanted was cowboy stuff, and with the Mercury 7 and Gemini astronauts, they suddenly wanted to be a spaceman. Sheriff Woody was replaced by Buzz Lightyear.

But the cowboy persists as the image of America. When the US Olympic team marches into a stadium, they frequently have cowboy hats on, not space helmets. Lots of countries have spacemen (cosmonauts, taikonauts, etc.), but only America has cowboys (with apologies to my relatives in western Canada). Argentina’s gauchos come close, but America has Hollywood, so the cowboy won out.

The Origins Of The American Cowboy: An Undeniable Mexican Influence

Image Source: Bestyle Pics

As The Reader’s Companion to American History put it, “Something there was about him—tall in the saddle, alone, facing danger, one man against nature’s vast, treeless plains and humanity’s outlaws—that appealed to people and made the cowboy a folk hero, a half-real, half-mythological symbol of the American West.”

If you want to find the roots of the American cowboy, you need to start in Texas around the middle of the 19th century. America had cattle herders before that, of course. Cattle-raising was part of life in the red clay country in Georgia and Alabama, in Florida and even in western Massachusetts – but no cowboy ever said “I think I’ll mosey on over to the Hah-vahd Yahd on Saturday night.” These cattle herders were largely viewed as the ill-educated, glamour-less folks that they were.

Texas has a large amount of land back in the 1830s and 1840s, so much that the Mexican government asked Americans to settle there (on condition that they became loyal Mexicans). This led to the Texas war of Independence, Texas joining the Union, and the Mexican American War (which added all or parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to the US).

The Mexican influence on the American cowboy is undeniable. Many terms cowboys use to this day (yes, there are actual working cowboys still in 2015) are derived from Spanish: corral, lariat, buckeroo (vaquero – literally one who works with the cows), vamoose (“let’s go” from the Spanish “vamanos”), and bronco (literally “rough,” as in a horse that hasn’t been broken, yet). And those cool cowboy hats, well, they look an awful lot like a Mexican sombrero – and they do a fine job in keeping that Texas sun off your face.

Cowboys After The American Civil War

After the American Civil War, though, things in Texas got interesting. Demand for beef in the East was up because the government had bought up and used most of the cattle in the loyal states. In Texas, cattle had few natural predators and a large supply of grassland on which to feed.

With the traitorous government in Texas gone and the state on the way to re-admission to the United States at the end of the Civil War, the state found itself with 5 million head of cattle, and markets in the East begging to buy them. A bull worth $4 in central Texas was worth $40 in Chicago. The educational system of Texas may have its shortcomings but even the slowest cowhand knew forty is better than four.

The trouble was that the railroads didn’t connect Texas with its markets particularly well. Thus, in 1866, the cattle drive began in earnest. The destination was the railhead in Sedalia, Missouri, on the western half of the state about halfway between the northern and southern borders of Missouri. From Austin, Texas, it’s a 700-mile trip. History shows that cattle drives moved at a pace of about 15 miles a day.

SLC_2457_Londie_G_Padelsky Cowboys riding into the sunset, Central Coast, California
Image Source: Londie

You wouldn’t want to move the dogies any faster than they could comfortably walk because you needed them to arrive at the market as heavy as possible – you got paid by the pound.

Move the cattle too fast, and they might lose valuable weight. As a result, a cattle drive from Texas to Sedalia took more than 40 days. That’s 40 days of living rough, eating rough, fighting off people who didn’t want you on their land (farmers and Indians alike had it in for cattlemen). Some drives took longer, up to 1,000 miles covering the three months. It took a tough man to get through that. And there’s the appeal of the cowboy. He’s his own man, relies on himself, and lets nothing get in his way.

Cowboys And Their Position In The Society

Being a cowboy was a very specific job back in the 1800s. Just because you lived west of St. Louis didn’t mean you were a cowboy. Most people were townsfolk or had their own farms. The cowboys were the guys who actually herded the ranchers’ cattle. To give you some idea of the standing of the cowboy in Western society (by that I mean the social order those states west of Kansas City), a quarter of them were black – as in ex-slaves.

Ex-slaves are pretty much at the bottom of any social system that has abolished slavery, and their co-workers don’t have a great deal more social cache. In short, you might let a cowboy work your herd, but you wouldn’t let one marry your daughter.

As a westerner (I was born in North Dakota, and I grew up in Colorado), I was always slightly amused by the idea of the Wild West and Dodge City. Dodge City was actually a long drive EAST of where I lived. It’s in Kansas, a good 1,500 miles or more from the Pacific Ocean. In fact, it’s just about smack dab in the middle of the US.

Why Are Cowboys And The West Considered “Wild”?

But Dodge was truly a cowboy town because one of the main railheads was there. So, think about spending two or three months moving 15 miles a day behind a thousand or two cattle (and cattle are painfully stupid animals). You’ve been rained on, stepped in cattle droppings, got a nasty sunburn, froze at night, and haven’t seen a woman in weeks.

When you finally get to town, you’re going to want to go a little crazy. Something other than beans for dinner, a few drinks of whiskey, and more adult entertainment sounds just about right. And you got paid at the end of the cattle drive, and there’s nothing to spend it on when you head back home, so money is no object. It got wild.

This wild nature of America’s west, and of Texas today, persists. In Norway, the word “Texas” has been adopted to mean “crazy or chaotic, often violently so” used to describe an atmosphere or environment (and not a person). You might hear a kid in Oslo or Narvik say “det var helt Texas på bussen i dag” meaning “there was total chaos on the bus today.” And this comes from a people whose ancestors were vikings.

Cowboys And The Well Ingrained Myth Of Their “Conflicts with Native Americans”

Image Source: Wikimedia

One of the abiding themes in cowboy lore is the fighting with the original inhabitants of the Americas, which thanks to Columbus not knowing where he was, got labeled “Indians.” In Britain, they are often called “Red Indians” to distinguish them from the inhabitants of India, a completely different civilization. Anyway, I grew up playing cowboys and indians, which largely consisted of pretending to shoot your friends, then falling down dead only to get up and shoot some more.

In truth, the continent was wrested from the original Americans in the course of 300 years, and during the heyday of the cowboy (1866-86) most of the fighting was actually done by the US Army, not by guys who were on a cattle drive. Philipp Meyer, author of The Son which is set in Texas around 1850, said “The tendency to want to romanticise it is absolutely quite strong,” he says, explaining that unlike what we’ve seen in films, cowboys hardly ever engaged tribes of whooping Braves in battle. “That literally never happened,” he continues. “There were probably more fights recorded in movies between cowboys and Indians than happened in history.”

The Range Wars And The End Of The Cowboys

A less-well-known battle for the cowboys was with people who raised sheep.

The so-called “Range Wars” stemmed from a basic difference in the way you raise cattle and sheep. “Fundamental differences between sheep and cattle meant that they required different amounts of water, different types of food, and different manners of herding. Differences in life and equipment of the cowboy on horseback and the sheepherder on a burro or afoot also made for antagonisms. The cattleman had priority of establishment in most areas of Texas and resented encroachment of the sheepman on his domain.”

“The cattleman was the more aggressive of the antagonists. His methods of attempting to drive out his rival ranged from intimidation to violence, directed at both the sheepman and his flock. Nomadic sheepmen or drifters were attacked by both cattlemen and settled sheepmen because of their twisting or rolling of fences to allow passage of their flocks and because they drove sheep infected with scab across the ranges.”

This conflict was finally brought to an end with a 1884 law that made fence-cutting a felony, ending the open range that had been the norm just a generation earlier.

The golden era of the cowboy is reckoned to have ended in 1886, with a really bad winter and the arrival of many rail lines in areas where the cattle were raised.

The Beginning Of The Cowboy Mythology

Image Source: Political Insider

Yet that wasn’t the end of the cowboy.

With the passing of the golden age, a mythology around the cowboy arose. Literature, film, radio and TV have created a solitary figure, a knight-errant in the wilderness. Walter Prescott Webb was a historian of the frontier in the early twentieth century. In 1931, he published The Great Plains, at the time one of the most influential books on the West, in which he described the cowboy as a man who:

“ives on horseback as do the Bedouins; he fights on horseback, as did the knights of chivalry; he goes armed with a strange new weapon which he uses ambidextrously and precisely; he swears like a trooper, drinks like a fish, wears clothes like an actor, and fights like a devil. He is gracious to the ladies, reserved towards strangers, generous to his friends and brutal to his enemies. He is a cowboy, the typical Westerner.”

As a Westerner, I can vouch for the fact that he is typical in almost no sense. He is, however, what a great many would like to believe they are or can be. And therein may lie the appeal beyond America’s shores.

The Popular Fascination With The American West

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I recall as a student in London in the 1980s visiting a friend of mine in the Midlands. There, I met a number of wonderful people, one of whom had a fascination with the American West. He had replicas of Colt .45 pistols, several hats, three pair of cowboy boots, and he was as serious a historian of my part of the world as anyone could be. What got the blood of this Birmingham bus-driver flowing was the freedom and romance that life around England’s second city lacked.

He saw, like millions, the appeal of what a cigarette company labeled the “Marlboro Man.” Philip Morris latched onto this in 1954. “The brand’s new mascot, the ‘Marlboro Man,’ would exude rugged manliness in an effort to position Marlboro as a filter with flavor. Previously, most filter cigarettes were considered to be ‘sissy’ or effeminate, lacking in flavor and meant for those who couldn’t handle stronger brands. With the Marlboro Man campaign, Philip Morris worked to reverse this sentiment. The original Marlboro Men were excessive in their masculine virility. The models ranged from rough cowboys and sailors to alluring businessmen and academics.”

I don’t know how much masculine virility businessmen and academics have, but we all know the macho image of the rugged cowboy silhouetted against a setting western sun – with a ciggie dangling from his lips.

Most of us aren’t the rugged cowboy type, but that doesn’t stop a lot of people (men and women) from adopting the uniform. The boots, with their 2-inch heel to help keep the boot in the stirrup, the hat and a string tie are commonplace in offices in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. You’ll find bars in places like New York City that offer country-western music and feature staff in cowboy attire.

The Rexall Ranger And The Modern American Cowboy

Cowboys and Aliens
Image Source: Dreamwork Studios

And that brings us to the term “Drugstore Cowboy.” A drugstore cowboy is someone who wears the attire but could not tell one end of a cow from the other.

A real cowboy’s hat is sun-faded, his boots are scuffed and have dirt (or something smellier) on them, and his jeans are worn in the seat from days in the saddle. A drugstore cowboy’s hat is a very expensive Stetson that hasn’t been in the rain, his boot are made of ostrich or some other material inappropriate for a cattle drive, and his jeans are neatly ironed. When I was a kid, an alternative term for these guys was “Rexall Ranger,” Rexall being the name of a now defunct drugstore chain, and “ranger” referring to the Texas law-enforcement guys. To be a drugstore cowboy, or a Rexall Ranger, is not a compliment. Both Presidents Bush wore cowboy boots, but they were nothing like working cowboys.

But there still are real live cowboys. The job hasn’t gone away, not in beef-loving America. But it has changed.

“In many areas of the American West he still rides a horse, though he may carry it in a horse trailer behind his pickup truck to the point where the road gives out and a horse becomes indispensable. He may survey the ranchman’s spread in a small airplane that he pilots, and he may help his employer determine with a computer matters of feed, weight, and salability. But he still dresses like a cowboy because the garb is practical; he understands cattle and horses and gazes out upon the treeless expanse just as his predecessors did. His work and his workplace, in spite of encroaching population, are still there.”

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