Western Views: Celebrating the American cowboy

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By Len Wilcox

The last Saturday of July (July 27th this year) is the National Day of the Cowboy.

The cowboy began in the Southwest. The Spanish created the first big ranches on the American continent, and the stockmen who worked the ranches developed their own tools and equipment for the job. As the Americans made their way into Texas and the Far West, the ways of the Vaquero were adapted and modified to fit the jobs at hand, and what we think of as the “American cowboy” was born.

 

Their era really began in the 1860s, deep in the heart of Texas. After the Civil War, the demand for beef was strong in the East, but the herds were in Texas. Some 5 million cattle were roaming the Texas plains, many of them unclaimed. A quick way for an enterprising rancher to make a buck was to gather a crew of tough young men and take them to Texas, where they could round up a herd and drive it north to the rails. These cattle were dangerous beasts, often half-wild from being left on the range while the ranchers were off fighting the war.


The tough young men who did this job were “cowboys.” Some of them were veterans of the brutal Civil War, others were victims of it, displaced by years of terrible strife. They came from both sides of the conflict, but after a few months of sharing the hardship and dangers of the range, it didn’t matter much where they come from.

Cowboy, 1887. From Wikipedia

They had diverse backgrounds and included African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, as well as European-Americans. The job bound them in ways nothing else could, because they had to rely on each other to survive. They knew that the measure of man was not in his words, but in his actions.

Also, many of the cowboys really were just boys – at least, they were when they started out on the trail. The job was hard, dirty and dangerous. The boys – some as young as 12 years old – had to quickly become men.

Over the years, a Cowboy Code has grown, a code of ethics that the cowboys in the movies in the early 1900s promoted. Heroes like Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger all had their oaths and codes for youngsters to follow to help them strive for lofty ideals.

Nat Love, a black cowboy who was born a slave but went West after the war ended slavery, wrote his Cowboy Code in his autobiography. It was simple: “There a man’s work was to be done, and a man’s life to be lived, and when death was to be met, he met it like a man.”

Words to live by.

I’m Len Wilcox and that’s the Western View.

Read previous Western Views articles here.

Do you have a topic you’d like Len to write about? Email him at lenwilcox.rvtravel@gmail.com

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