Beginnings: The Cattle Drives

Going by the typical Hollywood Western, the life of the American cowboy verged on the romantic heroism of that attributed to the Knights of the Roundtable in Merry Old England. Not too much in the average Oater speaks to the boredom, hard work, long hours and low pay experienced by the men who rode after cows, wrestled down mavericks for branding and faced hot, cold and wet weather in season on long, tiresome, sometimes dangerous cattle drives.

The American cowboy, real and imagined, pretty much arose out of special circumstances that prevailed in southwestern states immediately following the Civil War. During the war years a tough breed of Spanish cattle commonly known as the Longhorn had procreated in the wild to such an extent, especially in the high plains of Texas, that no one could count their numbers.

When Abilene, Kansas, a stage stop since 1857, became a railhead and stockyard town in the late 1860s, Texas ranchers began moving cattle north for shipment east to Chicago slaughter houses. The drives for the most part followed the Chisholm trail, set out by Jesse Chisholm. Many of the ranchers rounded up the wild Longhorns wholesale or to augment their small herds of other breeds of cattle.

As these cattle drives grew ever larger and more numerous, a demand for men who could ride and rope 24/7 and do so for little recompense rose concurrently. The hardscrabble life for many young men in the aftermath of the Civil War provided trail bosses with a ready supply of riders willing and able to do the heavy lifting involved in the typical cattle drive. Long hours in the saddle rounding up cows, calves and the occasional bull, roping and throwing mavericks for branding, keeping the cattle amassed and moving the herd north along dusty trails -- all in a day's work for the American cowboy.

Whence came this new breed of horseman?

The Reality: Vaquero to Cowboy

Cattle raising in the American southwest emulated the methods earlier used in Spain, where large herds of cattle thrived on sparse, desert-like terrain similar to that found in the Great Plains of western America. The system required vast acreages in order for the cattle to find sufficient browse. In Spain and then in America, the expansive ranches needed men on horses, called vaqueros, to tend the herds effectively. When the Spaniards brought their cattle raising practices to the Americas, the Spanish vaquero came as well.

It did not take long for American westerners coming into contact with Spanish cattle ranches to realize the advantages of working cattle on horseback. The vaquero became the model by which the American cow herder transformed into the western cowboy. Like the vaquero, the American cowboy would ride daylight to dark tending cows on the far reaches of large cattle spreads, often spending numerous days alone moving his charges to better feeding grounds, branding calves and rescuing cows mired down in bogs or swamps.

When roundup time arrived, the cowboys would have a fairly good idea where to locate straggling small batches of cattle so they could bring them in to a chosen holding area in the least amount of time. More hard riding, more branding, more hours spent without rest in the saddle ensued. The cowboy life remained hard, dangerous and only occasionally exciting.

So where did the cowboy of legend come from?

The Legend: Enter Ned Buntline

It seems improbable that the mythical cowboy of legendary adventures, heroic deeds and death-defying acts of courage would not have evolved out of the Texas cow herder without the help of Ned Buntline and other early writers of western fiction. In patterning himself after the Spanish vaquero, the American cowboy cut a dramatic figure as, astride a spirited horse, he rode across the rugged landscape. Sooner or later, spellbinding folklore would have developed around this icon of the Wild West.

Many do, however, give credit to Ned Buntline (real name, Edward Zane Carroll Judson) for initially expounding in lurid prose upon the cowboy character. Buntline, a man of adventure in his own right, while on a lecture tour through western states, met William F. Cody. Buntline became enamored of Cody's real-life adventures and ultimately published them in a number of dime novels. Buntline supposedly pinned the sobriquet "Buffalo Bill" on Cody and eventually helped Cody develop and launch his Wild West Show.

With the dime novels, the cowboy of legendary proportions became a literary staple of western adventure novels, although more realistic renditions awaited the 1902 publication of Owen Wister's The Virginian. Starting a year later the cowboy also became a favorite of moviegoers with the release of The Great Train Robbery, a milestone ten-minute film that featured bandits, blazing six-shooters and posses.