The American cowboy was actually a dirty, overworked laborer who fried his brains under a prairie sun, or rode endless miles in rain and wind to mend fences or look for lost calves. Yet the cowboy had a heroic image of himself as a hard-riding, fast-shooting hombre, and that is how he appears in books and paintings of the Old West.
The image did grow from a seed of reality. Some cowboys actually shot it out with Indians, or broke wild horses and lassoed bears, as they are doing in paintings by artists Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. Both painters rode the trails with the cowboy. They recorded every detail of his life, yet they shared his idealized vision. In making him seem larger than life Remington and Russell caught the proportions of a greater reality: the sense, shared by the cowboy and in time the entire nation, that he was indeed the hero of his country's boldest legend.
On March 14, 1519, somewhere along the coast of Mexico, Spanish sailors of the fleet under command of Hernando Cortes unloaded sixteen horses, the first in the historic New World. (The horse originated in North America but had become extinct there untold ages before.) These animals were from Andalusia in southern Spain, probably descended from the tough wild horses that once swarmed about the region, mixed with the beautiful Arabian stock brought from Africa by the conquering Moors. Escaping from Spanish herds, their descendants would go wild and run the plains of North America in vast herds that still exist in remote pockets of the far West.
Only two years later, while Cortes and his conquistadors were still fighting to subdue the Aztecs, Gregorio de Villalobos brought to Mexico a bull and six heifers of the Andalusian Longhorn breed, the vanguard of many herds brought from Spain to the New World.
To guard the rapidly growing numbers of longhorns, Spaniards enslaved a few Indians and branded them on the cheek as they branded their cattle to show ownership. Cortes branded his cattle with a row of three crosses, the first recorded brand in the New World. Another conquistador named Coronado led a great cavalcade north from Mexico to conquer the mythical cities in the deserts across the Rio Grande (or the Rio Bravo, as the Spaniards called it). Overburdened with slow-moving cattle, Coronado abandoned several hundred in northwestern Mexico. Only a generation later, explorers found thousands of cattle running wild in a country ideally suited for their breed. Ranchers quickly moved in and tried to make the wild cattle their own by planting a brand on their flanks. To brand the savage beasts, however, they had to catch them first, a hopeless job for a man on foot.
Spanish aristocrats had been so proud of their horsemanship that the very word for "gentleman" -. caballero - meant horseman and implied noble birth. To keep Indian herdsmen working with domesticated flocks as slaves, they had been forbidden the noble's privilege of riding horses. Working the wild herds was a different matter, however, and the caballero was forced to mount his herdsmen. But he did not deign to call his herdsman a caballero just because he rode a horse. He called him a vaquero, or cowman. It is just a short step of translation from cowman to cowboy. In the far West, especially in the cattle country of California, English speakers did not bother to translate the word but deformed it into "buckaroo."
Everything about the American cowboy originated with the Mexican vaquero. Even the English words for most of the cowboy's equipment come from the vaquero - the sombrero, meaning a shade-maker; the lariat from the Mexican la reata, meaning the rope; chaps from chaparajos or chaparreras, probably having something to do with a dialect word for dense brush. If the cowboy got into trouble in town, he wound up in the calaboose from calabozo, meaning jail. The wild mustang was called in Spanish a musteno, meaning a runaway or stray. The supply of spare horses on a trail drive was a remuda, from the Spanish word for exchange or remount. The practice of branding, the roundup, roping - all the features of life that set the cowboy apart from the herdsmen of any other region - were Mexican in origin and Andalusian before that.
Mexican vaqueros and their cattle entered what is now the American West by two routes - across the Rio Grande into Texas and by sea into California. The California vaquero, the true buckaroo, had a more flamboyant style of dress and horsemanship than the Texan, but his influence stayed on the far side of the Rocky Mountains. The Texas vaquero put his stamp on the Texas cowboy and from there the vaquero style spread across the vast Great Plains and into the northern ranges, even across the border into the Canadian prairie provinces.
The first Texans were farmers. What herding they did in the early nineteenth century was in the eastern style. Gradually newcomers saw a chance for quick profits in the huge herds of wild cattle roaming the grassy plains beyond the farmlands. They found the horses they needed among the mustangs running wild, the same reservoir of horseflesh the Plains Indians drew on for their war ponies and buffalo-hunting mounts. They found the manner of working wild cattle among the Mexican horsemen. A few immigrants, like Captain Richard King, made immense fortunes and acquired princely expanses of rangeland in those early days of rounding up wild cattle and horses.
The Civil War broke up the trade in beef, however, as the Union forces drew their strangling blockade tighter around the South. Even a cattle baron as powerful as Richard King turned to cotton trading for the duration of the war. Freed of the drainage to the slaughterhouse, the wild-running herds increased prodigiously. Confederate veterans returning to Texas after the war found the plains swarming with ownerless cattle, just as railroads pushing westward across the Mississippi as far as Kansas were opening the beef-hungry northern market.
Desperate for work, hundreds of war-weary veterans grabbed at the chance to round up the wild longhorns on open range, proclaim ownership by branding them, and drive them across 1,200 miles of prairie through hostile Indian country to the railhead at Abilene, Kansas. The work was grindingly hard, the pay poor, the route dangerous, but there was never any lack of volunteers. For a little more than a decade, from 1867 to 1880, hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle went north, to be loaded into cattlecars for the slaughterhouses of Kansas City and Chicago, or to feed newcomers to the Plains as the native buffalo disappeared.
Beginning about 1875, Texans drove longhorns northward to Dodge City, Kansas, to restock the Great Plains, filling the vacuum left by the vanishing buffalo. Many Texans stayed in the North, forming the nucleus of the cowboy work force that handled cattle in the herds pouring into Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Oregon. There, the Texan longhorns ran into a stream of shorthorn cattle driven overland from the Pacific coast. Although admirably fitted to range life because of their ruggedness, longhorns were poor beef animals compared to the improved shorthorn breeds. Cattlemen of the North kept their longhorn cows, but replaced the bulls with shorthorns and were delighted to discover that cross-bred calves dressed out as superior beef like a shorthorn and stood up to hard range conditions like a longhorn.
Those Texas cattle and Texas cowboys came north by many trails. The most famous was certainly the Chisholm Trail from San Antonio to Abilene by way of Fort Worth, Texas, across Oklahoma, and through Wichita and Newton, Kansas. Oddly, the Jesse Chisholm who gave his name to the trail never drove a longhorn in his life. He was a half-breed Cherokee who drove a peddler's wagon bringing trade goods to the Indians. His oxen had plodded down a trail that perfectly suited the drivers of longhorn cattle and somehow his name stuck to it.
Romantics lament the end of the great days of cowboying, marking the decline about the time of the last trail drives late in the nineteenth century. Ridiculous. Cattle do not round up and market themselves. The cowboy was and is very much part of the American West, and as long as grass grows on the vast plains and Americans love a juicy beefsteak; there are going to be cowboys to move those fine animals from the grasslands to the cattle cars. And no pickup truck or helicopter has yet been invented that can haze a cow and her calf out of a tangle of mesquite and into a corral as swiftly as a cowboy in his sombrero and chaps on a hard-muscled quarter horse, descendant of those Andalusian ponies that ran away from their Spanish owners four centuries ago.
To this day the cowboy wears a uniform to show he takes pride in his way of life. Not everybody who affects a broad-brimmed hat and high-heeled boots is a cowboy, of course, but it is a safe bet that every cowboy wears a western-style hat and cowboy boots. In fact, a cowboy rarely takes off his hat. A cowboy's hat had to be of best quality to stand up under hard usage, and it had many uses in addition to covering his head.
Often called sombrero, from the Spanish, it was variously known as "hair-case," "conk- cover," "lid" or "war bonnet." A certain Philadelphia hat-maker, because of the quality and durability of his product, corralled the cow country hat trade to such an extent that headpieces on the range became universally known as "Stetsons" or "John B's."
Different styles of hat were worn in various sections of the country. On the Mexican border the true sombrero - steeple-crowned, saucer-brimmed, with a shaggy plush surface - was often seen, though some riders along the border wore the huge straw hats associated with Mexican peons. Generally in the Southwest wide brims were needed for shade. In the Northwest a higher crown and narrower brim served better. Texas brush riders wore a style all their own. A wise puncher could tell the state or territory from which a man hailed by the size and shape of his hat.
Most cowhands creased the crown of their hats to conform with local custom, but they might leave it untouched or flatten it on top. A crown with four creases on each side was said to keep the head cooler in hot country; in rainy weather a front crease made a better watershed.
The color of a man's hat was a matter of personal choice, though dove-gray and light brown were the favorites. Most riders decorated theirs with a band, as both ornament and a means of adjusting the fit to their heads. This band might be a leather strap decorated with silver conchas, a hand-woven horsehair band, a string of Indian beads or a rattlesnake skin. Buckskin thongs dangling from the underside of a hat were called "bonnet strings," perhaps a corruption of the Spanish barbiquejo. They were run through a bead or ring under the rider's chin and anchored the hat during a fast ride or windstorm.
When riding a bucking horse the cowboy used his hat as a wire walker uses a balancing pole. When he was on foot in a branding pen, if some old mother cow came charging in to rescue her offspring from the sizzling iron, a big hat came in handy to throw in the old girl's face, gaining time to straddle a fence.
The wide brim shaded a rider's eyes from the burning sun; in rainy weather it served as an umbrella; bent into a trough, it made a drinking cup; pulled down and tied over the ears, it gave protection from frostbite. It fanned campfires into life and was even used as a pail to carry water and douse the embers. A rustler used his hat to "wave round" an approaching puncher, signaling that a detour was advisable if the intruder wished to stay healthy. Grass fires have been beaten out by big-brimmed hats. The trail boss signaled with his hat, thus avoiding long rides to talk personally with his men.
By dint of long use, hats became sweat-stained, disreputable in appearance, were kneaded into diverse shapes, but, like wine, their vintage improved with age, and their beauty, in the owner's eye, never faded. The reasons for wearing the cowboy hat are good reasons, but almost certainly not the real reason. The real reason is to proudly advertise to the world that the wearer is a cowboy.
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