The American Cowboy

Pundits (Time Magazine, July 10, 2006) attempting to criticize politicians using an analogy of “The American Cowboy” might find their argument counter productive.  A few “cowboys” who have served as US Presidents include Teddy Roosevelt (Rough Riders), Dwight Eisenhower (a few years in the US Horse Cavalry), and Ronald Reagan (owned a ranch and starred in many cowboy films).

The cowboys whom I have studied and admired in our western history were straight shooters in more ways than one.  Their word was their bond.  Because working conditions could be difficult, life depended upon individual professional expertise.  Cowboys had to be self contained with all basic equipment (foul weather gear, firearms and ammunition, lariat, some food, and shelter) all carried on their horse.  Because their horse was critical to survival, the cowboy’s horse received special care (grooming, feed and water, and any medical care) before the cowboy ate or slept. Stranded even a dozen miles from companions without a horse might be a death sentence.  Injured just a few miles away without a horse could be equally as deadly.

Much of the American Cowboy skills were handed down from the Mexican Vaquero who worked on the large Spanish land grants that covered the Southwest.  Check out the Spanish words adopted by the American cowboys: lariat, rodeo, corral, etc…. In fact, at the peak of the cattle drives in 1870’s about a sixth of the cowboys were Mexican Vaquero’s.

Cowboys often worked from sun up to sun down often facing a variety of problems as they travel with a heard of cattle.  There could be hostel Indians, cattle rustlers, and the geographic challenges of crossing rivers and difficult terrain. Many cowboys were injured and had to recuperate in the next town. Economists would say the job had a high risk to reward ratio.  But economist’s definition of reward is money.  The Cowboy’s definition of reward was that independence or doing the work he loved outdoors in the panorama of the West.

Cowboys were very independent and did not ask for government handouts.  They had to wait for most of their pay until the multi month “project” was completed. When they were paid, many demonstrated the pent up frustrations of months of isolation, few adult beverages, and a lack of female companionship.   Many towns near the end of the trail (where the cattle would be loaded on railroad trains) sometimes instituted special rules for the arrival of any cowboys.

However, occasionally cowboys had to deal with thieves and killers. While I am not advocating vigilante justice, for much of the 1800’s there were often no courts for hundreds of miles.  Cowboys did what the American military has done on the battlefield since the days of the Revolutionary War.  They would convene a version of a “Tribunal”.

In my opinion, the best portrayal of the The American Cowboy was the television series from the 1950’s and 60’s – Rawhide with Clint Eastwood starring as Rowdy Yates.  While there is plenty of Hollywood, the episodes depict the Old West conditions and challenges.

In addition, some of the best history of the West is recorded in the historical fiction by Louis L’Amour. He would research each story location with maps and local history. While his characters were fiction, his portrayal of the West was well documented.   Mr. L’Amour was born in my home town of Jamestown N. Dakota.  He would often be the last to leave the Jamestown Library. After leaving N. Dakota in 1924 at the age of 16, he became a self-educated cowboy, prize fighter, miner, shipmate, and soldier in WW II. He managed to write over 100 books of which over 40 are now movies. Total book sales as of 2006 are 300 million in about 20 languages… Continuing to spread the Legends of West worldwide………….