The Legend of the Cowboy

Written by on April 30, 2016 in Southwest Characters - Comments Off on The Legend of the Cowboy

No symbol or legend in the American Southwest is as powerful as that of the cowboy. The cowboy is the quintessential American hero; the embodiment of rugged individualism and independence. Their lonely songs drifted across the range at night to clam the herds. Their faces, weathered by sun and wind, wrinkled and gap-toothed, grin at us from the pages of history. Their skill — on horseback, with a lariat, and with a gun — is legendary. Their deeds — both heroic and evil — fill the Old West with tall tales that pass from one generation to the next. Even today, cowboys are a necessary part of ranching in the West. These colorful characters of the past, along with their equally colorful modern-day counterparts, help the romantic legends of the cowboy live on.


The name cowboy — for the mounted herdsmen of cattle — is most probably a direct translation of the Spanish word vaquero from vaca meaning cow. However, several historian note that the word cowboy was previously used in Ireland and although there may be some connection with that source, it is more likely that the term derived from vaquero.

It was the Spanish who first invented the vaquero. When the Spanish Empire came to the new world, they had to develop a means of controlling cattle across vast territory. The plentiful pastures of Europe were almost non-existent in the Southwest and in Mexico. The small fenced pastures the Spanish were used to wouldn’t work in a territory where a single cow needs many acres of grazing land to sustain it. In addition, cattle were too fast for herders on foot to keep up with on the open range. The need to cover distances greater than a person on foot could manage gave rise to the development of the horseback-mounted vaquero.

The pioneers who came to settle the American Southwest, particularly Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, did not even have a word for this large-scale stock raising. They had to adopt the Spanish word rancho which originally meant farm. As settlers poured into the West, they staked huge parcels of land and took up ranching. Their spreads covered vast distances and a rancher might employ as few as two up to 500 cowboys, depending on the size of the herds. These ranchers produced more than just tasty beef steaks. The tallow from animal fat was used to make candles and the hides could be used to make leather.

Names for a cowboy in American English now include buckaroo, cowpoke, cowhand, and cowpuncher. Cowboy is the most common term for mounted herders today, particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. However, the term “Buckaroo” became popular in the Great Basin and California, and you can find “cowpunchers” and “cowpokes” mostly in Texas and the surrounding states.

The Cattle Drive

All of the ranchers in the West faced a common problem — how to get their cattle to market, particularly since most of the meat was for consumption by people in the Eastern U.S. Thus, the cattle drive was born. The Chisholm Trail is probably the most famous of these cattle drive routes, with hundreds of feeder routes joining the trial along the way. It started on the Rio Grande River in Texas and ended in Kansas at the cities with railheads (Abilene, Kansas City, Caldwell and Ellsworth). In the five years from 1867 to 1872, more than three million head of cattle were driven up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene.

The Chisholm Trail was only one of hundreds of cattle drives that came from all over the West. A cattle drive could take up to two months to move the herds from grazing land to market. Cowboys faced numerous dangers along the way — swift river crossings, unpredictable weather, rough terrain like canyons, badlands and mountains, attack by wild animals, as well as the contrariness of the half-wild longhorn cattle themselves, which were prone to stampede with little or no provocation. Two other dangers awaited the cowboy. In the early days, Native American tribes, angry at losing their lands to white men, frequently ambushed drives if they failed to pay 10 cents a head for the right to cross Indian territory, or in some cases, with no provocation at all. The final danger also came from fellow humans in the form of rustlers, who would happily relieve a cowboy of his herd and leave him lying where he fell.

Cowboy Songs

Riding the range and caring for the herd, often for months with no other company than their own thoughts, was a lonely business. After a day of hard labor, cowboys often gathered around the campfire and so began their version of happy hour. They spent the time yarning, reciting poetry, singing, joking and laughing.

Cowboys and poetry don’t seem to go hand in hand do they? However, the lure of the West brought a lot of educated Englishmen and other European immigrants, who, for one reason or another gravitated to ranches and cattle camps. Quite a few of these highly educated men recited and wrote poetry.

They also adapted the songs of their homeland to fit their own circumstances. They took melodies from England, Spain and Ireland to name a few, as well as the music of Negro Spirituals and Christian hymns, and adapted them or added new wording that sang about the cowboy lifestyle with its trials and tribulations. Many of these songs were never written down, but have passed down through oral traditions, from one campfire to another. You may have heard at least one of them —The Cowboy Lament, more commonly known as The Streets of Laredo.

First Stanza, The Cowboy Lament or The Streets of Laredo

As I walked out in the Streets of Laredo
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a young cowboy, all wrapped in white linen
wrapped up in white linen and cold as the clay.

Cowboy Hats

There are a couple of versions of how the cowboy hat was born. Some attribute the invention of the cowboy hats to John B. Stetson. John had ventured westward looking for a drier climate in hopes of curing his health problems. Legend says that during a hunting trip, Stetson was showing some friends he could make cloth from fur without weaving. He took that cloth and fashion a hat with a huge brim to protect him from the elements.

A more likely origin for the cowboy hat comes from the Spanish vaqueros who wore a hat called a sombrero. With a tall crown to allow air circulation and a wide brim to protect the neck and shoulders from sun, the vaqueros carried their own sunshade with them. American settlers most likely adopted the sombrero and remodeled it into the cowboy hat that is still worn today.

Whichever is the true origin, Stetson made the cowboy hat famous. The story goes that as a joke for the remainder of the hunting trip, Stetson wore the hat. As it turned out, the joke was on him. The hat worked so well that when he returned home to Philadelphia, he decided to manufacture them. In 1865, he began to produce the cowboy hats in great numbers, and before long, the original Stetson hat that sold for five dollars was known as the cowboy hat. Stetson is still one of the most popular cowboy hats sold today!

Back in the Saddle

Even though the cowboy lifestyle was harsh, these independent men loved their freedom. They were never happier than when they were in the saddle and driving the herds. As proof, the song Back in the Saddle Again captures the fierce independent spirit and call of the wild felt by the cowboys of the Old West.

I’m back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend,
Where the long horn cattle feed on the lonely jimson weed
I’m back in the saddle again.
Ridin’ the range once more, totin’ my old forty-four,
Where you sleep out every night and the only law is right,
Back in the saddle again.

Whoopi ti yi yo, rockin’ to a fro, back in the saddle again
Whoopi ti yi yea, I’ll go my own way
Back in the saddle again.

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