The Cowboy: America’s Wild West History
By Barbara Pyles
The American cowboy heyday began after the Civil War. There was a great demand for beef in the north and east, but most of the cow population was in Texas and in areas west. Someone had to drive the beef to where the money was!
A cowboy was typically a plain-spoken, hard-working man, who knew how to ride and rope. Although hired by ranchers to tend the herds, the cowboy’s main job was to drive cattle to various destinations. That was a rough calling; lonely and monotonous. Imagine sitting in a saddle eighteen hours a day, pushing four-legged creatures over 3,000 miles of dusty and dangerous trails to the beef market.
“Ho cattle!” The cowboys headed their charges toward Dodge City, the shipping center of the southwest, and the wildest town on the American frontier.
Horses were an important part of the cowpuncher’s life. On cattle drives, a cowboy would use up to seven horses daily. Good saddles were important as well, since the cowboys spent most of the day in them. A cowboy also needed his gun. Guns were used for shooting food, stampedes, and an occasional rustler.
The trail boss held major responsibility. He was in charge of the cowboys and cattle, as well as directing the herd. Each day, he rode miles ahead looking for a desirable camp and watering hole. He arranged the sale of the cattle at the end of the trail.
The most experienced cowboys were the point men who guided the herd according to the trail boss’ directions. Then came the swing riders, one riding each side of the herd where the cattle would begin to fan out. Next came the flank riders; one on each side. New at the job and wearing bandannas over their mouths, rode the drag riders. All day long they choked on the herds’ dust. The wrangler, often just a boy, took care of the horses, riding equipment, and helped the cook.
No matter the job, a cowboy would travel in sweltering heat, howling sandstorms, snow, and across swollen rivers at a pace of about 10 miles a day. Stampedes started easily. Weather and almost any excuse, could send the high-strung bovines on a destructive path. Many times a cowboy was lucky to get out alive!
At the end of the drive after the cattle were penned in the buyer’s lot, the boys headed for the saloon and a good time.
By the mid 1890’s, the legendary cowboy era ended. Cattlemen had settled on ranches near railroads. Many cowboys worked on those ranches, or bought small farms themselves; others joined peace-keeping groups, and some just drifted.
The cowboy became an American folk hero, leaving an indelible mark on American history.