The word “cowboy” did not exist in the English language until the traildriving period of the 1870s and 1880s. Before that time, mounted men who handled livestock were known as “drovers” or “herders.” When the word first appeared, probably in the railroad terminal cities in Kansas and Nebraska, it was written as “cow-boy.” Later, and for unknown reasons, the hyphen was dropped.
Today, the core meaning of “cowboyness” remains intact, but it has acquired other meanings as well, as our culture has spawned a host of identities that have attached themselves to the original cowboy. Hollywood movies, tv series, rodeo, team roping, cutting horse competitions, and country-western music have all tapped into the mythology of the cowboy.
If you have no contact with the cattle industry, you might suppose that a cowboy is someone who wears a certain type of hat and boots. Cowboy hat + cowboy boots = cowboy. But the closer you get to ranch country, the less truth there is in that formula. To quote a line from a country-western song, “Don’t call him a cowboy until you’ve seen him ride.”
So who or what is a cowboy? From the very beginning, cowboys had a strong connection to cattle, horses, and a set of skills. The cowboy was a workingman, and the medium of his work was the livestock business, principally cattle. And although writers have been mourning the passing of the cowboy for a century or more, he’s still around.
Over the past forty years, I have worked with hundreds of cowboys. Each was a unique individual, but also a member of the “tribe,” as the cowboy profession is sometimes called. Let’s see if we can work up a quick sketch of a typical cowboy.
When he was young, something about the cowboy captured his imagination. It might have been a relative, a local character, a movie, a song, or a poem; something he read in a book or something he saw at a rodeo. His move into cowboying was not a sudden decision. It was the subject of daydreams long before it became a reality.
While most of the kids his age were inclined towards a life that was safe and easy, this fellow was having fantasies about adventure: big country, wild country, a place where roads shrank to narrow trails and then ended. He was fascinated by horses, not cars, and silence was a friend, not something to be feared.
He didn’t want to be safe or comfortable. He was drawn to things that others feared, things that could hurt him: broncs, wild cattle, blizzards; extremes of heat and cold; hard work and solitude. He gave no thought to the distant future, to retirement or financial security. He chose to live in the golden present, day by day, season by season, roundup by roundup.
He gave little thought to money. If money could buy him a decent pickup, a good saddle, a nice pair of spurs, a new headstall, an honest horse, or a pair of handmade boots, then money was good. Beyond that, it was a nuisance. It bought things he didn’t need and brought problems he didn’t want.
He was a young man whose fuel was pride: pride in his horsemanship, his tools, his costume; pride in the soft feel of a well oiled set of reins; pride in his adherence to a simple code of conduct; pride in his physical power and his ability to endure hardship.
He craved the approval of older men, those with strong hands and sweated hats, whose names were whispered at roundups. When they mounted a horse and took down a rope, the eyes of every young man went to them.
In town, they were just hobbled old men in shabby clothes. In ranch country, they were legends and heroes. A nod or a lingering gaze from one of them was worth more than a paycheck. They had lived well and right, and they had stories.
Young cowboys were drawn to their stories: the droll wit, the sly turns of a phrase, the quiet delivery, the masterpieces of understatement. Their words were chosen with care, rationed and grudgingly used, as though too many words might frighten away the spirit of the tale.
When this young fellow closed his eyes at night, he dreamed of being a cowboy. He wanted to have stories to tell.