The cowboy is an iconic symbol of the American West. In popular culture, cowboys are glamourous, mysterious and daringly heroic figures. However, the reality of being a cowboy in the 1880s was very different. Their roles required gruelling physicality, and it was often a lonely life that paid relatively little.
Cowboys herded cattle, cared for horses, made repairs to fences and buildings, worked cattle drives and sometimes lived in frontier towns. They were not always welcome as they travelled, as they had reputations of being drunk, disorderly and even violent.
In addition, the work of cowboys in states west of the Mississippi River greatly impacted the beef industry in America in the 1880s.
The first cowboys were Spanish vaqueros
The history of cowboys began long before the 19th century, as Spanish vaqueros were ranching in what is now Texas before US settlers arrived. The Spanish introduced cattle to Mexico shortly after their arrival in the Americas, building ranches for cattle and other livestock.
By 1519, Spanish ranchers had hired indigenous cowboys, called ‘vaqueros’, to tend the cattle. They were known for their roping, riding and herding skills, which American cowboys then adopted in the 19th century.
The rise of the American cowboy came after the American Civil War
During the American Civil War, many ranchers in Texas went off to fight for the Confederate cause. When they arrived back to their land, they found their cows had bred excessively, and there were now an estimated 5 million cattle in Texas.
Luckily, the demand for beef was increasing in the north, which had effectively used up its supply in the war, so ranchers hired cowboys to help maintain the herds and bring the cattle north. These cowboys adopted the vaquero dress and lifestyle, using their methods for cattle-driving.
Further, as more railroads were built throughout the mid-19th century, the west became more accessible and there were increased areas for settlement, agriculture and economic development in the United States. African Americans, Chinese railroad workers and white settlers all travelled to ranch, farm and mine in the new states.
By the 1870s, Bison were hunted almost to extinction so that lands could be ploughed to grow various crops. Cattle became an important industry at this time, especially in Texas. The new railways also meant that southern farmers could meet the demand in the north, eventually sending herds by train.
Cowboy dress had many functions
The way cowboys dressed helped them manage in harsh working conditions. Most infamously, they wore boots that had pointed toes – cowboy boots – to easily slip in and out of stirrups. This was critical, as it was common to fall off a horse, which could be life-threatening, since a delay in getting out of the stirrups could lead to being dragged by the horse.
There were multiple functions of the cowboy hat; the brim protected them from the sun, the high crown allowed it to be a cup for water, and, when folded over it could even be used as a pillow. Cowboys would also often wear bandanas to protect from dust kicked up by cattle. Lastly, chaps worn by many cowboys helped protect them from sharp bushes, cacti and other plants that they encountered in the plains and on cattle drives.
There were black and Native American cowboys
During the Civil War, white ranchers left to fight in the war, leaving enslaved people to maintain the land and herds. During this time, they learned invaluable skills that would aid them as they transitioned to ranching as paid work after emancipation. It is estimated that 1 in 4 cowboys was black, yet their contributions have been widely overlooked by history, unlike those of their white counterparts.
Though black cowboys still faced discrimination and racism in the towns they passed through on cattle drives, it seems they found more respect amongst their fellow cowboys. Mexican and Native American cowboys also made for a diverse group of workers, though white cowboys make up the bulk of folklore and popular culture.
The roundup was an important duty for cowboys
Each spring and fall, the cowboys conducted a roundup. During these events, cowboys brought in cattle from the open plains, where they roamed freely for much of the year, to be counted by the various ranches. To keep track of the cattle belonging to each ranch, cows would also be branded during this time. The livestock would then be returned to the plains until the next roundup.
Cowboys moved large herds of livestock in cattle drives
Cattle drives were methods for moving large herds to market, often across long distances. Cattle driving became a steady occupation in the 1830s. After the war, when there were more longhorns in the south, the demand for cattle drivers increased. Most cattle drives originated in Texas and would commonly reach as far as markets in Missouri or Kansas.
Jesse Chisholm established the Chisholm trail in 1865, running cattle 600 miles from San Antonio, Texas to Abilene, Kansas. It proved a hazardous trail, with rivers to cross and potential run-ins with farmers and Native Americans protecting their land; however, there were high prices to be fetched for the beef at the end of the journey.
2,000 cattle were usually run by one trail boss and a dozen cowhands. Longhorns proved to be hardy cattle for these drives, as they required less water than other species. More routes such as the Chisholm trail were established in the decades that followed.
The cowboy era effectively ended by the turn of the century
As more people settled west of the Mississippi River, landscape and technology changes lessened the demand for cowboys. Farmers started using newly invented barbed wire fencing which made cattle drives more difficult since the once open plains became increasingly privatized.
Cattle sometimes developed what was called Texas fever, a disease that caused ranchers in other states to prohibit the movement of Texas cows across state lines. As more railroad tracks were laid, there was less need for drives, as the cattle could be shipped via freight car.
Though smaller cattle drives would continue into the 1900s, many cowboys began working for private ranch owners giving up their open trail lifestyle. Further, a particularly brutal winter in 1886-1887 killed off many cattle, and many historians mark it as the beginning of the end of the cowboy era.