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A cowboy is a horseman skilled at handling cattle. The name and occupation has become synonymous with the American West, and is a major figure in American folklore and literature.

The cowboy first originated between 1820 and 1836, when settlers pushed westwards into modern day Texas and discovered the local Mexican and Spanish ranches. The newcomers absorbed the methods of the vaquero (Spanish for cowboy), who had mastered both the handling of cattle on horseback and the tools of the trade, such as horse, rope, saddle and branding iron.

They saw the commercial possibilities in the herds of ownerless horses and cattle that dotted the plains. When the Texans won their independence in 1836, they also took over the longhorn cattle, the mustangs and all the techniques acquired from the Mexicans.

In the era of open range grazing (1866-90) the cowboy became a national folklore figure. Prior to this he had been confined to south Texas; by the end of the American Civil War however, markets for cattle had increased in the booming industrial cities of the north. During this period some five million heads of cattle were driven north on the hoof from Texas. The long drive to railheads such as Dodge City in Kansas was one of the two main events in open range ranching; the other was the roundup, one in the spring and another in the fall. The job was adventurous, as well as dirty, difficult, and dangerous. The society was all male and traditionally rugged.

The romantic era of the cowboy was closed with the coming of the continental railway system. The cowboys – both real and mythical – became the subject of a vast quantity of literature and movies, a dominance continued deep into the 1970s.

Further Reading

Savage, William W., The cowboy hero: His Image in American History and Culture (Oklahoma, 1985)