In 1519, shortly after the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they began to build ranches to raise cattle and other livestock. Horses were imported from Spain and put to work on the ranches.
Mexico’s native cowboys, called vaqueros, were hired by ranchers to tend to the livestock. They were known for their superior roping, riding, and herding skills.
By the early 1700s, ranching came to present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and as far south as Argentina. Livestock practices were introduced in the missions as far west as California.
During the early 1800s, many English-speaking settlers migrated to the West and adopted aspects of the vaquero culture, including their clothing style and cattle-driving methods.
Cowboys came from diverse backgrounds and included African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and settlers from the eastern United States and Europe.
Manifest Destiny and American Cowboys
In the mid-1800s, the United States built railroads that reached farther west, and cowboys played a central part in the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.” Cowboys rounded up livestock that were transported by rail around the country for sale.
Open Range vs. Barbed Wire
By the time the Civil War ended, the Union Army had used up the supply of beef in the North, increasing the demand for beef. In 1866, millions of heads of longhorn cattle were driven toward railroad depots.
Ranching continued to be widespread through the late 1800s. White settlers were permitted to claim public lands on the Great Plains as “open range” to raise purchased cattle.
But by the 1890s, most of the land became privatized after disagreements over land ownership were settled. The use of barbed wire became widespread.
Cowboys were mostly young men who needed cash. In addition to herding cattle, they also cared for horses, repaired fences and buildings, worked cattle drives, and helped establish frontier towns.
Cowboys wore large hats with wide brims to protect them from the sun, boots to help them ride horses, and bandanas to guard them from dust. Some wore chaps on the outsides of their trousers to protect their legs from sharp cactus needles and rocky terrain.
Some cowboys tested their skills against one another by performing in rodeos—competitions that were based on the daily tasks of a cowboy. Rodeo activities included bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback bronco riding, and barrel racing.
Over the years, the number of working cowboys has declined, but the cowboy lifestyle and culture are still found in areas of the United States. Cowboys continue to help run large ranches.
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