The Ways of the Cowboy

For a dollar a day and room and board, a young man worked long hours to care for another man’s cattle.

A calf bought for $5 in Southern Texas might sell for $60 in Chicago. The problem was getting the cattle to market. In 1867, Joseph McCoy tracked a path known as the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene, Kansas, where the cattle would be sold. The Texas cowboys drove the cattle the entire distance of 1500 miles. Along the way, the cattle enjoyed all the grass they wanted, at no cost to the ranchers.

Myth vs. Reality

Americans did not invent cattle raising. The Texans learned this tradition from the vaquero, a Mexican cowboy.

The typical cowboy wore a hat with a wide brim as protection from the strong sunlight. Cattle kicked up clouds of dust on the drive, so the cowboy wore a bandanna to protect his face. Chaps, or leggings, and high boots gave protection from briars and cactus needles.

The typical cowboy was not skilled with a gun, but he was skilled with the lariat (ropes). About a quarter of all cowboys were African Americans, and even more were at least partially Mexican. Many cowboys were small men to reduce strain on the horses.

The lone cowboy is an American myth. Cattle were always driven by a group of drovers. The cattle were branded so the owner could distinguish his steer from the others. Several times per drive, cowboys conducted a roundup where the cattle would be sorted and counted again.

Work was very difficult. The workdays lasted fifteen hours, and the cowboy spent most of it in the saddle. Occasionally, they were shot at by hostile Indians or farmers. Cattle rustlers sometimes stole steers.

One of the greatest fears was the stampede, which could result in lost or dead cattle or cowboys. One method of containing a stampede was to get the cattle to run in a circle, to tire them out.

Twilight of the Cowboy

This period in history was short. By the early 1870s, rail lines reached Texas so the cattle could be shipped directly to the slaughterhouses. Ranchers then began to allow cattle to graze on the open range near railheads. But even this did not last, because farmers started to use barbed wire to keep the unwanted cattle off their land. Overproduction caused prices to fall. The winter of 1886-87 was bad, and cattle died by the thousands due to cold temperatures.

The era of the open range was over.

Source: The Ways of the Cowboy
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