These hard workers guarded cattle and sheep, sometimes horses on the Great Plains of the United States. The work was arduous and the pay little. Cowboys originated in the Spanish ranches on territory originally conquered by the Spanish, especially Mexico. Working on horseback with unpredictable cattle taught them extraordinary skills with horse, lariat (or lassoo) and the branding iron.
Their clothes, so often seen in films, were stout canvass trousers (the origin of jeans) with leather chaps, thick, warm woollen shirts open at the neck, where they wore the bandanna, useful in dust storms, as well as for avoiding bad smells or as a bandage.
They wore high-heel boots, sometimes up to the knee, because of spending half their life in the saddle and stirrups. They wore guns at first because of the murderous rattlesnakes and other life-threateners in the desert. Later, especially when pistols became repeating revolvers, they were used for self-defence against the American Indian whose tribes objected to their presence, and against each other; possibly when hopelessly drunk – a customary condition when the long day’s work was over.
Their evening needs were supplied by the saloons, which usually employed dancing girls who did more than dance. The West taught them to be tough, silent, quick on the draw and independent. Most of the cowboy’s life was boring and unpleasant. Many cowboys took to a life of crime because of an urgent need for excitement and gold. William Bonney (Billy the Kid, left) and Jesse James both fought in the Lincoln County Wars. James Hickock (Wild Bill) existed, a terrific marksman with the Winchester repeating rifle and the Colt .45, a hand gun of enormous power and little accuracy. Some cowboys became gamblers, with hidden Derringers .22 up their sleeves, accompanied by cards. The Earp brothers existed, as did the dentist Doc Holliday, and there was indeed a Gunfight at the OK Corral. Both Butch Cassidy and Sundance existed, and were killed fighting in Bolivia. Billy the Kid killed his first man when he was twelve, and was shot by lawman Pat Garrett at barely twenty years old.
Bat Masterson existed too. All of these spent some of their usually brief lives working as cowboys. The Kid worked for an English rancher whose murder enflamed the boy and set him on a life of crime.
In the winter and spring the cowboy worked the cattle, horses etc. on the open range (territory supposedly owned by nobody, except or course the Native American tribes which managed still to be there, and not in large concentration camps called ‘reservations’. ‘Long drives’ two months long started in the summer of 1866.
These were also called ‘cattle trails’. The cowboys worked in a permanent haze of dust, driving the beasts towards the ‘railheads’ where they were bought at auction by representatives of the meat packing industry. Some ranchers became very rich, though not all. The movie figure of the wicked rancher obtaining more land by foul means is perfectly true.
Cowboys could easily (and in great discomfort) spend eighteen hours in the saddle, were frequently in great danger from wild animals, rustlers (cattle stealers), bandits and of course the traditional enemy – the Apache, the Cheyenne, the Sieux etc. He could be killed in a buffalo stampede, or indeed by his own charges, cattle maddened by the heat, dust and flies.
Townships grew along the trails, such as Dodge City. They were full of every kind of danger, and lawmen who had been cowboys themselves ran town discipline with their guns. Most of the prostitutes were poxed, the drinks watered (by order of the sheriff), the mattresses full of fleas. Most cowboys preferred to sleep with their most trusted friend – their horse, without which they could not work.
The ‘great days’ for the cowboy were between 1866 and 1890. By the end of this period there was no need to drive cattle to the railheads, for the railroads had moved into the heart of the Great Plains and were there for everybody to use (except the Native American who was often forced to travel outside the carriage, holding on hard). By 1895 most of the grasslands had been fenced with barbed wire (invented in 1874). As the ‘round-up’ and the ‘long drive’ had ended, the cowboy became nothing more than a farm hand. Most cowboys left the Plains and headed west to California, or east to Chicago and New York, looking for another kind of work. Many found work which needed their skill with guns. The epoch of the gangsters was just beginning.