If someone asked you to think about a symbol of the American West, what would you picture? Chances are good that it would be a cowboy, riding off on his horse towards a wide, open horizon. While the line between cowboy fact and fiction has become somewhat blurred, it is true that early cowboys were one of the main reasons that the American West developed as quickly as it did. Ranching was an economic staple, and in several states, cattle ranching remains a huge source of income for many ranches. What you may not know is that the cowboy was not an American creation. The original cowboys were known as vaqueros, and it wasn’t until Mexican ranchers began working the plains that they first appeared in Texas.
Ranching first began in Texas around 1820. Mexican cowboys, called vaqueros, were called up to help tend to the cattle, fix fences, and to make livestock deliveries. A few years later, in 1836, many Mexican ranchers were driven out by their Texan neighbors, and the leftover cattle were integrated into the Texas herds. When the Civil War began, cattle were left to wander freely across the plains while the ranchers and cowboys went to war. When they returned, the herds had grown large enough that, after rounding them up, the cowboys could begin driving the cattle towards the Northern United States, where the demand for beef promised a healthy sum upon delivery. Cattle would be driven in large herds up to northern states like Wyoming and Nebraska, where trains would take the herds out to more distant cities.
The first open range ranch was established in 1867 by John Iliff. Open range ranches were unfenced portions of land, which weren’t legally owned by anyone in particular. Anyone could feed or drive their cattle wherever they pleased. Ranching became so profitable that cattle barons (ranchers who had acquired a good deal of power through selective land ownership and large beef herds) became a dominant force in the American West, heavily influencing local politics. By the late 1800s, though, over-grazing of the plains and extreme weather led to a decline in the cattle population by about 50%. The invention of barbed wire in 1874 created a more practical solution for ranching, and smaller individual ranches began to replace the massive herds of the cattle barons.
- Early Ranching on the Northern Frontier
- Ranching in a Changing Land
- The Texas Ranching Frontier
- The Development of Cattle Ranching
- New Spain: Texas Ranching
- Evolution of an Early Texas Ranch (PDF)
- The Origins of Cowboy Culture
- The Cattle Barons’ Rise and Fall (PDF)
- Ranching and Farming (PDF)
- Ranching History at Point Reyes
- History of Cattle Ranching in Eastern Oklahoma (PDF)
- Old West Ranching in the Early Days
- A Cowboy in a Dodge City
- The American West
The term “vaquero” originally developed in Spain, where the practice of herding cattle on horses was refined into a trade. The term traveled with Spanish immigrants to Mexico, and it was the Mexican vaqueros who brought the idea of “cowboys” to Texas. Even the cattle were of Spanish origin, having been brought over from Spain in the 1500s. The task of a vaquero – or, later, the Americanized cowboy – was to herd and protect the cattle. Cattle would be branded with a specific design to help differentiate herds, and the earliest Texas vaqueros drove their herds to Louisiana to sell at the market. As longer trails began to develop, the role of the cowboy evolved from simple ranch assistant to a sort of traveling rancher and cattle guard. Bandits were a risk on the long trails, as were natural dangers like a lack of fresh water and predatory animals. The cowboys had to care for and protect a free-roaming herd of up to 3,000 cattle over a distance of a few thousand miles.
- Lead a Cattle Drive Online Game
- The Ways of the Cowboy
- Cowboys: Facts and Summary
- History of the Vaquero
- Vaqueros: The First Cowboys of the Open Range
- Crooners to Cowboys: The Singing Cowboys of Texas
- Facts for Now: The Cowboy
- Western Frontier Life in America
- The Texas Cowboy: Myth and Reality
- Cattle Drive: The Life of a Cowboy for Kids (PDF)
- The First Cowboys (PDF)
- Prospector News: The Open Range (PDF)
- The Cowboys Behind “Cowboy Songs”
- Texas Cowboy Bill Pickett
Cowboys still work ranches today, but thanks to the invention of the automobile and the development of highways, there is no longer a need for the long cattle drives that defined the industry of the 1800s. Today, the most common place to find cowboys is in cinema, literature, and American folk songs. It can be fun to imagine cowboys in large bucket hats (most actually wore bowler hats) and pure white riding chaps, but it’s important not to forget the early Texas vaqueros who built the American West. Without them, American folklore – and American history – would unquestionably have lost some of the richness that continues to saturate legends of the American West.
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