The Cowboy: An American West Icon

The word cowboy did not begin to come into wide usage until the 1870s. In the nineteenth century, George Parsons, a licensed attorney turned banker lived in Arizona Territory in Tombstone and kept a detailed diary of what it was like to live in the Old West. He described the cowboy in this fashion:

“[A cowboy is a] rustler at times, and a rustler is a synonym for desperado — bandit, outlaw, and horse thief.”[1]

cowboy - George W. Parsons

George W. Parsons. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Parsons and others may have had a negative impression of the cowboy, other people argued that such a reputation was undeserved and exaggerated. They claimed that such a negative impression was not based on reality but rather “taken from the lawless banditti of Texas.”[2] Therefore to differentiate the cowboy from outlaw, those who drove cattle for a living were called cowhands, drovers, or stockmen.

Cowboys portrayed in Western art. The Herd Quitter by C. M. Russell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Living in the Old West in the nineteenth century was tough. Scammers and conmen like Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith or “Canada Bill,” along with swindling women like “Big Bertha,” were prevalent. They operated on the American Frontier were lawmen were few and lawlessness often reigned. Shoot-outs between law men and outlaws or gunslingers were also common. However, as time passed people learned that the Western cowboy was not an outlaw or criminal but rather a hardworking man who deserved to be admired:

“The story of the West is a story of the time of heroes. Of all those who appear large upon the fading page of that day, none may claim great stature than the chief figure of the cattle range. Cowboy, cattle man, cow puncher, it matters not what name others have given him, he has remained ― himself. From the half-tropic to the half-arctic country he has ridden, his type, his costume, his characteristics practically unchanged, one of the most dominant and self-sufficient figures in this history of the land. He never dreamed he was hero, therefore perhaps he was one. He would scoff at monument or record, therefore perhaps he deserves them.”[3]

As journalists of the late 1800s were sometimes depicting the cowboy as a hero, they were also noticing that the cowboy’s brief, but lively career was nearing its end:

“[The cowboy’s] work is now so mixed up with the more prosaic duties of ordinary farm labor that he feels he is no longer a true knight of the riata. He knows that he is a ‘rider’ in about the same sense that a ‘hand’ on a North Atlantic steamer is a sailor. … [The cowboy] is passing away, or ‘going over the range,’ in his own picturesque metaphor. … The railroad, the boom, and the barb-wire fence have ‘done for’ the cowboy.”[4]

To honor this dying figure, many writers and newspaper men began to write about the heroic cowboy. The San Francisco Examiner was one paper who chose to publish a lengthy article on the cowboy in 1893. Their story was compiled from various newspaper articles published throughout the United States. The article the Examiner published described the rugged cowboy and gave details about his lifestyle in the following stories:

THE COWBOY AS HE IS – More Stern and Commonplace Reality Than Poetry in His Life.
Correspondence of the Richmond Dispatch

The life of “cowboy” of the great West is but little known. Somehow newspapers, and especially writers of dime novels, have thrown a sort of romance about the cowboy that makes his life seem charming; but there is no charm about it. As a rule there are no more hard-working, simple and unassuming men than the cowboys. They have been maligned and slandered as much as any other men, because all the depredations committed on the frontier are attributed to the cowboys. It is not uncommon for him when he enters a town, after spending weeks and perhaps months in the great solitude of the plains, to get a little more whiskey than is good for him and become a little frolicsome and restless. He has a careless way of handling a six-shooter that makes a tenderfoot the least bit nervous. But the cowboy drunk and the cowboy sober are two different persons. Drunk, he is like all other drunken men ― insane for what he does; sober, he is usually quiet and as genteel as he can be. Living a life of danger makes him fearless, and I do not know of a real cowboy who will not at any time risk his life for a friend. If he is treated cordially by strangers he returned the compliment, but woe to the unhappy tenderfoot who attempts to put on airs when the cowboy is aroused. He has been known to make the plug hat, or as the cowboy terms them, “the hard-knocker hat,” of a due the target for his six-shooter, and he seems to delight in expectorating tobacco juice on a pair of freshly blackened boots.

A Colorado Round up on the Cimarron in 1898. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In his wild Western life his home is in the saddle. He frequently passes weeks without seeing a house or having even a tent or shelter of any kind. Where does he sleep? you will ask. On the ground, his saddle for a pillow and his “slicker” his only covering. If it rains he usually sleeps on his pony, sitting upright. He has studied the habits of the cattle until he knows them. He has to take his turn when driving in for the round-up to ride the circuit or keep guard during the night. They guard by reliefs. The cattle are “bunched,” or got together, and the boys, save those on duty, sleep through the night. Those on duty must keep continually riding around the herd, for a young cow or steer will occasionally take it into its head to steal away. The darker the night the greater must be the vigilance.

A DISAPPOINTED TENDERFOOT – The Cowboys He Met Were Not Such as His Fancy Had Painted Them.
Correspondence of Harper’s Weekly

The first cowboys that I ever saw greatly disappointed me by their appearance. All that I have seen since that time had disappointed me equally. If I were to write a play in which there was a cowboy character I would dress him up in fringed leather breeches and a buckskin coat, a big drab Spanish hat as stiff as a board and as big as the top of  washtub, in dainty boots and beaded-worked gloves; his pistols should be of mother of pearl, and none but the best Cheyenne saddle should he sit on ― for such is the cowboy of the flash literature which has immortalized him; and if the true cowboy does not know enough to live up to his own china I would ignore the fact.

And yet these first cowboys I saw in Montana were very ordinary looking lot of young depot loungers, peculiar only because they wore big flat brimmed hats and because they had a long line of broncos fettered to a hitching rail nearby. I would have been immeasurably disappointed and disgusted had they not been redeemed by a story that was told concerning them as soon as our train pulled away from the station where they were loafing.

DUELS WITH LASSOS – The Approved Method of Settling Affairs of Honor Among Cowboys.
From the Kansas City Journal

“If the callow youths who have been hopping around Europe, and throwing the ‘society’ of two continents into spasms of expectancy over their attempts at dueling, would come out into New Mexico a while and study our code duello, they could then get all the satisfaction that their most bloodthirsty partisans could wish,” said Carl Brock, of Eddy. N.M. “I refer to the duel code of the cowboys. Whenever two ‘bull-punchers’ feel aggrieved one at the other, and fear that the law will attend to them if they resort to pistols or Winchesters to settle the disputed point of honor, they employ their lassos as fighting weapons.

“I have seen only two such duels, and I never want to see another. The combatants ride their ponies out on the smooth prairie, each accompany by a second, and with the lasso as their only weapon they go at it for business. Mounted as they are they circle round the prairie at a cautious distance from each other until one thinks he has his adversary at a slight disadvantage, when he throws his coiled rope to encircle his enemy’s neck. Sometimes it happens that both lassos are thrown at the same instant with equal effectiveness, and then, of course, the issue is settled by the ponies. But woe to the unlucky fellow who allows himself to be lassoed without also lassoing his adversary, for it means that he is to be jerked from his steed by the rope and dragged over the prairie at the top speed of his enemy’s horse until he is either choked to death, if it be his neck that is caught, or dies from bruises and broken bones if an arm or a leg be caught in the lasso. But for its frightful brutality the spectacle could be recommended to the lovers of a dueling as novel and thrilling one.”

cowboy lassooing

Lassooing. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

COWBOY HUMOR – Making an Offensive Conductor Dance to the Music of Revolvers.
Correspondence of Harper’s Weekly

The story was that this same band of plainsmen had long noticed a course of behavior on the part of a Northern Pacific train conductor, which they determined not to tolerate. The conductor did the worst thing, in a cowboy’s opinion, that any man could do ― he acted like a dude; he “put on a style.” He actually went so far as to swing himself off the cars before they stopped, and, with one arm extended and head offensively erect, would shout: “Dingleville! All out of Dingleville!” His whole manner was artificial, affected, and unbearable. This being notice ― as no one is quicker to notice the hollow trickery of an Eastern man more than cowboys are ― the boys decided to “take him down.” So one day they assembled on the station platform in a semicircular line, into the curve of which he must run as he leaped from the moving cars. The conductor did as he was expected to, the cowboys surrounded him, and he was bidden to dance.

“Dance, – you!” they shouted; “dance or we’ll shoot the toes off you!”

At the words each cowboy pulled his pistol and began shooting down into the platform planks, not exactly at the conductor’s feet, but so as to narrowly miss them. They blazed away and he danced until, after he was all but exhausted and they had no more shots to fire, they bade him go on with the train and never “slow up” at Dingleville until he could behave like a man.

TIMES THAT TRY HIS NERVE – Stormy Nights When the Cowboy’s Lot is Hardly a Happier One,
Cheyenne Letter to Chicago Tribune

In the windy, bleak nights when the rain falls in torrents or the snow, flying in clouds, seems to cut asunder all that comes before it, that cowboy has the greatest obstacles to overcome. These are the nights when a sudden stampede might destroy all the rounding-up work of weeks preceding. Mounted on his best bronco the cowboy rides out to his post on the outskirts of the gathered herd, miles away, perhaps, from the camp. As the wind whistles in hoarse cadence along the surface of the ground and through the sagebrush, his dull chant floats over to the uneasy herd. A few steers made restless by the cold start to wander away from the gathering place, and through the blackness of the night the cowboy sees their moving forms. Without ceasing the song he moves gently past them and they are turned back to the thousands they have attempted to leave. Once in a while a steer escapes, to return again at break of day, but the general stampede seldom happens.

But when a stampede does occur the cowboy’s nerve is tried to the utmost. “Milling” a stampede is one of the most dangerous operations that a cowboy has to endure. To mill the cattle is get them going in a circle and letting them run themselves down. A frightened herd of several thousand will run over a train or anything. The only way to stop them is for some bold fellow to mount a horse and ride around the herd, and by constant cuts of lariat or squirt get the leaders turned. He must follow close after the leaders and not mind those in the rear. They will follow. But it is certain death if he is unhorsed or his pony stumbles. The frightened herd would trample him to death in a moment. A cowboy once told me that he was trying to mill a stampede one very dark night. He was almost at the leaders when his horse stopped. He had raised his spurs to plunge them into his pony’s flanks when a flash of lightning showed him that he was on the verge of a precipice some 200 feet high. He said he went back to camp sick, and it was a week before he could take to the saddle.

THE CHISHOLM TRAIL – Bleaching Skulls Mark the Most Famous of Old Cattle Roads.
From Scribner’s Magazine

The most famous of the old cattle roads was the “Chisholm Trail.” It was named after John Chisholm, an eccentric frontier stockman, who was the first to drive over it. Chisholm lived at Paris, Tex., was a bachelor, and had many thousand head of cattle on the ranges in the southern part of the State.

From 200 to 400 yards wide, beaten into bare earth, it reached over hill and through valley for over 600 miles (including its southern extension), a chocolate band amid the green prairies, uniting the north and the south. As the marching hoofs wore it down and the wind blew and the waters washed the earth away, it became lower than the surrounding country and was flanked by little banks of sand, drifted there by the wind. Bleaching skulls and skeletons of weary brutes who had perished on the journey gleamed along its borders, and here and there was a low mount showing where some cowboy had literally “died with his boots on.” Occasionally a dilapidated wagon frame told of the break-down, and spotting the emerald reaches on either side were the barren, circle-like “bedding-grounds,” each a record that a great herd had there spent a night.

The weight of an empire passed over the trail, leaving its mark for decades to come. The traveler of to-day sees the wide, trough-like course, with ridges being washed down by the rains, and with fences and farms of the settlers and the more civilized red men intercepting its track, and forgets the wild and arduous life of which it was the exponent. It was a life now outgrown and which will never be possible.

HOW A HERD IS ROUNDED UP – It is Effected by Means of Long Days and Hard Riding.
From the Chicago Tribune

The general round-up of a district requires from sixty to one hundred cowboys and from 300 to 500 cow-ponies. Two or three big wagons, filled with bedding and cooking and camp utensils, accompany the round-up over mountains and across valley and bad lands.

The entire district is ridden over thoroughly by the cowboys. Gulchers, canyons, draws, sagebrush bottoms, cottonwood groves, bad lands, in fact every foot of the district, is explored and every head of stock driven to the daily camp of the round-up. Viewed from the hills fringing some vast valley a round up, with its circling cowboy riders, big herds of noisy cattle, bands of led horses for the riders and the wild Western landscape of far-stretching plain and distant mountain, combine to make a thrilling and picturesque scene.

Fifty or sixty miles of hard riding a day is the average distance covered by a cowboy during the round-up. Five to seven horses are in his string. Tough and wiry as they are, the fierce chasing over broken, rough and stony country does them up and for a time takes the spirit out of them. No day’s riding is too hard, however, to keep a cowboy out of a race if one is proposed. No cavalry charge could be a more spirited sight than that of a line of cowboys, every man yelling like an Indian and every horse doing his best in a half-mile race across some level stretch of soft prairie. There is quick work to be done when some mother and calf too weak to be driven with the herd are found. A couple of ropes thrown around the head and legs of the lusty young calf hold it to the ground. A fire of sagebrush or driftwood heats the branding irons to a dull red, and the cabalistic signs, which mark the ownership of the victim are burned irradicably into the animal’s quivering side.

cowboy - roundup

Round up. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

There are but two meals a day on the round-up. Breakfast is long before sun-up, and dinner when the day’s work is over. After dinner is a period of enjoyment. The appetites, sharpened by fifty to sixty miles’ hard riding, have been appeased with bacon, potatoes, hot biscuit and coffee. Unlucky candidates of the duties of the night herd have gone swearing and grumbling from the camp to their lonesome duties and there is nothing to do but talk over the day’s adventures, smoke and tell stories. The anticipated routing out at 4 o’clock the next morning cuts short the evening’s pleasures, and by the time dusk changes into the early darkness of the spring nights beds are pulled from the baggage wagon and the camp is asleep.

cowboy on the range

A relaxing evening on the range. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

BRANDS USED ON THE RANGE – They Are Easy to Counterfeit, as the Rustlers Long Ago Discovered.
From a Fort Worth Letter

The cattle over the West are identified by brands burnt into the sides, flanks or shoulders of the cattle and horses. These brands are recorded in county and state offices and with the various cattle associations. Inspectors are placed by public and private organizations at the principal stock yards and shipping points ready to seize any animal in any car load for which the shipper cannot show a clean bill of sale.

Every cattle company and each small farmer is obliged to have his recorded brand if he wishes to own a single head of stock. “Look at this,” said Mr. Barnes, producing an illustration of all the brands in common use on the Wyoming range. “This was furnished to all of us as a guide when we got on the range to assist us in the work of identifying stolen cattle. How many brands do you see there that could not be altered by a little ingenuity to resemble some other brand in the list! Of course, the rustler when he changes a brand must make one which resembles some other registered brand or he could not get rid of the cattle. When it is impossible for him to make such a change he resorts to the methods of obliterating the old brands altogether and then burning any new one he wants. They have invented the flat-iron brands, designed to cover over and burn out any small letter. A genius among them invented the spade brand, which consisted of heating a spade and slapping it against the animal’s side. It did the work. The inventor had a sudden attack of diphtheria and died before he could get his boots off, but his works survive him.”

“Is there no brand incapable of imitation or obliteration!”

“I never saw but one. You will find it in that printed list. It is on all the cattle of a big herder named Baird. The letters are both wide and tall, and cover one side of an animal from steam to stern. They look like a circus poster. Mr. Baird has never lost any cattle. I told him he was spoiling his hides. ‘I can afford to throw away the hides to keep the cattle,’ he said.”

Singing to the Herd.
From the Kansas City Times

“Some cowboys and cattlemen laughingly assured me that they only sing on watch to keep themselves awake; others say they sing, talk loud or make a noise just to let the cattle know they are approaching so as not to frighten and stampede them, but the great number hold ― as I myself had read and been led to believe ― that the sound of the human voice, signing, talking or calling out cheerfully, quiets and reassures the animals. However, it may be, they all sign and talk or whistle to them, and among my most vivid and picture-like recollections is one of a certain night when an aching head and heavy heart held me awake, and, slipping from the house in the little hours, I went aimlessly across the level plain towards where a big herd was camped.

When within three or four hundred yards of the bunch I could see, under the white Texas moonlight, the dark mass of cattle and occasionally a silhouette, between me and the sky, of one of the guards on his pony, and in the intense loneliness of the plain’s night the singing of the one boyish voice holding his untaught, unconscious way through ‘A Fountain Filled With Blood,; and the whistling of his companion on a little harmonium, ‘Home Sweet Home,’ as they came round past me in turn were as lovely and touching sounds as I ever heard.”

The Cowboy’s Marvelous Memory.
From an Interview in St. Louis

“Of all men in the world not accounted prodigies I think the cowboy’s memory and intuition are the most marvelous,” said E. H. Cunningham of Indian Territory at the Laclede. “I have witnessed feats of memory performed by cowboys that appear preposterous when related. For instance, I was on a drive from the Texas Panhandle to the Territory a few weeks ago with 7,000 cattle. Twelve men comprised my outfit. We had a couple of big stampedes, and after we got the frightened cattle rounded up, how do you suppose we were able to tell how many were missing! you naturally think we went through the laborious task of cutting out and counting them, and that’s where you are mistaken. Every one of my twelve men was so thoroughly acquainted with the herd that [any] of them could be getting on an elevation so as to get a clear sweep of the entire herd, tell exactly how many and the kind of stock we had missed in the round-up. Not only that, but [they] could pick out all the stray cattle that had got mixed in our bunch without seeing the brand. It is a marvelous accomplishment and one that is attained only after long service in the ‘bull-punching’ business.”

What a Maverick Is.
From the Louisville Commercial

Some years ago, a man named Maverick located near Austin, Tex., and went into the stock business. He had considerable money and established a large ranch, mostly of cattle. He was what might be termed a progressive man, but his ideas of progress were not suitable to his surroundings. For instance, he concluded that branding cattle was useless ― in fact, barbarous ― and he determined that the red hot iron should never again be pressed against the side of an animal belonging to him. He kept his word, but he didn’t keep his cattle. This was a regular picnic for the cowboys of that locality, who of all things could never be accused of being at all scrupulous on questions of honor, especially when there was a steer involved in the case. Well, the cowboys picked up Maverick’s cattle wherever they could find them, and it was not long before every hoof of them was gone and he was reduced to almost poverty. Ever since that every unbranded head of cattle over six months of age has been called a maverick and is regarded by the cowboy as the property of him who first finds it and sticks his brand on it. …

cowyboy branding a calf

Branding a calf. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The Cowboy’s Accomplishments.
From the Richmond Dispatch

One of the chief sports of the cowboys is snatching a sombrero from the ground on a horse running at full speed. This is done by many. They have become experts in the use of a six-shooter (revolver), and a cowboy on the plains is seldom seen without one or more, often two, buckled to his waist. It becomes a weapon offensive and defensive. Sometimes a roped bull becomes so furious that the cowboy is compelled to shoot him. Usually the cattle on the plains are not dangerous. They will seldom attack a man on horseback unless they have been roped. If a man was on foot a herd would run over him trying to find out what he was. A cow or bull is dangerous when roped. It is not much of a trick to throw a lasso and catch a cow, but the skill, courage and strength comes after the cow has been lassoed.

A Cowboy’s Feat With a Lasso.
From the Indianapolis Journal

Antone Nelson, a Colorado cowboy, lassoed an eagle a few days ago. Nelson was riding over the prairie on his little cow pony with his lasso tied to his saddle, when he saw the eagle flying ahead of him quite close to the ground. He started his pony on a run toward the bird, and when a short distance away threw his rope, which settled over the eagle’s neck and under one wing, and he succeeded in getting the bird to the ranch house alive. The eagle measured eight feet from tip to tip of its wings. [5]


  • [1] P. M. Marks, And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight (New York: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), p. 190.
  • [2] The San Francisco Examiner, “A Great Round-Up,” July 13, 1884, p. 1.
  • [3] E. Hough, The Story of the Cowboy (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1897), p. x.
  • [4] The San Francisco Examiner, “Will Soon Be Rounded Up,” March 12, 1893, p. 14.
  • [5] Ibid.

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  1. Chauncey on May 18, 2022 at 6:57 am

    Very interesting read. The collection of anecdotes and articles is great!

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