Not everyone finds history fascinating, but I do! No, I’m not into memorizing dates for a quiz or test, but the history and development of our nation? Yes, that is fascinating to me! And cowboys were an important part of our history and development especially in settling the West. And hey! Guess what? They still are today.
A Little Background History of Cowboys
Cowboys came from diverse backgrounds: African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans and settlers from the eastern United States and Europe. Although their life has been glamorized in books, movies, and television shows, it was a rough life full of loneliness and extremely hard work. It was not a life for the faint of heart.
They originated in Mexico but were called Vaqueros there. In 1519 Spanish ranchers began building ranches in America. Ranching was a big industry that needed help to run the ranches. So they imported horses and hired Vaqueros who were skilled at roping, riding, and herding. In addition to herding cattle, cowboys repaired fences and buildings and took care of the horses.
By the early 1700s, ranching was in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and went as far south as Argentina. In 1769 the livestock practices of ranching were incorporated in California when missions there were started. Ranching grew from there and branched into more areas out West.
In the early 1800s, English-speaking settlers started migrating to the West and adopting characteristics of the Vaqueros’ culture.
But American cowboys had a style all their own and built a reputation for themselves. Some, but not all, cowboys were known for a bad reputation. Some were lawless and were banned from certain establishments. But they were mostly known for their hard work, good work ethic, and their great skills in working with cattle.
American Cowboys were Important in the Expansion of the West
As railroads progressed across the United States in the mid-1800s, the role of the cowboys became a central part of the nation’s expansion into the West. And the phrase “Manifest Destiny” was coined.
A cowboy’s workday was hard and physically demanding. A typical workday usually lasted 15 hours, and almost all that time was spent in a saddle.
The job of American cowboys went beyond ranching. In addition to herding, rounding up, and driving cattle, helping care for horses, and repairing fences and buildings, being a cowboy now included driving cattle to cowtowns and helping to establish frontier towns on occasion. From there, cattle were transported by rail around the country for sale. (I now enjoy John Wayne’s and Maureen O’Hara’s comedy western “McClintock” with new eyes of appreciation. “Fifteen cents a pound. All the way to Kansas City.”)
Cowboys in the Past 100 Years
From 1865 when the Civil War ended until the 21st century, changes to the ranching industry and the cowboy culture were made.
- The Civil War increased the demand for beef which expanded the meat-packing industry which encouraged the consumption of beef
- White settlers were allowed to claim public lands on the Great Plains to raise “open range” cattle
- Land ownership feuds developed and were settled by 1890 when most of the land became privatized. Barbed wire was invented.
- Many believe the cowboy era ended in 1886-1887 because of the devastating winter season that year. Thousands of cattle died that winter because temperatures dropped well below freezing
- Cowboys continued to drive cattle on a smaller scale until the mid-1900s. But most were hired by private ranch owners, giving up the open trail life
The Cowboy Lifestyle and Culture is Alive Today
Cowboys today aren’t as plenteous as they once were just a decade ago, but the American cowboy is still very much a part of life in the West. They continue to work and run large ranches in Texas, Utah, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.
Back in 2003, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said there were about 9,730 workers in the category “support activities for animal production.” This included cowboys. But they only made an average of $19,340 per year.
And you can get a glimpse into the days of the Cowboys who settled the West at Fort Laramie Bed and Breakfast. We offer more value, more attention, and an exciting history complete with the Cowboy lifestyle and culture. Come see Arnold and Kathy Tollefson on the Cowboy Way Ranch. Call 1 (307) 532-6496 to book your stay today!
1 (307) 532-6496
Open on a limited basis October thru April