From 1865 to 1880, millions of cattle were driven in herds from southern Texas to cattle towns in Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Working up to 20 hours a day, cowboys drove the animals from one watering place to the next, guarding against predators, straying cattle, and the dreaded stampedes. A cowboy’s best friend was often his horse. They depended on each other, the cowboy and his horse… and it is said they could herd cattle in their sleep.
Somewhere around 1890, the cattle ranges became fenced in and the growth of the railroads had eliminated the need for long cattle drives. Thus the era of the old-fashioned cowboy came to an end, and the working ranch cowboy began to evolve.
Today, the men who work on the Pitchfork, 6666 and JA ranches in the Texas Panhandle call theirs “the most free kind of life you can have.” It’s a life that’s changed little since those first cowboys drove wild longhorn cattle out of the brush and up the dusty trails to Abilene and Dodge City.
Over the years since, the cowboy has become the quintessential American hero. He has been glorified in song and story, on film and on television as the New World’s knight on horseback, free as the wind, reliable as the sun, master of the vast and beautiful universe called The West.
Those who know the cowboy best know that this life is one of hard manual labor, brutal weather and a loneliness so strong that most of us would never bear it. But those realities only strengthen the power of his grasp on our imagination. Indeed, he stands tall in our minds and in our national mythology precisely because of the hardships he faces and the easy grace and humor with which he conquers them.
The history of the American cowboy covers a brief, but incredible, span in history. But the true grit, strength of character, and independent nature of the cowboy still lives large today.
Text in part courtesy of Skeeter Hagler