Just mention the word cowboy to some people and a little smile appears on their faces. Perhaps they remember their favorite characters from television shows such as Rawhide and Wagon Train. The characters in these shows seem to have become part of our lives. In fact, we have never forgotten those men who sat high in their saddles, who conducted themselves by a code of ethics and who portrayed all that was good about the West. We can only imagine how hard the real cowboys worked in the mid 1800s. It was a unique way of life and not suited to all men.
Some etymologists suggest the word “cowboy” came from Middle English/Germanic roots but others say it originated in medieval Ireland and was used to describe a young man who tended cows. One thing we know for sure is that the term was widely used during the late 1860s when young Confederate soldiers returned to Texas. There was little work available, but there was an abundance of longhorn cattle roaming freely on the prairies. The young men rounded up thousands of unbranded longhorn cattle that they sold to land barons. This roundup was sometimes called a “cow hunt.”
Some cowboys worked on ranches while others chose the trail. These cowboys usually owned their own saddle but rode the company’s horses. They averaged between 10 and 15 miles a day as they travelled north across swollen rivers, endured lightning storms and stampedes that could be started by the flash of a match. The average age for these young men was about 25 year and, despite their youth; the work was so hard that almost two thirds never again worked on a cattle drive and chose a different line of work.
The men who did choose the trail rather than working closer to home led a very hard life. As the Topeka Commonwealth stated on August 15, 1871, “The Texas cattle herder is a character, the life of which can be found nowhere else on earth. Of course he is unlearned and illiterate, but with few wants and meager ambitions. His diet is principally navy plug and whiskey and the occupation dearest to his heart is gambling. His dress consists of a flannel shirt with a handkerchief encircling his neck, butternut pants and a pair of long boots, in which are always the legs of his pants. His head is covered by a sombrero, which is a Mexican hat with a high crown and a brim of enormous dimensions. He generally wears a revolver on each side of his person, which he will use with as little hesitate on a man as on a wild animal. Such a character is dangerous and desperate and each one has generally killed his man.”