Why you should care

Because “brokeback” in all likelihood described the job much more than the mountain, way back when.

Halloween is just around the corner, but for some Americans dressing up as their favorite mythical hero is a year-round thing. “Make-believe cowboys,” as comedian George Carlin called them, are everywhere, from honky-tonk bars to Nashville studios — their prevalence a testament to the enduring power of the cowboy figure in American culture and memory.

Few who don the oversized belt buckles, Wrangler jeans and Stetsons today, however, would likely care to swap boots with a real-life modern cowboy, much less his frontier forefathers.

The tall, rugged frontiersman and noble knight-errant roaming the open range is largely a figment of our collective imagination.

The image that many of us have of a tall, rugged frontiersman and noble knight-errant roaming the open range is largely a figment of our collective imagination, fueled by Wild West shows, dime novels, films and television.

In reality, the typical cowboy on the American frontier was not the Marlboro Man but, as historian David T. Courtwright says, “a hired hand with a borrowed horse, a mean streak and syphilis.” He was also young — age 24 on average — and exceedingly dirty, wore ill-fitting garments and was on the small side so as to be light in the saddle. If he worked with cattle, he was known as a “cowhand” or a “waddy,” the derogatory “cowboy” reserved for drunkards and thieves (though many cowhands certainly qualified as both).

In his book Violent Land, Courtwright likens cowboys to migrant workers; most were overworked and underpaid, nomadic and often unemployed. They were “lower-class bachelor laborers in a risky and unhealthful line of work” who toiled long hours, getting by on little sleep and a monolithic diet of meat, flour and beans, and suffering from hernias, spinal injuries, frostbite and venereal disease. Many were Confederate Civil War veterans, and more than a third who went up the trail were African-American or Hispanic.

The era of the classic American cowboy was relatively brief, lasting from about 1865 to 1890, as was the career of the average cowboy. Most endured for about seven years. Many quit. Of the 35,000 or so who herded on the great cattle trails traversing the Great Plains, only a third signed up more than once.

Unlike their comparatively well-to-do, libertarian imitators today, cowboys were itinerant laborers who occupied the bottom rung of a two-class system ruled by the capitalist cattlemen who owned the ranches and the herds. According to historian Paul H. Carlson, author of The Cowboy Way, like other underpaid 19th-century laborers, cowboys organized in associations and engaged in strikes. “The cowboy was a landless wage earner,” argues Carlson. “If he had the chance, he would have voted a Socialist ticket.”

And the threat of death lurked around every corner. While the Texas longhorns a cowboy had to handle were, as Courtwright says, “easily spooked … [and] could kill a man in seconds,” the same could be said of his fellow cowboys. Large numbers of young men, combined with large numbers of guns, easy access to alcohol and a violent, honor-based subculture turned the frontier into a powder keg. “He called Bill Smith a liar,” reads one Colorado grave marker from the time.

The once-harsh existence of the frontier cowhand was transformed into the fierce independence of the renegade gunslinger.

For the most part, cowboys were hard-working and reliable when on the job (and sober), but when the cattle run came to an end, most would go on sprees, squandering their meager earnings on gambling, whiskey, whores and other indulgences. Dodge City, Abilene and other cattle towns catered to these desires, and the young, illiterate cowboys were easy targets for professional gamblers, hucksters and corrupt saloon owners.

U.S. marshals, the saloons’ hired guns and the frontier justice system, aimed to rein in the worst cowboy offenders, but vice was big business, and, as Courtwright observes, “The price of separating [the cowboys] from their money was a relatively high level of violence and disorder.”

By the turn of the century, cattle trails were in decline thanks to overgrazing, harsh winters and farmers armed with barbed-wire fences. But as the number of legitimate cowboys began to drop, a mythic counterpart began to surge in popularity. Fifty million people across the world would watch Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, a rodeo in which cowboys were portrayed as heroic rough riders shooting it out with Indian savages. Copycat shows, pulp novels and legions of Western movies picked up on the same theme. Politicians from Teddy Roosevelt to George W. Bush would embrace the rugged, dutiful cowboy image.

The once-harsh existence of the frontier cowhand was transformed into the fierce independence of the renegade gunslinger on his majestic steed. Or as Courtwright puts it, “For the cowboy to become a symbol of the American experience required an act of moral surgery.”

That may be true, but the cowboy is an accurate emblem of the American experience in at least one way: its capacity for reinvention. “The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time,” the early Western film star Tom Mix once said. “It’s a state of mind. It’s whatever you want it to be.”

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Tales from the past to titillate and educate while giving you a lens on the present and future.