American Cowboy Myth

Hailing from the east coast in Virginia, I have a very different definition of the American West and the assumptions one makes about the western culture according to my definition. The first thing that comes to mind for a southerner like myself when thinking of the West are cowboys, and how they are the quintessential American figureheads. This thought process is backed up my subliminal messages portrayed in the American media, and an overall generalization of the West as a whole. I thought that cowboys are an authentically American invention is simply put a myth.  In actuality, cowboys in the late 18th century were mostly comprised of Mexican’s and many others were African-American or Native American. [1]

One fact that blew me away when researching the myth of the American cowboy was that the phrase, “cowboy” came from the Mexicans and Spanish from the word “vaquero”.[2] This infers to the person gathering the research that there was a strong Mexican and Spanish influence on the cowboy culture from the very beginning. Other Spanish words related to ranching include, Vaca, meaning cow, Corro, meaning corral and Ranchero, meaning rancher. Alluding to the fact that the western culture of ranching in American has firm roots from the Spanish culture.

There is also this belief that cowboys were this glamorous figures made up of large, old white men that were constantly fighting of the Native Americans and rode around on their horses from sun up to sun down.  These assumptions are almost entirely untrue from an historical standpoint. That fact that most people in the United States today view these old cowboy figures as thoroughbred American’s that were always in the action and never paid for a drink at a bar is false. The old cowboys of the west often work very long and difficult 18 hour day with long boring and tedious trail rides. The fact that these cowboys were large white men is also a widely believed myth in the United States today. I have already alluded to the fact that most of the composition of cowboys were of some sort of color, some were even women that owned their own ranch, and were most often either had small or medium physical frames. Large men were too heavy to ride mustangs for long periods of time and lacked having full control over the animal. The idea that all cowboys were all old experienced men that were continually fighting off Native Americans is also a widely believed falsehood created by the assumptions made by this generation about the old west. Most cowboys in that day and age were younger men that learned on the job as they gained experience, and rarely if ever fought with the Native Americans. [3]

There is also a widely held belief that every cowboy, sheriff, man, women and child had a six-shooter on their hip in the American West. Yes it is true that cowboys most often times were armed but the reality was that gun control law may have actually been stricter in the old west. In the beginning there was absolutely gun violence in the early settlement of the American West but as settlements started to grow the need and tolerance for guns started to fall and the west didn’t stay wild forever.  This initially gun violence of steamed from competition between cattle and sheep raisers and large and small ranchers. These armed conflicts often times had deep racial, religious and ethnic overtones. This is primarily our idea of cowboys started to settle down and begin reaping the benefits of their agricultural passions. The idea the every cowboy was an expert marksman, is also a myth widely believed in American society today because of how the silver screen has portrayed cowboys for years. The six shooters these cowboys were armed with were high inaccurate and unreliable. They way these cattle men displayed their mastery of their profession was with a lariat, a rope used for tethering and herding cattle.

There is also this silly idea that to be a cowboy in American history one has to wear the hat, called a Stetson. This is the modern image that most Americans have in their heads to thinking of old American cowboys. Furthermore, this assumption could not be farther from the truth. In reality, cowboys really did wear hat’s that much is true, however, they seemed to be wearing every type of hat but a Stetson.  Many wore what are called pancake hats, much like sun hats of today, most wore bowler hats because they could be wore in many different social situations. Many believe that the modern cowboy hat was derived and modified from the sombrero, another piece of evidence alluding to the fact that cowboys were primarily a Spanish and Mexican invention. [4]

In conclusion, the idea of the American cowboy and the raising of cattle was a learned tradition from the Mexicans. These early Mexican cowboys taught the trade of cattle rising to early American homesteaders, usually young men who had no families, in order from them to survive and flourish in this new hostile territory. Cowboys were also quite socially respectable in the old west. They were thought of in high regarded because of their protectiveness of women and family distress and their want if not need to be honored or at least remembered. It is important to keep in mind that the lives of these early cowboys in the young history of the United States have been overly romanticized in the media and pop-culture as a whole. In reality these were extremely hard working men often working 15 or 18 hour day of unglamorous, dangerous and hard manual labor.[5] Often ending each day of work at the saloon drinking away their injuries sustained working and fears of being forgotten in this turbulent time. It is a hard thing to imagine what the American West would look like if not for the early influence and assistance of the Mexican and Spanish traditions of cultivating this wild and mostly unknown terrain.

Clark Sipe

[1] Foner, Eric. “Cowboys.” History.com. 1991. Accessed October 16, 2015.

[2] Brown, Jeffery. “Cowboy Culture: A Sage of Five Centuries.” University of Iowa. 1982. Accessed October 16, 2015.

[3] Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Myth of the Cowboy.” The Guardian. March 20, 2013. Accessed October 16, 2015.

[4] Foner, Eric. “Cowboys.” History.com. 1991. Accessed October 16, 2015

[5] Brown, Jeffery. “Cowboy Culture: A Sage of Five Centuries.” University of Iowa. 1982. Accessed October 16, 2015.

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