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The American Cowboy: Myth vs. Reality "The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time, it's a state of mind. It's whatever you want it to be."

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Allison Lindenberg Professor Cocar HIST232 March 5, 2006 The American Cowboy: Myth vs. Reality "The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time, it's a state of mind. It's whatever you want it to be." - Tom Mix Historian Frederick Jackson Turner's famous essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History defines the "frontier" as a place of westward expansion with new opportunities, heroism, triumph and progress mainly by brave white men. While he writes that the "closing of the frontier" occurred with the extinction of the Western frontier and cowboy's character, Americans have found a way to glamorize the image of the cowboy in the west during the 1800's. It is important to emphasize the distinction that historians make between the pop-culture romantic image of the cowboy and the actual lives of cowboys who worked the ranches in a quiet and solitary manner. Contemporary accounts of so-called cowboys offer many different images. John Clay, an old rancher who actually lived and worked among these men described them as a "devil may care, immoral, revolver-heeled, brazen, light fingered lot who usually came to no good end" (Carlson 3). Adding to the confusion surrounding the cowboy is that historians are inundated by a lack of documentation concerning cowboys. ...read more.


"trail cowboys," mostly Texans, but many from other Southern states, the cowboys of the new cattle ranges on the northern Plains who were taught by Texas trail cowboys who stayed north, and the cowboys of the Wild West shows and the movies" (Weston 7). Even though these distinctions were made, cowboys were united by their Texas origin. They were unique among frontier workers in being almost completely native-born including Anglo, African American, and Mexican. Finally, cattle ranchers always provided their own bed, saddle blanket, saddle, bridle, and spurs. Cowboys had a distinct way of dressing, working, and handling themselves as well. Accounts of activities show their activities to be more suited for farmers than what we think of as cowboys. For example, they would "listen to the music of fiddle, mouth organ, or banjo (seldom guitar, which was Mexican), music played by one of their number or the cook" (Weston 13). Cowboys had particularly painful work, especially in the early days of cow hunts: "In the broadest view, an open-range cowboy worked with slaughter or stocker cows, ideally one man for every 700 to 1,000 head on the range, two or three for that many on the trail" (Weston 41). They had a great deal of skill for the extremely hazardous and arduous work that they put in showing how they were practically ...read more.


In central Texas, the result was the Fence-Cutters' War of 1883-84 which resulted in much violence and an eventual passage of a state law making fence cutting a felony in 1884 finally ending the fighting. Although cowboys indeed were wild and violent, there is plenty of evidence that, contrary to their reputation, "they were quite socially respectable in their protectiveness of women, or family distress, and in their touching yearning to be loved, honored, or at least remembered" (Weston 26). They were not essentially different in social virtues from the other main groups of frontier workers. Historian Carl Becker noted that Americans are prone to cling to what he called "useful myths" (Rainey 6). These are stories and characters that, no matter how untrue, people hold onto in order to justify their patriotism. These myths give people a glimpse into their collective history. The cowboy is one such character. While historians stress the harsh lifestyle of cattle ranchers in the West, American images of the cowboy have been a noticeably romanticized part of pop-culture from the early 1800's onwards. During times in history when the general consensus is that there are no real heroes to look to for guidance, "audiences sustained many of their 'faiths' by identifying with such admirable and powerful symbols of straight-forward righteous" (Rainey 6). To this day, many Americans continue to look towards cowboys as such a symbol. ...read more.

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