The cowboy. A disappearing American icon. If you’re under 40, you probably never imagined being one. I never did. But the cowboy once took over the hearts of the world. And I understand why.
See an open range. See grass and brush rolling over hills to the horizon. Feel the hot sun and sweat dripping down your forehead. You smell cows, feces and dust. You breathe dust.
And you are king of the world.
Well, not exactly. A lot of cowboys did one trail drive – they hated it so much and never did it again. Some were paupers who had nothing else to do. Some were criminals escaping. Hardly the stuff of kings.
But harsh trail rides from Texas to Kansas didn’t matter. Imaginations were fired. As the frontier disappeared, and civilization no longer needed this unique man of history, nothing has better come to symbolize freedom, self-reliance and masculine grit from times forever gone like the cowboy. He was the prince of the plains. The world fell in love with him.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be one. A trail ride sounds miserable. Dust, filth, heat, cold, crappy food, etc, break the romantic spell. But the story of the cowboy is neat. And I’m gonna tell it my way.
Now a lot of what I’m saying comes from cowboy history found in TR Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. I’m kind of a thief. But, hopefully, a good one. And, I do add many of my own facts and flare…
So, first you have to understand that North America, once upon a time, didn’t have horses and cows. The Spaniards brought them here. The changes to North America’s ecologies and Indian cultures that these animals caused is a interesting story. But it’s not pertinent now. What is pertinent is that the cowboy was born, essentially, in South Texas.
South Texas was once savannah. Beginning in the 1700’s Spaniards and Mexicans started settling lands north of the Rio Grande, which the Spanish king encouraged so as to repulse potential French incursions from Mississippi country into Mexico. Settlers brought cattle to this sea of grass. They herded them about as if they owned it all. They were nomads seeing after the development of a new type of cattle – the Texas Longhorn – that felt right at home here. These men were called vaqueros. By 1800 there were likely 100,000 wild longhorns between the Rio Nueces and Rio Grande.
In 1821 Mexico overthrew Spanish colonial rule. It won its independence. One huge thing the new government at Mexico City did was open up Mexican lands to Anglos for commerce and even settlement, which the Spanish kings had vehemently been prohibiting for fear the Anglos would ultimately take those lands away. In 1821 Stephen F Austin – the Father of Texas – negotiated the settlement of Texas lands by Anglos. Mexico allowed this so as to create a buffer state against Comanche and Apache raids into Northern Mexico. At first Anglo settlement was peaceful. They had sworn allegiance to the Mexican Constitution of 1824. Many even became Catholic.
Then in 1835 a tyrant named Santa Ana overthrew the 1824 Mexican Constitution. He sent armies north from Mexico to expulse the Anglos from Texas. So the Anglos formed an army. Sam Houston was their general. During the war Mexicans massacred men at the Alamo and Goliad. All Anglos being violently driven back to Louisiana was a strong possibility. But Sam Houston ultimately defeated Santa Ana’s armies at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21st 1836. The result was The Republic of Texas.
Mexico recognized The Republic of Texas, not officially but tacitly. However, they were adamant to reject the southern border of Texas as the Rio Grande, as Texans asserted. They said it was the Rio Nueces, 150 miles north. Thus this strip of land between the two rivers – called the Nueces Strip – was contested. Many Mexicans didn’t want Anglos south of the Nueces. Great violence occurred here.
Nonetheless, Anglos still meandered south. Open land and wild cattle called insatiably. By the 1840’s there were at least a million wild cattle in that Strip. Some Anglos and Mexicans got along too. Thus, the vaquero way of life began to take form in the Anglo. The Anglo learned the lariat, the way of the horse, and the the Colt .45. They learned whatever they needed in order to survive in this harsh and dangerous land.
But, as valuable as those millions of cattle roaming wild on South Texas plains would have been at Chicago or New York, there was no economical way to get them there. Two thousand mile trails across farmlands were not possible. Some even tried to take them by steamship from Galveston. All efforts failed. Thus, many of those Texas beeves were considered mere nuisances, not the walking gold coins they were to ultimately become.
Yet the number of cattle still grew.
Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845. President Polk marched an army to what is now Brownsville, Texas, right across the Rio Grande from Matamoros. This was to declare the Rio Grande, not the Rio Nueces, was THE souther border of Texas and, thus, the United States. This pissed Mexicans off. Shots were fired. The Mexican-American war started and ended in 1848. Texas’s borders were solidified. The United States also won the Southwest – from New Mexico to California – as a spoil of war.
The proto-cowboy culture from South Texas began to spread after this war. A federal army presence at Brownsville encouraged more Texans to head south. Federal forts built west of the Texas frontier, west of what is now I-35, also encourage settlement – and cows – westward.
But not too far. Beyond the frontier was Comancheria. Some dared to ranch out that way. Most were too terrified though. Regardless, the number of cattle continued growing, now towards West Texas too, like never before.
Then came the Civil War in 1861. White men went to Virginia to fight. They left the frontier vulnerable to Comanche attacks. And the Comanche came. These were terrible years for Texas. Ranches west of farms on the Texas frontier were decimated. Many more cattle became wild, free-roaming creatures that proliferated magnificently like their already wild cousins. By 1865 there were likely over 5 million wild cattle west of the Texas frontier.
Then the war ended. The huge army of bluecoats raised by Abraham Lincoln to defeat the South did not disband fully. A new war was to begin. The American West was to be assimilated, whether the Indian tribes of the Great Plains and Far West wanted this or not. And the means to integrate commercially and culturally such a massive tract of land, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was the railroad. The army cleared the path for the Iron Horse.
Thus, the Texas cowboy’s problems were solved. The railroad was the means for the cowboy to deliver his beeves to distant markets willing to pay damn good prices for them. As Fehrenbach said, “in 1865 cattle in war-ravished Texas sold for $4 a head, but brought $30 to $40 in the booming North.” Chicago and New York were hungry for Texas beef. Though the first cattle drives into the farmlands of civilized Missouri were less than perfect, the railroads were extended west into the wilder Kansas plains, to Wichita and Abilene and Dodge City. Thus, obscene amounts of money from the walking gold coins that had formerly been a mere nuisance could now be made.
As Fehrenbach also said, “The cowboy and the railroad worked together in the first large act of cooperation between the North and South after the war. Differences were put aside and the two made money.”
And, thus, in the process, the legend was born.
But the cowboy didn’t last long. As the tentacles of civilization reached into the empty spaces of the west, the need to take cattle on long trails to railroads ended. Railroads into the former lands of the Comanche and other Tribes of the Plains, who were finally defeated and put on a reservations by 1876, diminished the need for those long trail rides. Then barbed wire killed the open range entirely. Texas lands in the early 1880’s were becoming privatized and fenced in. Though the cowboy lived on a little longer in the more open lands from New Mexico to Montana, by 1890 he was dead.
But he lives on in legends. Of course as the modern world becomes more woke, and vile people erase the past to destroy American identity, the legend will become less known. But some will always remember. And some will always be fascinated for understanding the unique nature of some strong men who brilliantly embodied times now gone with the wind.