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    Not Just For Kids

    So You Want to be a Cowboy?

    “The cowboy became the best-known occupational type that America has given the world. He exists still and will long exist, though much changed from the original. His fame derives from the past.” ~J. Frank Dobie, cowboy folklorist

    Cowboys and Indians – it’s one of the classic imaginative games that kids play. The word “cowboy” brings to mind visions of cattle drives, chuck wagons, rodeos, and gunfights. Western movies and stories make the cowboy life seem exciting, and many people have grown up with a romantic notion of life out on the open range. But what are cowboys - and cowgirls - really like? This article will explore the history and lifestyle of the cowboy.

    Go West, Young Man

    The settlement of the West is called the Westward Movement. Pioneers gathered at the big bend of the Missouri River to prepare for the 2,000-mile journey. Groups of people set out in canvas-covered wagons drawn by oxen or mules. These pioneers at first avoided the prairies. They followed the Oregon Trail over the dry plains to get to the coastlands of Oregon and California. One of these settlers discovered gold in northern California. Soon, thousands of “forty-niners” were hurrying over the plains on the way westward to seek their fortune in California.

    Consequently, the Great Plains was the last part of the country to be settled by Americans. When settlers from the Ohio River Valley first moved to the plains of Texas, however, they found Spanish cattlemen already living there. The Americans learned the cattle business from them. They dressed like Spanish cowboys, rode Spanish horses, learned how to use the lariat, round up cattle and brand them. Later, railroads thrust their way westward into the plains. The cowboys drove herds of cattle from Texas northward to the railroad cow towns for shipment to the East.

    Many of the biggest ranches are still in Texas. Some of them have thousands of cattle, as well as sheep and horses, on tens of thousands of acres. In the United States, nearly all ranches are in the western and southwestern states. Australia, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil have big ranches, too.

    Home on the Range

    A ranch is a type of farm located in a place where enough grass grows to feed large numbers of grazing animals, but where the land is not fertile enough for growing corn, wheat, or cotton. There must also be water nearby for the animals to drink.

    On a ranch there is usually a main ranch house where the owners live, and other buildings such as bunkhouses where the cowboys and other workers live. Ranch buildings are typically one-story buildings since there is no need to build a house two or more stories high when there is so much open space to spread out in. People came to like the low sprawling ranch style houses so well that many suburban homes were patterned after ranch houses.

    The work of operating a ranch is called ranching. Cattle-punching is everything that’s done to maintain cattle and prepare them for sale. Cowboys are ranch workers who ride horses and herd cattle. The men ride out each morning, and on large ranches they may have to go quite a distance. They keep the cattle or other livestock together, drive them to new grazing grounds or watering holes. Railroad cattle cars became the predominant destination of trail drives in the 1880’s.

    Roundups have always played an important part in ranch life. Each ranch has its own identifying mark called a brand. This is burned into the thick hide of cattle with a red-hot iron shaped in the design of the brand. Once each year, ranches have a roundup. They drive the cattle together and brand the calves that have been born since the last roundup.

    Ranching has always been considered by Americans to be an interesting kind of work, and much has been written about cowboys and cattle ranches. In the early days of the Wild West, cowboys led very dangerous and difficult lives. Many stories are about times on the open range in the years soon after the Civil War, when most of the western territory had not yet become states with regular law-enforcement officers. So these good, hard-working ranch men also had to protect themselves against rustlers, outlaws, unfriendly Indians, and wild animals.

    The popularity of the cowboy hero in print and on film helped elevate cowboys to a larger-than-life status. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who devoted their life to keeping the spirit of the American West alive, wrote in their Happy Trails book: “Early directors feasted on the West because it offered everything audiences wanted: fast action, wondrous scenery, moral lessons, bad guys to hiss, fair ladies in distress, and manly men to admire. It is impossible to imagine what American movies would have been if there hadn't been a lore of the Wild West to inspire them.”

    The distinctive costume of the cowboy – broad-brimmed hats, bandannas, chaps, high boots with spurs, and lassos – is not just for decoration; it is very practical. Cowboys wear leather chaps over their trousers to protect their legs. They tie bandannas over their mouths to keep out the dust. Cowboy boots have heels so their feet won’t fall out of the stirrups, and spiked straps called spurs to make a horse go faster. Cowboy hats have broad brims to keep the sun and rain off their face, and high crowns for air circulation. The ropes, called lassos or lariats, are used to catch cattle.

    While cowboys have been around for over 100 years, the traditional cowboy way of life has changed with the times since its heyday in the 1860’s and 1880’s. For example, nearly all ranch hands used to do their work on horseback. There is still a need for horses on a ranch, but nowadays workers also ride around in pickup trucks, and most cattle are shipped by truck rather than in trail drives. After barbed wire was invented in 1874, fences began closing off the range. As more and more settlers moved in and the ranges became divided, ranches grew smaller.

    Even though life on a ranch is a lot of hard work, it is a healthy way of life. As cowboy Bud Strom said, “The essential elements of this life are honesty, integrity and a deep appreciation of what God has created and … the cowboy or rancher is the steward of this life for a short time on Earth.” Many people like living on ranches because they get to be around animals and work outdoors. Nowadays, some ranches are vacation resorts called dude ranches. Paying guests can go there, learn to ride horseback, and spend a lot of time outside in the fresh air and sunshine.


    Due to the nature of their work, cowboys are fearless and able horsemen, skillful at roping and branding. Modern cowboys still do many of those things, either as part of their ranch jobs or in rodeos as a sport. A rodeo is a show in which cowboys show off their skills. Rodeos began as games at round-up time on ranches. The games proved so much fun to watch that professional performances were put on and admission charged. Eventually annual rodeos were put on in big cities, and some cowboys made a profession of exhibiting their skill at “Wild West Shows” that were part of traveling circuses. Buffalo Bill Cody worked as a cowboy before he started his Wild West Show and helped popularize the cowboy myth. The Wild West Shows included mock fights between cowboys and Indians, and other exhibitions. Rodeo competitions include:

    Bronco Busting - Riding an unbroken horse, or bucking Bronco. The purpose is to stay on as long as possible.

    Bareback Riding – riding a horse without a saddle.

    Bulldogging – throwing a fast-moving steer to the ground, by holding and twisting its horns.

    Steer Riding – riding a steer, bareback, and staying on as long as possible.

    Roping – throwing the lariat (lasso) so as to catch and control a calf or steer.

    In addition, cowboys give exhibitions of skill in horseback riding, whirling the lariat, shooting, and more.

    Did You Know…?

    Sandra Day O'Connor’s grandfather was a pioneer cattle rancher in Greenlee County. She grew up near Duncan, AZ and was homeschooled on the family’s 300-acre ranch. She originally wanted to be a cowgirl, but she changed her mind and attended law school instead. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to be the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Arizona Cowboy Action Shooters

    The Arizona Cowboy Shooters Association (ACSA) is a club that promotes 1890’s era cowboy action shooting at its finest. This family-oriented sport is based on fellowship and developing a common bond, using vintage weapons and historic costumes centered around the cowboy era. Members get to fulfill their cowboy fantasies by dressing up in authentic, period correct cowboy attire, and using replica weapons like those that tamed the old west.

    The ASCA’s friendly shooting competitions are staged in a unique, characterized, "Old West" style. Each participant is required to adopt a shooting alias appropriate to a character or profession of the late 19th century, or a Hollywood western star, and develop a costume accordingly. They like to socialize with other cowboys and cowgirls that share the same interest while passing on shooting tips or just swapping good stories. Matches are held at the Ben Avery Shooting Facility. Visit or for more information.

    On Arizona Statehood Day, February 14, the cowboy shooters will dress in uniforms and civilian clothing of the Civil War period to relive some genuine Arizona history as they reenact the “Battle of Picacho Pass” at Ben Avery Shooting Range. A synopsis of the Union and Confederate maneuvers in Arizona during the Civil War will be provided. Stages will be designed to represent some of the major events leading up to and including the final battle at Picacho Peak.

    Recommended Reading

    Cowboy ABC, by Chris Demarest. (The rhyming text teaches cowboy terms and vocabulary.)

    Cowboy: An Album, by Linda Garfield. (An illustrated history of the cowboy way of life.)

    Cowboys of the Wild West, by Russell Freedman. (The true story of the men who inspired the legend—the original trail-driving cowboys who worked on the open range in the 1890’s.)

    Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day. (The authors have taken all the themes of a conventional Western – the roundup, wild horses, cattle stampedes, rattlesnakes, flash floods, dusty roads, and cowboys – and woven them into a story about three generations of a ranch family living on the border of AZ and NM.)

    Little Britches, by Ralph Moody. (This series is like Little House on the Prairie for boys, and a great family read-aloud. The author went on to write eight books about his ranching adventures. Through his eyes we experience all the pleasures and perils of ranch life in the early 20th century – auctions, family picnics, roundups, irrigation wars, tornadoes and more.)

    The American West, by Christine Hatt. (This history sourcebook uses original documents, along with photos and maps, as a starting point for studying the American West. It includes chapters on the Westward Expansion, The Cattle Kingdom, On the Ranch, and The Decline of the Cowboy.)

    The Log of a Cowboy: a Narrative of the Old Trail Days, by Andy Adams. (Andy Adams – that sounds like a cowboy’s name, doesn’t it? He spent nearly 12 years in the saddle in Texas, before writing this accurate depiction of cow country, range life, and trail work. This is the down-to-earth story of a cattle drive from Mexico to Montana in 1882, busting with exciting scenes of stampedes and river crossings, rustlers and Indians. It reads like the true-life journal kept by a cowboy to while away empty hours on the trail.)

    The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West: 1840-1900, by Candy Moulton. (This book shows you firsthand what it was like to tame the prairies, fight the battles and build the boom towns. From things people ate to what they wore, this book is packed with historical accounts, maps and photographs to give you a complete perspective on this fascinating era. More than a reference book, this guide is like a trip back to the Old West.)

    Wild West, by Mike Stotter. (Hardy pioneers, resourceful Indians, gold-seeking prospectors, the lone cowboy – all were part of the vast, unsettled West. Learn about ranches and ranchers, the dangers facing a cowhand on the trail, outlaws and gunslingers, the advent of the iron horse, etc.)

    Recommended Websites (The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has an interactive children’s website with a cowboy quiz, coloring pages, games, puzzles, songs, etc.) (Trail Drives of the Old West: How it All Began.)


    These pages are a continuous work in progress.
    Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
    All rights reserved.


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