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The American Cowboy
 By Winniefield Park   •   17th Jan 2017   •   1,046 views   •   0 comments


Lots of people around the world work cattle from the back of a horse. In Australia, these people are traditionally called stockmen. They may also be called ringers or jackaroos. In Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and other places in South America, those who work cattle are called gaúchos. In Mexico, they may be called vaquero. In North America, cowboys are well known and easily identifiable.

The true age of the cowboy, the one we so often see depicted on TV and in movies only lasted about two decades. I read somewhere a long time ago, and I wish I could find the quote, that if all the movies about cowboys were played start to finish, one after the other, it would span a much longer time period than the actual era depicted. It doesn’t sit right with me that I seem to only write about cow ‘boys’. Yes, there were cow ‘girls’ but they were far fewer, as working cattle wasn’t considered work for women. No doubt, by choice or necessity, many did. And they too are the stuff of legends.

The actual term cowboy has been around since about the mid-1700's. Many of the cowboy traditions and symbols that we recognize evolved from Spanish vaquero traditions. But, the era of the cowboy, or ‘old west’ as we most often think of it, started with the first big cattle drive in 1867 and pretty much ended two decades later in 1886. The abrupt end came about because of a particularly cold winter that killed a large portion of the cattle on the range.

The open range was a harsh place. The cowboys themselves didn’t have it easy either. They spent long hours in the saddle, and death by exposure was as much a danger to them as to the stock they were tending. The most common cause of death, however, was being dragged by their horse. Being run over by the herd, and being struck by lightning were also common.

Spring and fall were round-up times. In the spring cattle were rounded up so that new calves could be branded. In the fall, the cattle being sent to market would be rounded up and brought to rail yards. The terms cowpoke and cowpuncher are often thought to be synonymous with cowboy, but these cattle workers were named for the work they did ‘poking’ cattle onto train cars with an early version of a cattle prod called a stick. Nevertheless, in many places these terms are used interchangeable.

Besides the western style saddle and trusty cow-horse, one of the most distinctive symbols of the cowboy era is the ten-gallon hat. A ten-gallon hat was used to protect the cowboy from the elements, to ward off bugs and could be used to hold water. A ten-gallon hat doesn’t hold ten gallons of water however. Rather, it’s estimated that it holds about ⅓ that amount. And, depending on what it is made of, may not hold it for very long. In fact, these hats weren’t even called ten-gallon hats until several decades after the cowboy era ended.

No one seems to know why it acquired the name. Gallon sounds like several Spanish words, such as tan gallon, which means ‘so gallant’ or galón, which means braid, which could have been worn around the crown or brim of the hat. Stetson started making ‘cowboy’ hats in the mid 1860s, but real cowboys during the time were just as likely to wear derbies, pork pie hats or top hats. Chaps to protect the rider's legs from cactus and prickly brushes, sturdy boots and a bandana rounded out the uniform of the cowboy.

Today, modern cowboys don the same gear to do much the same work, although they are just as likely to ride an ATV as a cowpony. While the era of the large cattle drives and wild west may be long past, the traditions of the cowboy have held on tightly.

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