The age of the historical cowboy has long gone yet the symbolism of that period still thrives today. The legend of the cowboy is synonymous with American identity despite being rooted in mostly fiction.
America needs its myths
Myths are popular methods for learning and understanding our history. In American culture, the cowboy story is of particular note. The cowboy’s doings and goings, real and imaginary, include a considerable portion of our national ethos. “His” qualities, both good and bad, consistently receive attention in film and television and other cultural forms. This phenomenon is ripe for analysis. In the end, it is clear the cowboy story is more fiction than fact, and that is just fine.
Why are myths still relevant today?
Before we can understand the cowboy myth, we must first address the concept of “myth.” According to historian Richard Slotkin, myth “is the primary language of historical memory: a body of traditional stories that have over time, been used to summarize the course of our collective history and to assign ideological meanings to that history.” In this way, myths serve to define a culture, and more importantly, how participants of that culture want to be defined. Such definitions are accomplished through the creation of heroes and villains, icons and symbols, who together represent the values of that culture.
Myths are alive and well today (even in America). Stories and legend serve an essential role in modern culture, and it would be a mistake to dismiss them as tales of fiction and times bygone. Myths are often rooted in truth, which has merely morphed through powers of narration and “fictional elaboration.” No American tale has suffered such “fictional elaboration” more than the cowboy (other than perhaps the tales surrounding instrumental American figures such as Lincoln and Washington).
We now endeavor to rediscover the Ameican cowboy myth. We will learn about the historical cowboy, the origins of the myth, answer whether there is any truth to the myth, and reasons why the myth as succeeded through the ages.
The historical cowboy
America is replete with icons, the most famous of which is the American cowboy. We all know the image well: the cowboy on the range, with a six-shooter on the hip, the horse and the approaching ride off into the sunset. He symbolizes America’s desire of a never-ending movement westward, itching for adventure, resolute on manifest destiny. He is everywhere. He is in film, literature, art, television, and various other cultural forms.
Where did this icon come from and is his story one of pure myth or a mixture of myth and reality?
Importantly, “cowboys” were not created in America. In fact, the tending of cattle as a profession has its roots in Europe, particularly in Spain. The American cowboy learned the trade by emulating Spanish and Mexican settlers. It was during this time such words as “rodeo, buckaroo, chaps, lariat, lasso, latigo, remuda and even the word ranch itself” became synonymous with the cowboy.
The story of the cowboy begins as the Civil War ends. After the war, cattle were in considerable demand and Texas was the home of most cattle ranches; Texas would eventually be the leading supplier of beef for most of the country. Happening simultaneously was the opening of the frontier and the shift west for settlers.
The cowboy’s job was to herd and transport cattle from ranch to market. As such, and as the beef demand rose after the Civil War, the demand for the cowboy, as a laborer, also rose. Couple the promise of work with the desire for (perceived) adventure, many ex-confederates from the southern states rushed west to start anew. The historical cowboy also included many former slaves, vaqueros from Mexico, and new immigrants.
Being a cowboy was a hard job. It often included living outdoors for extended lengths of time, enduring all sorts of weather and natural calamities, Indians and robbers, hunters and predators. The primary role of the cowboy, of course, was to get the rancher’s property (cattle) to market. But transportation by trail was no easy task, and the herd was frequently lost in transit. Once delivered, riches were never guaranteed; in fact, cowboys often took only what was left after the rancher’s profit was cut, usually only enough for some food, a place to sleep, and a small amount of spending money. The historical cowboy led a grueling life full of hard labor. Most died at a young age. The renegade image of the cowboy has no basis in fact and accomplishes very little in helping us understand what it meant to be an American cowboy. The cowboy was a product of post-war demographics and economy; as such, he “lasted a very brief time, roughly from about 1865 to about 1890.”
The mythical cowboy
The distinction between the historical and mythical cowboy is difficult to delineate. According to Walter Prescott Webb, a frontier historian of the early 1900s, cowboys as myths can be described as a man that:
Lives on horseback as do the Bedouins; he fights on horseback, as did the knights of chivalry; he goes armed with a strange new weapon which he uses ambidextrously and precisely; he swears like a trooper, drinks like a fish, wears clothes like an actor, and fights like a devil. He is gracious to the ladies, reserved towards strangers, generous to his friends and brutal to his enemies. He is a cowboy, the typical Westerner.
The cowboy’s home in American literary tradition has taken root for over a century. Owen Wister’s book The Virginian, published in 1902, was the first of its kind in its treatment of the cowboy.
The antagonist of the book is considered the first stereotypical presentation of what we now know as the cowboy character. The Virginian is above all a love story but it digs deep into the dynamics at play between competing ranchers and their laborers — the cowboys. Wister found success because his book’s cowboy character (the Virginian) offered readers a hero, an American knight to be glorified.
Another important work is Andy Adams’s The Log of a Cowboy. Published in 1903, The Log of a Cowboy is an important social text that assists in highlighting the discrepancy between the historical and mythical cowboy, and it reveals much about the myth’s progression. Adams’s primary focus was to be historically accurate and in this he was successful.
The Log of a Cowboy was a mixture of autobiography and historical fiction. The book itself was technically fiction but it is nevertheless considered an accurate depiction of what it meant to be a cowboy, with much of the focus placed on a long cattle drive across the country. The book did not receive any sort of literary acclaim but historians later accredited it as an influencail social text: according to one critic, the book was ‘too true to be good.’
Over the past century, the cowboy narrative has become a mythical and unworkable affair due primarily to authors who, unlike Adams, chose to focus on popular interest rather than historical reality. While different angles were sometimes taken, the story remains largely untouched. The story remains mostly false.
Most of the cowboy myth was initially propagated in literature. Aside from larger print novels, the greatest influence can be traced from the success of the dime novel. Dime novels were published works of fiction popularized in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Such novels told the adventures of all of the frontier’s famous characters, from hunters and miners to outlaws and lawmen. The dime novel offered readers the chance for a pre-industrial order remembrance, “a place in which machines still stand in gardens and where everyone is a worker.” In such works the heroes and villains are the “defender(s) of a particular kind of civilization: the agrarian democracy and in identifying with him, the reader can indulge sentiments of resentment and rebellion.”
The dime novel greatly increased the exposure and popularity of the cowboy. It was through the publishing of Prentiss Ingraham’s novels that the cowboy’s place in American myth became all but fixed. In particular, according to historian Don Russell, it was in Ingraham’s Buck Taylor, King of the Cowboys where we can trace the first actual cowboy hero.
Buck Taylor was presented as a fighter on horseback, an adventurer who always carried his guns strung about his hips. Taylor would climb cliffs, lasso steed, and fight. Through Buck Taylor, King of the Cowboys, the cowboy myth gained wide popularity countrywide.
The myth has only grown since the explosion of movies dedicated to the cowboy. The Western movie or television show is commonplace in American culture. It even has its own genre. Despite the seemingly endless supply of movies and shows within this genre, the cowboy is usually portrayed in much the same manner. While the image of the cowboy has steadily shifted towards realism in recent films, for nearly a century the cowboy was portrayed as a man who:
“Always roped better, rode better, sang better, and shot better than anyone. They were strong, handsome, and intelligent, and they never smoked, cursed, or drank whiskey. They always had coins to pay for their food, and they never had to change clothes, brush their teeth, or go to the restroom.”
Consider the “cowboy code” expressed by actor Gene Autry:
A cowboy never takes unfair advantage, even of an enemy. A cowboy never betrays a trust. A cowboy always tells the truth. A cowboy is kind to small children, to old folks, and to animals. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudice. A cowboy is always helpful, and when anyone’s in trouble he lends a hand. A cowboy is a good worker. A cowboy is clean about his person, and in thought, word, and deed. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and the laws of his country. A cowboy is a patriot.
The myth of the cowboy also portrays them as avid gunfighters. The mythical cowboy and the mythical frontier leads one to believe that all towns west of the Mississippi consisted of fierce and deadly people, that you could not enter a barbershop or saloon without getting into an altercation that would invariably lead to a town-watched gunfight. With the overuse of the gun as imagery, the cowboy all but certified his future as America’s most enduring myth. Writers and directors knew then, as they do now, that by giving the cowboy his sidearm, even the dullest western could be invigorated by a bit of gun fighting. Today, the cowboy and gunfighter are indistinguishable.
The cowboy as an American cultural icon
According to historians Joe Frantz and Julian Choate, the cowboy story subsists on distinct levels:
The “American cowboy exists on three distinct levels — the historical level, about which the average American cares and knows no more than he does about any other phase of nonmilitary or nonpolitical history; the fictional level, in which the cowboy occupies a not quite respectable but highly popular position; and the folklore level, on which the cowboy sits as an idealized creation of the American folk mind.”
The actual cowboy (the historical character), for the most part, vanished with the settlement of the West and the scarce non-fictional works do not accurately paint the whole picture. The atmosphere of the West, through ever-expansion and mystique, allows the cowboy myth to not only occur but flourish. At America’s cultural core, “the popular images of the West are recognized as an integral and indispensable part of American ethos and identity.” To the west was America’s future and natural evolution; as such, western authors depicted the cowboy protagonist very unsurprisingly as a gentleman who sought “movement, isolation, change [and] fresh beginnings.” Additionally, according to R.W.B. Lewis, the cowboy was the “American Adam.” The cowboy was perceived by most as an exclusively American character.
The mythical cowboy overwhelms the historical cowboy. Americans have trouble distinguishing the two since so little is presented about the historical cowboy. The result creates a false account of history. Put simply, we are taught to believe the mythical account as truth. As we have seen, this could not be farther from the truth. By and large, cowboys were “common workingmen.” Never did the historical cowboy follow the “Cowboy Code” as a rule. It did not exist. Undoubtedly there existed men honorable cowboys. But that does not mean cowboys, in and of themselves were good. Upon closer examination, it is equally troubling in how the myth of the cowboy as a chivalrous modern knight existed in times of apparent never-ending violence. In fact, “the shootout that’s dear to Hollywood seldom, if ever, occurred in these cattle towns.”
America was in search of a new homegrown champion. European heroes would not do. Instead, Americans fell in love with the cowboy, a man firmly in control of himself and his fate. It just so happens that his fate serves as the epithet of the American dream, a self-made man. He is individualistic, opportunistic, a hard-worker, and a dreamer. In essence, he is the symbol of the core American values.
As a symbol, the cowboy serves as an powerful mirror for national ethos.
He “has embodied all the virtues of the Anglo-American. You can accept him, either as completely good or as completely bad, or as Robin Hood who will bend the law to aid the unfortunate. Good or bad, he meets the challenges of the day, never quailing before the odds, never craven when facing a stampede or the exit end of a Winchester barrel.”
It would be tough to imagine American culture without the cowboy. Nor could a replacement be easily implanted. Spacemen, aliens, superheroes, soldiers, and the like have all attempted to replace the cowboy as the quintessential American icon and all have failed. This fact is even more interesting when one considers that, comparatively speaking, the historical cowboy did nothing of great historical significance.
Nevertheless, the story of the cowboy is central to us Americans and the conceptions of our past. Of course, we would favor him being exciting and captivating, not ordinary. Put simply, if we are to construct a national hero, we want him to be more of who we want to be rather than who we actually are. Regardless, the cowboy still serves as a heritage symbol for many.
Our country is a relative newcomer on the world stage. Our “own” history is rather young compared to other nations. As such, we have had comparatively little time to progress our own popular culture. What culture we did have in the 1800s was in large part a residue of our colonial days. The Civil War and the move westward provided the breathing room for new national identity to evolve. Suddenly, with such an apparently endless amount of expansion possible, America had the opportunity to reinvent itself. This “reinvention” had its characters and the cowboy was central among them. Put another way, American needed to create its myths if it truly wanted to be separated from our European forbearers. One can find examples everywhere in our culture where Americans have created and held its own myths: Washington and the apple tree, Franklin and his kite, Lincoln and log-splitting, and the cowboy, with his horse, gun, and chivalry.
While the narrative is unique, America’s creation of the cowboy as a cultural symbol is not. The most glaring similarity can be found in England’s literary creation of the myth of the knight. In literature, the English knight eventually became the personification of the nation’s self-styled attributes and values. English literature is replete with examples of Arthurian legend that highlight the warrior-chivalric ideal. Over the course of several hundred years, a complex code for knights was developed. He was expected to be generous to all, especially to the noble, virtuous, helpless, and poor. He was to be humble and loathed to senseless violence. He was to uphold the right, know the arts, and to always remain courageous and chivalric. He was a romantic.
The historical record of England does not adequately support the literary construct of the English knight. By all accounts the knight was not as represented; he was not an endlessly romantic, chivalrous character. In reality, the English knights were originally German warriors, esteemed solely for their battlefield competence. Like the knight, America chose to create a unifying figure comprised entirely of those qualities deemed idealistic. The comparison between the English knight and the American cowboy is made even more remarkable when one considers the ideals each embodied.
The mythmaking process itself serves an important cultural function as it helps the nation create (or recreate) its image. Problems arise, however, when myth is regarded as truth. When such a distortion occurs, we do ourselves a disservice to our national memory. We owe it to our forbearers to remember them as they were not as we hope they were. This is easier said than done when one considers the intrinsic nature of our literary tradition. For the most part, authors write so that people will read. If given the choice to write a dull picture with little to no hope of readership and an embellished story sure to catch the populace by storm, most writers will choose the latter. That is exactly what happened to the story of the cowboy. The fictionalized account has landed such a large following over time it is now difficult for people to consciously remove themselves from the myth. Put simply, Americans choose to remember the myth. They choose to live a falsity, and that is just fine. The mythical cowboy is a valuable symbol to emulate, regardless whether that symbol is rooted in fiction over fact.