September 10, 2011

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There's much more to being a cowboy than many of the romanticized images show.

“Perhaps the cowboy, riding his horse across an endless prairie, has become a symbol of what we used to be, or at least think we used to be, and of what we would be if we could,” John R. Erickson writes in his book The Modern Cowboy (2004).

“He doesn’t have to punch a time clock, drive through snarls of traffic every afternoon, shave or wear a tie to work, or to participate in hollow rituals in order to gain advancement. When he gets tired of the scenery, or if the boss crowds him too close, he packs his few possessions in a pickup and horse trailer and moves on to another ranch. In the American cowboy, we find qualities we deeply admire—simplicity, independence, physical strength, courage, peace of mind, and self-respect—but which, to one degree or another, we have surrendered in order to gain something else.”

In his wizened, no-nonsense account of life and work in the cattle industry during the 1960s and 1970s, Texas cowboy and author Erickson describes the sense of pride and longing that still informs this pop cultural view.

Erickson, however, is no romantic. During a phone conversation from his seven-thousand-acre ranch in the Texas Panhandle—rugged canyon country where moving cattle on horseback is essential—he suggests cowboy realities can be less inspiring than suburban mythologizing might indicate.

“When I was ten years old, I wanted to be a cowboy like my grandfather and great-grandfather,” Erickson says. “I’ve also been critical of people who write romantically about the cowboy, people who don’t ‘have the smell of the fire on them,’ you might say. There are people who have read a lot of books about cowboying, and they can talk eloquently about the honor of being a cowboy. I’ve felt that, too. But I’ve also been on the other side when it was a day like this—cold, overcast, and windy—and I didn’t feel too honored to be where I was.”

In other words, the work is physically demanding, the hours long, and the pay too often abysmal. Still, Erickson says, he’s never seriously considered another line of work.

A Negative Term

Scholars echo this ambivalence, taking pains, too, to set the historical record straight. Historians of the American West say the term “cowboy,” through much of the nineteenth century, had a distinctly pejorative cast, a word commonly associated with bands of unruly young men who were as likely to be stealing cattle as tending them.

This unromantic type of cowboy established his bad reputation in Texas, where struggles between Anglo settlers and established Mexican ranchers led to decades of political instability and lawlessness. Think Sergio Leone rather than John Ford.

In his 1947 classic, The Longhorns, J. Frank Dobie wrote that until various “wild west shows” changed perceptions in the 1880s, calling someone a cowboy was to infer dereliction, drunkenness, and thievery. Historian Paul Carlson of Texas Tech University cites evidence of this in a recent essay, quoting antebellum rancher John Clay’s less-than-laudatory assessment of cowboys. They were, Clay writes, “a devil-may-care, roistering, gambling, immoral, revolver-heeled, brazen, light-fingered lot, who usually came to no-good end.”

This is not to say all cowhands were of ill repute: Most ranch workers in Texas as elsewhere were perfectly respectable and hardworking. It’s just that these workers didn’t usually end up on cattle drives.

Magnets for Vice

Long drives were reserved for the least experienced, most-expendable workers: the young, the rootless, and the delinquent. Far from being celebrated, when these “cowboys” approached more civilized trading and transshipment centers up the trail—cities like Springfield, Kansas City, and St. Joseph—they were viewed with trepidation, if not outright hostility.

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