You can call him a cowboy or cowhand, but never a cowpoke. And where did he come from?
"A MAN WITH GUTS AND A HOSS"
Gail L. Jenner
You can call him a cowboy or cowhand, but NEVER a cowpoke!
A unique cavalier, the American cowboy’s roots go back to the days of the early Mexican vaquero. Priding himself on being able to "ride anything with four legs and fur," he often showed off his skill by wrestling or riding maverick steers.
Contrary to the high-stepping cowboy, however, these early vaqueros went barefoot, or wore straw or rawhide sandals. Either way, they wore Spanish spurs that jangled and twirled while walking or riding. Expert ropers, they depended on lariats in an empty land where there were neither corrals nor fences and where a man might travel alone for days or weeks at a time. Ironically, however, the shooter (or pistol) was not part of his original equipment. It came much later in history.
But the vaquero’s hat was a very important piece of clothing; in the hot Southwest sunshine, it shielded him from the sun’s blistering rays and could be used as a canteen or basket if needed. It could even act as an umbrella, keeping rain from running down his back or in his eyes, and it could even protect a man’s ears from frostbite when turned down and tied over his ears.
The horse, or pony, was the vaquero’s single lifeline and companion across the vast stretches of desert or plains. Was it any wonder that horse thieving became the West’s most despised hanging offense?
As a result, the cowboy, derived from such a hardy breed, developed certain personal characteristics that we still recognize today:
He was tough, out of necessity.
He was a loner, or renegade – an independent character who found solace in the open territory separating the established United States of the post-Civil War era and the unsettled territories of the West.
He was loyal, finding purpose in the perilous and tedious job of following range cattle as they roamed all over Texas and the Southwest. With no one to shadow him, his word became his pledge, devotion his creed.
He was proud, deriving satisfaction from doing a job most men couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do. How many of these men died alone or destitute is impossible to calculate. Dying from accident, injury, illness, or attack, there are few records documenting their lives or their deaths.
Is it any wonder, then, that the cowboy of the late 19th century became a frequent hero in Western literature or that he still carries a certain mystique? A man of few words and quiet action, except for his bawdy, infrequent trips to town every few months, he lived a reclusive life, enhancing the romantic, mythical image of the tall, silent stranger riding into town on a dark and stormy night.
Exactly when did the American cowboy ride into history? As the Civil War ended, countless Texans returned home to find that the small herds that existed before the war had been allowed to roam; they then multiplied and spread out over much of the western frontier.
But, as markets lay to the north, and there were no railroads west of Missouri by which to transport the animals, the animals had to be driven. Thus, in the spring and summer of 1866, the great movement began: in all, 225,000 – 260,000 head of longhorn cattle and thousands of men crossed the Red River and headed north.
The obstacles were many: the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole), also farmers and stockmen, quickly grew alarmed as huge herds passed through their territory. With a legal right to limit or alter the cattle’s crossing, they often charged a toll for each head, or they forced the herds to follow trails that didn’t encroach upon their own grazing land.
But Indian trouble wasn’t even as serious as the resistance the cowboys met as they entered Kansas and Missouri. Texas longhorn cattle, tough in so many ways, unfortunately carried ticks that soon infected Northern cattle. From the ticks came the dreaded Texas of Spanish fever. So feared was the disease, that it was not uncommon for Kansas or Missouri stockmen to stop the Texas herds with shotguns and rifles.
In addition, Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers, left over from the war, found ample opportunity to raid, steal, and abuse the Texas cowboys, forcing many to pay a "ransom" so that their herds could move through unscathed.
And of course, there were physical and natural disasters that slowed the herds or cost lives, both animal and man. High, swollen rivers, or sudden floods, dust storms and rain storms were costly and dangerous. No wonder it took tough men, who, "come hell or high water" would push their cattle on.
Interestingly, most of these cowboys did not own their own cattle. Hired for a wage, they still remained loyal and devoted to getting their charges to their destination. The image of the lone cowboy, atop his pony, "building a smoke" and singing to his cows as the sun set in the west, is not far removed from the truth. And there are numerous stories of unnamed cowboys who sacrificed their own lives to save a herd.
Courage, honor, duty – these traits led to the code by which range cowboys lived. They demanded a square deal and despised cowards and traitors. They expected any man to pull his weight and to render assistance whenever necessary.
Indeed, "he’ll do to ride the river with," was just about the greatest compliment a cowboy could receive from his comrades. So – is it any wonder, really, that we still cherish this cavalier, this rugged, slow-talking knight in Levi jeans and chaps?