The history of the American cowboy was a relatively short period, and yet to most of the world and our current president, the cowboy embodies the American spirit.
Settlers from the eastern US started to arrive in Texas in the early 1820s. The first settlers brought with them the livestock handling traditions of the east, which was based on the English system. They soon realized that these methods were not as efficient as those used by the Spanish vaqueros in Mexico, of which Texas was a territory. The settlers adopted the dress, and supplemented their livestock techniques with those of the Mexican vaqueros. After Texas won it’s independence from Mexico in 1836, the flow of immigrants from the east increased and the size of cattle herds grew as well. To get the cattle to the population centers of the east, the large herds were driven to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska.
By the 1890s, the railroads had extended their reach with a web of short lines and spurs, all connected to the main lines. Around the same time, invention of barbed wire allowed a rancher to have more control over his herd. The need to drive herds of cattle long distances to reach the railroad was over and the cowboy’s role became that of a ranch hand.
Starting in the 1930s, Hollywood started to rewrite history with adventurous films of cowboys and lawless gunslingers riding the plains together, sharing drinks in the saloon, and gunfights in the street. The days of the cowboy were long and filled with hard work, leaving little time for carousing, but that reality doesn’t make a good movie.