Cowboys: Shaking Off the Dust

How is it possible to say something fresh about cowboys and cattle trails? This is a story that has been scrutinized by historians, hyped by novelists, and mythologized beyond recognition by filmmakers. Is this subject done and dusted?

Taking the time to read a few original accounts of those trail days reveals surprising stories underneath the layers of mythological dust that confound the myths. By the time the old-timers got around to reminiscing about their youthful days on the trail, they already knew the shape of the myth and “remembered” things happening in a way that confirmed the romance of the “Old West.” But contemporaneous journals expose a gritty core of the cattle drives, not the cowboy as seen through rose-colored glasses, but a view of the proletariat on horseback trying to make out the trail through mud-encrusted eyeballs.

What stands out most in these accounts is the sheer boredom of the trail experience. Weeks of mind-numbing and soul-crushing dreariness would be punctuated suddenly with moments of terror—life-threatening stampedes, river crossings, and thunderstorms. No wonder this was a job for out-of-work farm teenagers or economically marginalized African-Americans and Hispanics. And no wonder that so few wanted to repeat the experience. After three months on the cattle trail, some workers had so much dust in their lungs that they coughed up brown phlegm for weeks. To stay awake for sixteen to twenty hours a day for weeks on end, cowboys rubbed tobacco juice on their eyes, using pain as a stimulant. For stultifying monotony and the daily prospect of bodily harm, working with cattle rivaled the boredom and danger of any factory worker at the time. And the pay was worse.

It’s no surprise, then, that cowboys behaved like other industrial workers and went on strike. One attempt in Texas involved demands for higher wages, better conditions, and most unexpectedly, a more varied diet. “Cowboys strike for more vegetables” was not a story I expected to find. Cattle workers resented the proverbial beans and biscuits served up by the chuck wagon for all of those years because they were tasteless and stale. Despite being surrounded by seemingly endless numbers of cattle, cowboys seldom ate beef because the boss did not want the appetites of his hired hands to cut into his profits.

The cattle drives in some ways were simply a long walk from the Texas prairies to the Kansas train station, and they were as economically shaky as railroads and other Gilded Age enterprises. There was nothing natural about cattle markets. A “bull market” could crash just as quickly as it rose. And there was another striking element no one ever sees in the movies—cowboys needed Indians. Cattle markets in Abilene and Dodge City were kept afloat by federal agents who bought up to 40 % of the longhorns spilling out of Texas as food for Native Americans recently forced onto reservations. This subsidy could mean the difference between profit and ruin. If cattle markets make you think of rugged individualists and free markets, of cowboys versus Indians, it’s time to think again.

And if your vision of a cowboy is a gunslinger on horseback you might want to rethink that as well. The current public debate over guns and gun control casts the cowboy in the mythological status as an armed avenger. Yet guns played a very small role in the life of the 19th century cattle drives. The public wearing of firearms was frowned upon in Texas and illegal in Kansas cattle towns. Pistols on the trail were generally considered an unnecessary encumbrance or worse. Some bosses prohibited workers from carrying guns for fear that a stray gunshot might start a stampede. Cowboys may have strapped on six-shooters when they expected danger or went into town, but guns were far more useful to dime novelists and Hollywood filmmakers than they ever were on the trail.

The biggest myth buster of all has to be the transformation of the cowboy into a hero. For decades if not centuries, herding livestock had been a low-status job filled by hard-scrabble whites, African-Americans, or Hispanics who worked on the fringes of polite society. They carried a reputation, sometimes earned, as cattle thieves who also had a penchant for violence and unruly behavior. As the cattle drives ended in the 1880s, popular culture cleaned up this unruly ruffian and transformed him into a pre-industrial hero who represented a nostalgic escape from the dreariness of modern life. Here was a champion with a gun to assert his manly independence and a horse to give him boundless freedom, leaving the actual trail experience covered in dust. As my book Up The Trail suggests, it’s time to shake it off. 

Tim Lehman is a professor of history at Rocky Mountain College. He is the author of Up the Trail: How Texas Cowboys Herded Longhorns and Became an American Icon, and Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations.