Cowboys of the Wild West - Cowboys have became an American icon. They were hardworking farm hands who knew their way around a horse and could withstand the dangers of the trail. Over the years, the demand for cowboys waned and they became a thing of the past.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, many
Confederate soldiers came home to destroyed homes and towns. With no
jobs, homes or foreseeable future in the war-torn south, many of
these soldiers went west seeking work on farms and ranches. Due to a
newly expanded railroad, a product of the Pacific Railroad Act of
1862, it was easier than ever for these men to get there.
Cowboys weren't always white male Civil
War veterans. Many were also immigrants, native Americans and former
African-American slaves. Since many of these men already had
experience with horses while in the U.S. Cavalry, on plantations or
on the Indian territory, they found work easily but life as a cowboy
in the wild west was hard. The work consisted of two annual cattle
roundups in the fall and spring and long cattle drives to the nearest
rail head where the cattle would be loaded onto trains and shipped
While rounding up cattle, the cowboys
had to collect, inspect, sort, brand and castrate the animals before
heading to the market. The long cattle drives, which usually lasted
about four months, consisted of grueling 14-hour-days with just a few
hours of sleep each night. During the drives, the cowboys had to keep
a constant watch on the cattle and prevent them from wandering away
from the line. During the winter off season, these cowboys would
often hire themselves out as ranch hands and spend their money on
gambling, alcohol and prostitutes.
To protect themselves from the sun,
heat and injury while in the saddle, these cowboys often wore
clothing adopted from Mexican “buckaroos” such as bandanas,
leather chaps, boots, gloves, collarless-shirts and large-brimmed
hats. They also wore a type of pants, originally designed for mine
workers by Levi Strauss, known as blue jeans.
While out on the trail, the cowboy diet
consisted mostly of beans, bacon, black-eyed peas, corn, biscuits and
beef as well as catfish and shrimp from the local rivers and
waterways. Each drive had a cook and the food was prepared in the
cook's chuck wagon, a portable kitchen wagon that carried food, a
water barrel, eating utensils, linens, cooking utensils and folding
counters for chopping ingredients.
The towns where rail heads were located
soon came to be known as “cowtowns.” These towns, such as Dodge
City, Kansas and Fort Worth, Texas, earned a bad reputation as rowdy
cowboys would ride into town, deliver their cattle, get paid and hit
the town ready to spend their hard earned money. Many cowtowns passed
laws prohibiting cowboys from carrying guns into town and hired men
like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson to enforce these laws and control
Cowboys didn't earn much money for
their hard work, most averaged about $30 or $40 a month. The average
age of most cowboys was 24 and it was rare to find a cowboy over 30.
As a result of the hard work and low pay, most cowboys moved onto
other work after a few years. By the 1880s, open range ranches gave
way to fenced-in ranches, rendering cowboys obsolete.
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