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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.

Author: Rebekah Brooks
Date: Jan 30, 2012 - 11:45:33 AM

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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 across country.

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 the cowboys.

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.

Rebekah Brooks is a freelance writer and lover of history who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers such as the Salem News in Massachusetts and the Dover Community News in New Hampshire. Rebekah has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of New Hampshire.

View all articles by Rebekah Brooks

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