From the Ranch to Hollywood: The origins and cultural development of the cowboy in the U.S.

The term cowboy was used for the first time back in the 18th century. Since that time, it has developed in different regions in the U.S, and it has managed to leave a cultural footprint in the country and become an icon of popular culture for years to come. Focusing on the Wild West and the untamed region of the South, the exploration of the origins and the development of the cowboy, from a rancher to an action icon, has become a lucrative myth that transformed the cultural aspects of the American West.

Origins of the myth

The term cowboy has various origins, and it can be found in many interpretations. The earliest use of the word was back in 1725 when a man called Jonathan Swift used that word to describe boys who tended the community or the family cows. The Oxford Dictionary provides three exciting and diverse definitions. A cowboy is a man who rides a horse and whose job is to take care of cattle in the western parts of the U.S. A cowboy is a character in a film about the American West. Lastly, a cowboy is a dishonest person in business, especially somebody who produces work of lousy quality or charges too high a price. Three different definitions, yet all of them are correct.

The origins of the cowboy can be traced back to Spain, with the beginning of the medieval system in the country. There was a need for a particular style of cattle ranching that required someone to mount a horse. Thus the vaquero word (vaca, meaning cow) was created, to describe someone who managed cattle while mounted on horseback. Glenn R. Vernam, in his book “Man on a Horseback,” mentions that the Conquistadors introduced the vaqueros in the 16th century, in what is today Florida and Mexico.

From that moment, the Spanish and the early American cultures merged to spread the vaqueros throughout Mexico and the southwestern United States with a high concentration of them in the states of California and Texas.

From 1840 to 1870, there was an increasing mingling of different cultures in what is today California and Texas, which gave birth to the term cowboy. In California, this imported tradition from Spain soon found its roots, creating the “buckaroo tradition”. The word buckaroo is believed to be the anglicized version of the word vaquero. It first appeared in American English in 1827 and it is used to describe a man who is a highly skilled worker, and who usually stays on the same ranch he was born. Although the term might still be used in some parts of California, the most popular and romanticized term for these high-skilled workers is the word cowboy.

Meanwhile in Texas, the early Spanish settlers had developed the art of cattle herding, to such an extent that Spain was offering grants to attract more settlers. Following the independence of Texas in 1836, more American settlers arrived in Texas, where the strong influence of the vaqueros and their expertise in horseback herd cattle, was combined with livestock-handling traditions and culture from the Eastern United States and Great Britain.

As a result, the Texas cowboy was born, which represented a man who hired on with different outfits from season to season. Historian Terry Jordan argued back in 1982 about the development of the cowboy in Texas, saying: “Particularly after the American Civil War, some Texas traditions that have developed can be traced to colonial South Carolina, as most settlers to Texas were from the southeastern United States”. His thoughts contradict the popular belief of the Texan influence upon the cowboy tradition, that in his view might have been less important than we thought.

With the statement of the historian Terry Jordan, about the influences of cowboy tradition, an intriguing question arises. If the origins of the cowboy can be traced back to humble livestock ranchers from Spain, how is it possible for this term to be so influential and romanticized in the U.S and around the world?

A quintessential symbol in the making

The answer lies in the time when these livestock ranchers started to appear, back in the so-called American Frontier or Wild West, where the cowboy was the quintessential symbol of the Old West. Following the end of the American Civil War, and with the rapid expansion of the cattle industry, many soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy came west to seek more job opportunities.

Alongside them came many African-Americans, who were drawn to the cowboy life, primarily because there was not as much discrimination as they had faced in the east and the south. At that point, with the massive movement of people towards the west, a new personal culture had developed.

Lewis Atherton, the author of the book “The Cattle Kings: Legendary Ranchers of the Old West”, describes this new culture as a unique blend of frontier and Victorian values that were characterized by chivalry, hazardous work, and individualism, with great value on personal honesty.

The cowboys that often worked in long-distance cattle drives had to be properly equipped, hence the western attire became more popular and more suitable. The attire included clothing that was suitable for the harsh work of the cowboy, such as bandanas, chaps, boots, gloves, jeans, and the iconic cowboy hat that became a symbol of the American West.

Besides that, to protect themselves from bandits and thieves, the cowboys were equipped with iconic weaponry, like rifles, revolvers, pistols, lassos, bullwhips, and bowie knives. From that point, the mythology of the West began, which tried to portray them as the ideal representation of chivalry and masculinity, rather than just hard-working cattle herders and ranchers.

The mythology of the West began in the mid-19th century with minstrel shows and popular music in saloons and bars. However, what captivated the people and expanded the myth of the West, were the so-called dime novels, which were a form of popular fiction issues that were very affordable to the public.

By exaggerating the truth and simplifying the reality of the west at that time, the novels managed to captivate the attention of the people while presenting tales of violence and heroism from the cowboys against the “savage” Indians and stereotypical battles between virtuous lawmen and ruthless outlaws and bandits, with the background of the Wild West. These tales were quickly spread throughout the U.S and were romanticized by many artists that further promoted western lore, in a time when the Wild West started to disappear with the turning of the 20th century.

American painter Frederick Remington, who helped preserve the western lore with the passing of the era, wrote: “I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever. I saw the living, breathing end of three American centuries of smoke and dust and sweat”. Besides the artists, western lore was popularized by influential figures of that time, like William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, whose shows displayed cowboy themes with the most famous one being Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which was founded in 1883.

Another important figure was President Theodore Roosevelt, whose image of a man wearing his hats as an explorer, hunter, or rancher, and his image of a part-time cowboy and a “Rough Rider”, managed to further popularize the cowboys, especially on an international level. If those representations of the 19th century managed to captivate the people in the U.S, then the introduction of the cowboy theme in Hollywood in the 20th century, managed to skyrocket the image of the cowboys internationally.

The cowboy in the big screen

In the 20th century, movies provided a lot of material that captivated the curiosity of their audience by presenting a new genre of film. The Western genre. Directors like John Ford managed to present the mythological essence of the Wild West, through numerous movies such as Stagecoach (1939), or The Searchers (1956), and actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood managed to exemplify the persona of a cowboy as an ideal masculine idol.

Actors like John Wayne are the perfect example of this masculine idol development. The persona of John Wayne managed to perfectly represent the ideal image of a more romanticized cowboy, not only because of the typical cowboy attire and equipment but because his performances were instrumental in shaping the stereotypical collective image of what a cowboy was meant to be.

He has been involved in westerns that have helped shape American cinema, with the most iconic being the movie Stagecoach (1939), a typical representation of the American West. John Wayne’s character Ringo Kid represents a man of character and principles that chooses to defy the law because he is bound to a higher moral code. The moral ethics and the chivalrous code of the cowboy are exaggerated throughout popular culture, and in a way, it has been the primary force that shapes the cowboy culture and the so-called code of the West.

However, such movies and the fictional characters that John Wayne and other actors portrayed, have been at the center of criticism regarding racial issues. Film historian Roger Ebert wrote back in 2011 about the romanticized character of John Wayne, who although is a wanted murderer, is presented as a man with no evil intentions who is willing to protect the women on the stagecoach.

Also, Ebert mentions the portrayal of Native Americans, who in many Western movies are always pictured as the bad, savage Indians: “The film’s attitudes toward Native Americans are unenlightened. The Apaches are seen simply as murderous savages; there is no suggestion the white men have invaded their land. Ford shared that simple view with countless other makers of Westerns, and if it was crude in 1939, it was even more so as late as “The Searchers” (1956), the greatest Ford/Wayne collaboration”.With that being said, John Wayne still stands today as the clearest definition of what a cowboy was meant to be in the mythological cultural identity of the Old West.

The cultural legacy

Apart from the influential work of the movie industry, there have been other cultural sectors that helped to improve the image of the cowboy. For example, in sports, there is the famous rodeo. It is argued by many that rodeo athletes represent the true cowboy spirit of simple and humble folks that have a very particular set of skills.

The fact that for a time there was no difference between working and rodeo cowboys allowed the assumption that all cowboys worked both on ranches and had skills in rodeo, which allowed the rapid spread of the sport.

Music has also been a driving factor for the romantic image of the cowboy. Particularly in country music, the cowboy image has been represented with an element of glory and mystery. Songs like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (1978) by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings or  “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” by Toby Keith (1993), have captivated the imagination of its audience and added a tone of what it means to be from the West.

Finally, the linguistic slang that followed the rise of the cowboys, has been also exported on an international level. However, most of the time, it comes with a negative association. Originally, this negative association derived from the behavior of some cowboys in cattle towns that were described as violent and wild.

It has been used to describe reckless behavior from an individual that ignores the dangers, or it is used to describe a tradesman that does a lousy job, or finally a reckless and fast driver on highway roads. Also, most notably it has been used at a political level, with TIME magazine referring to the foreign policy of George W. Bush as “Cowboy Diplomacy”.

In conclusion, the aspect of the cowboy in the Old West has flourished throughout the United States and in the world. Personas like John Wayne, have further developed the curiosity of the world towards the cowboy image and even nowadays we tend to think of the cowboy as it was portrayed by John Wayne.

The United States has even a day dedicated to the cowboy. The National Day of The Cowboy, every fourth Saturday in July, recognizes the hardworking symbol of the American West. Since there is a whole day dedicated to the image of the cowboy some may argue that indeed it is an important cultural representation.

The fact is, in the end, the symbol of the cowboy has left a remarkable cultural footprint in the history of the United States that has passed from generation to generation, and it is unlikely to stop any time soon.

Nikita Triandafillidis
Nikita Triandafillidis
Bachelor's Degree in International Relations & Political Science. Columnist focusing on Global Affairs