Cowboys of The Wild West

Updated: June 12, 2024
Historically called "vaqueros" these cowboys were the heroes of the Wiled West in the U.S. from the 1800s through 1900s.

The word "cowboy" is a direct translation of the Spanish word "vaquero" - literally, cow man, referring to men who took care of cattle. In the Americas, the tradition of vaqueros dates back to the 16th century when the Spanish brought horses and domesticated cattle to the New World. In the American West in the 19th century, especially in Texas but also in California, the lifestyles of the Spanish and European settlers merged, giving rise to the cowboy of the West. An early settler of Texas described the region (not yet a part of the United States) as having " . . . countless droves of mustangs and wild cattle . . . abandoned by Mexicans when they were ordered to evacuate the country." The new settlers used these resources to create their unique lifestyle and cowboy ways.

The cattle industry expanded in the 1880's because of the greater demand for beef by the public and the building of railroad systems for distribution and into the Rocky Mountain west and the Dakotas. Due to the colder weather in these areas, the gear and clothing of the cowboy changed. Depending on the area, this included most of the following: a bandanna, chaps, cowboy boots, cowboy gloves, jeans, and a cowboy hat. But cowboys were always involved in the same activities - taking care of cattle, branding them, rounding them up, and driving them to market. Many ex-Civil War soldiers, Native Americans, and freed African-American slaves were drawn to the freedom of the life and the ability to work in a less discriminatory atmosphere. But cowboy work involved long hours and low pay: usually $1/day, food, and - if near the ranch - a room in a bunkhouse.

The Wild West Shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries popularized and glamorized the cowboy image. The image was further etched into the minds of people who never experienced real "cowboying" by movies, beginning in the 1920's. Often, historic cowboys in movies have been portrayed as fighting with Native Americans but this was unusual. The local tribes did, however, often charge a toll for driving herds through their lands - usually 10 cents a head.

These are photos of the real cowboys of the early West - and some of those who portrayed them in movies.
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