Let’s Talk History – Ranch Hand’s ( The Cow boys of The Past )

A Cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks!

The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and became a figure of special significance and legend. A subtype, called a wrangler, specifically tends the horses used to work cattle. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work for or participate in rodeos. There are also cattle handlers in many other parts of the world, particularly South America and Australia, who perform work similar to the cowboy in their respective nations.

Originally, the term may have been intended literally—”a boy who tends cows.” By 1849 it had developed its modern sense as an adult cattle handler of the American West. Variations on the word “cowboy” appeared later. “Cowhand” appeared in 1852, and “cowpoke” in 1881, originally restricted to the individuals who prodded cattle with long poles to load them onto railroad cars for shipping. Names for a cowboy in American English include buckaroo, cowpoke, cowhand, and cowpuncher.  These are terms pretty much common throughout the west and particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, “Buckaroo” is used primarily in the Great Basin and California, and “cowpuncher” mostly in Texas and surrounding states.

Below is a Cow Boy 1888c. PS HOLDING IT WAY DOWN!!!

Because of the time and physical ability needed to develop necessary skills, the cowboy often did began his career as an adolescent, earning wages as soon as he had enough skill to be hired, (often as young as 12 or 13) and who, if not crippled by injury, might handle cattle or horses for the rest of his working life. In the United States, a few women also took on the tasks of ranching and learned the necessary skills, though the “cowgirl” did not become widely recognized or acknowledged until the close of the 19th century.

Though popularly considered American, the traditional cowboy began with the Spanish tradition, which evolved further in what today is Mexico and the Southwestern United States into the vaquero of northern Mexico and the charro of the Jalisco and Michoacán regions.

While most hacendados (ranch owners) were ethnically Spanish criollos, many early vaqueros were Native Americans trained to work for the Spanish missions in caring for the mission herds. Vaqueros went north with livestock. In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate sent an expedition across the Rio Grande River into New Mexico, bringing along 7000 head of cattle. From this beginning, vaqueros of mestizo heritage drove cattle from New Mexico and later Texas to Mexico City. Mexican traditions spread both South and North, influencing equestrian traditions from Argentina to Canada.

As English-speaking traders and settlers expanded westward, English and Spanish traditions, language and culture merged to some degree. Before the Mexican-American War in 1848, New England merchants who traveled by ship to California encountered both hacendados and vaqueros, trading manufactured goods for the hides and tallow produced from vast cattle ranches. American traders along what later became known as the Santa Fe Trail had similar contacts with vaquero life. Starting with these early encounters, the lifestyle and language of the vaquerobegan a transformation which merged with English cultural traditions and produced what became known in American culture as the “cowboy”.

Below are is an image of the Santa Fe Trail/ And One map

By the 1880s, the expansion of the cattle industry resulted in a need for additional open range. Thus many ranchers expanded into the northwest, where there were still large tracts of unsettled grassland. Texas cattle were herded north, into the Rocky Mountain west and the Dakotas. The cowboy adapted much of his gear to the colder conditions, and westward movement of the industry also led to intermingling of regional traditions from California to Texas, often with the cowboy taking the most useful elements of each.  

American cowboys were drawn from multiple sources. By the late 1860s, following the American Civil War and the expansion of the cattle industry, former soldiers from both the Union and Confederacy came west, seeking work, as did large numbers of restless white men in general. A significant number of African-American freedmen also were drawn to cowboy life, in part because there was not quite as much discrimination in the west as in other areas of American society at the time.

A significant number of Mexicans and American Indians already living in the region also worked as cowboys. Later, particularly after 1890, when American policy promoted “assimilation” of Indian people, some Indian boarding schools also taught ranching skills.

Today, some Native Americans in the western United States own cattle and small ranches, and many are still employed as cowboys, especially on ranches located near Indian Reservations. The “Indian Cowboy” also became a commonplace sight on the rodeo circuit.

Because cowboys ranked low in the social structure of the period, there are no firm figures on the actual proportion of various races. One writer states that cowboys were “… of two classes—those recruited from Texas and other States on the eastern slope; and Mexicans, from the south-western region. …” Census records suggest that about 15% of all cowboys were of African-American ancestry—ranging from about 25% on the trail drives out of Texas, to very few in the northwest. Similarly, cowboys of Mexican descent also averaged about 15% of the total, but were more common in Texas and the southwest. Other estimates suggest that in the late 19th century, one out of every three cowboys was a Mexican vaquero, and 20% may have been African-American.

Regardless of ethnicity, most cowboys came from lower social classes and the pay was poor. The average cowboy earned approximately a dollar a day, plus food, and, when near the home ranch, a bed in the bunkhouse, usually abarracks-like building with a single open room. Over time, the cowboys of the American West developed a personal culture of their own, a blend of frontier and Victorian values that even retained vestiges of chivalry. Such hazardous work in isolated conditions also bred a tradition of self-dependence and individualism, with great value put on personal honesty, exemplified in songs and poetry.

Cow Boy Poem –

Here are the words to: I Ride An Old Paint (traditional)

I ride an old paint, I lead an old dan
I’m goin’ to Montana to throw the hoolihan
They feed in the coulees, they water in the draw
Their tails are all matted, their backs are all raw

Ride around little dogies, ride around them slow
For the fiery and snuffy are rarin’ to go

Old Bill Jones had a daughter and a son
One went to college, the other went wrong
His wife, she got killed in a poolroom fight
But still he’s a-singin’ from mornin’ till night

When I die, take my saddle from the wall
Place it on my old pony, lead him out of his stall
Tie my bones to my saddle and turn our faces to the West
And we’ll ride the prairie we love the best

I ride an old paint, I lead an old dan
I’m goin’ to Montana to throw the hoolihan
They feed in the coulees, they water in the draw
Their tails are all matted, and their backs are all raw

I learned a slightly different version of this song from an old Burl Ives record my Dad had years ago:

“Old Bill Jones had two daughters and a song;
one went to Denver; the other went wrong.
His wife, she died in a pool room fight.
Still he keeps singin’ all day and all night.”

 Geography, climate and cultural traditions caused differences to develop in cattle-handling methods and equipment from one part of the United States to another. In the modern world, remnants of two major and distinct cowboy traditions remain, known today as the “Texas” tradition and the “Spanish”, “Vaquero”, or “California” tradition. Less well-known but equally distinct traditions also developed in Hawaii and Florida.

Today, the various regional cowboy traditions have merged to some extent, though a few regional differences in equipment and riding style still remain, and some individuals choose to deliberately preserve the more time-consuming but highly skilled techniques of the pure vaquero or “buckaroo” tradition. The popular “horse whisperer” style of natural horsemanship was originally developed by practitioners who were predominantly from California and the Northwestern states, clearly combining the attitudes and philosophy of the California vaquero with the equipment and outward look of the Texas cowboy.

I hope you enjoyed this Let’s Talk History, Take a look into the History of the Cowboy for yourself and find that the ethics and quality of life that these men and woman lived by were genuine..  Lessons are always there to be learned, So it is us to go on and learn them.. Thanks for reading!


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About trovegeneralstore

TROVE GENERAL EST.2010 Trove General, located in Paoli, Pennsylvania, is a men's and women's clothing and accessories store, with a curated collection of home wares, books and apothecary. Stocking brands that value quality and craftsmanship, Trove merges aesthetic and authenticity with heritage brands such as Belstaff, Pendleton, Woolrich, Filson, Blundstone, and Dubarry, while also aiming to constantly introduce fresh brands and ideas suited for an outdoor lifestyle. Harkening back to the days of the original general store, Trove is rooted in it's location and community.. A place meant to make life simpler and more enjoyable. Welcomed feedback or inquires please email info@trovegeneral.com. 19 Paoli Shopping Center Paoli, PA 19301 Monday-Saturday: 10-5 Sunday: 12-5 P~ 484.320.8626
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