What is a Cowboy?
So you’re a fan of the Great American West? In a modern era where cowboys are pretty much relics of days gone by, the cowboy mysteriousness lingers persistently throughout American culture. Cowboys have an appeal and a romance that give them a mythical status in the culture and myth of the United States. Hollywood reinforces this stereotype. Over the years, dozens, if not hundreds of television shows, movies, and even TV commercials have turned the American cowboy into an symbol. Cowboys continue to be the subject of western fiction, its own type. Cowboys are also immortalized in Western Art, that is, the Art of the American West. This artistic sub-genre focuses on cowboys, Indians, and western themes. I have been a follower of cowboys and their way of life all of my life. There are many different types and sorts of cowboys that feed into the cowboy mystique. Here below is a short description of my cowboys, real and fictional.
The Working Cowboy
The working cowboy actually works with cows. They herd or drive cattle to market, and make a hard living off the land. The working cowboy is usually depicted as sleeping outside, under the stars, with his head on his saddle or bedroll and his boots turned upside down on a piece of wood in the ground nearby. This is to keep them dry and to prevent small creepy things getting into his boots while he is sleeping. His life is difficult and full of jeopardy, but he is a noble figure. The working cowboy has been the subject of western fiction since the classical novel of this genre was published. The Virginian by Owen Wister portrays a noble working cowboy who is the hero and protector of his isolated community in the wilderness. Modern fictional pieces often include the working cowboy as a main character. Generally these cowboys live for their work and love the land. Wranglers are working cowboys who specialize in working with horses or the remuda. Greenhorns or tenderfoots are new to working on the ranch. Plenty of real people are actual still working cowboys today and there are still some ranches in the U.S. who run and work their ranches in the old traditions. Albeit they now have the help of cell phones, laptop computers and music gadgets to help them through their long working day.
The Vaquero is a working cowboy of hispanic or Mexican descent. Vaquero is the Spanish name for cowboy. Vaqueros wore distinctive chaps (pronounced Shaps), often made from sheep’s wool, and uniquely decorated spurs. In his book Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtrey explores the two-sided relationship of the American working cowboys to the vaqueros. In his novel, the main characters respect the old vaquero’s work, but are deeply suspicious of his motives. The historical photos of vaqueros from the early nineteenth century depict tough men who are proud to embrace a different heritage than the American cowboys of the same era, while sharing a deep love for the rough terrain of the southwest.
The gunfighter comes from the same breed of men as the cowboy, but his motivations are entirely different. Both types are wanderers, without a tether to family or ties to a settled home town. Working cowboys are made rough and tough by a hard life working with cattle and horses, driving them across difficult terrain. Gunfighters are hardened by a life that is ruled by the quickness of the draw and the accuracy of aim. Gunfighters can be found all over the west, on both sides of the law. Sometimes they are soldiers of fortune, and sometimes they are card sharps. Other times they find their calling in law enforcement. Their skill with a gun is the key to their survival and success. Many of the categories of cowboys are also skilled gunfighters, but the cowboy who is a gunfighter first and foremost is a most dangerous breed. Historical figures who were gunfighters include Doc Holiday, a gambler who was a friend of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona. Doc Holiday was a gambler in poor health, but he was quick to the draw. Despite his poor physical health he was a dangerous and deadly foe, because his reflexes were so quick.
The outlaw wasn’t a type of cowboy per se, but like the gunfighter, he shares a common heritage. And what would a cowboy be without a few outlaws around. Rustlers, or cattle thieves, are a common outlaw of the old west, but not the only types. Lawlessness is one of the catchwords of the old west, and outlaws thrived there. Outlaws found easy prey in poorly-policed territories, and could hide from the law easily for weeks or even months in remote canyons and other hideaways. Some outlaws masqueraded as Native Americans and preyed upon stage coaches and other people on the move. The blame was easily cast upon the Indians. It is easy to name famous outlaws. Billy the Kid, the Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy are just a few.
Caballero is a Spanish term that literally means knight, and refers to knights of the middle ages. Caballeros are gentleman cowboys, and are often wealthy enough to pay attendants and a staff to assist them with the care of their horses and cooking while on the trail. Cabelloros are nobility of cowboy kind. Zorro is a famous caballero of TV and movie fame. He is a swash-buckling swordsman and a gentleman in every sense of the word. In Wickenburg, Arizona, the locally famous DC Ride is a by-invitation-only event, and its sponsor is the DC Riders, which stands for the Desert Caballeros Riders. The trail ride is over 40 years old, and takes the riders (almost exclusively wealthy older men) on a three-day catered trail ride into the Arizona back country. The riders hire grooms to care for their horses and have a really good time relaxing after a long day in the saddle. A similar woman’s ride, sponsored by Las Damas (the women) has a similar feel.
The Dude Cowboy.
A dude is a weekender who is interested in playing at being a cowboy and then going home. Dudes are tourists experiencing the thrill of the west. Dudes can experience the west by visiting dude ranches, also renamed Guest Ranches, for people who want to have an experience that is completely other than their own urban lifestyle. At a dude ranch, people are paid to do the work of ranch hands, then are put up in a sparsely furnished bunkhouse. I have been around horses most of my life in some form or other but I am not sure what category I would fall into. I don’t think myself of being a dude but I don’t think I could pass for a real cowboy. Trouble is, many people would love to be a cowgirl or cowboy, but just weren’t born to it or they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time (like myself), so I guess I’m not alone. Over the years, being a dude has come to have a mocking and entertaining meaning. The very funny 1992 movie City Slickers starring Billy Crystal is a good example of what I am talking about.
The Hollywood Cowboy
The Hollywood cowboy isn’t a real cowboy, but he plays one on TV. All dressed up for the silver screen, he hasn’t a misplaced hair on his head. He’s a pretty boy and a character, usually with a catch phrase, a nickname, and half a dozen movies to his credit. John Wayne, “The Duke” is the most famous of them all. He’s the big daddy of Hollywood cowboys. Before him was Tom Mix.
The Loner or Wanderer. A cowboy who lives alone and avoids the company of other men. He is a drifter. Without a tether to family or community, the wandering cowboy is viewed with great suspicion. Usually the loner nurses a troubled past, which he keeps heroically and tragically buried to protect the few people he gets close to. When the moment is right, the loner proves his worth as a hero, and is accepted into the community. At this point, the loner packs his bags and rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. The film “Shane” with Alan Ladd (my all time favourite film) is a typicial example of the loner. Clint Eastwood played many loners in his western roles, including one of my favorite cowboy movies, Pale Rider. Loners are often gunmen, and sometimes outlaws, but usually they are just deeply troubled.
(enclosed photo is used with the kind permission of Mirko Seidel. Click on photo for link to their website)
The Cowboy Artist
The cowboy artist is a subcategory of cowboy that seems modern, but dates back to the mid and late nineteenth century. The cowboy artist is anyone who primarily chooses cowboys, Indians, the American West, or horses as the subject of their art work. Cowboy artists can also be singers and poets, too. Some cowboy artists are working cowmen (or women, as the case may be), who, being naturally inclined to work with their hands, have turned to some form of artistic expression. A popular form for cowboy artists is sculpture. It is surprising how easily cowboys turn to this difficult craft. Many a cowboy artist has created spectacular works of art with little or no previous art experience. Cowboy art is a well-paid niche for artists who want to make a little money from their work, so the arena of western art is filled with dudes and wannabes. One of the most famous groups of cowboy artists was created by a group of artists who met at a Scottsdale bar and founded the Cowboy Artists of America.
An Urban Cowboy
The urban cowboy lives in the city and looks dang good in his cowboy hat and six-hundred dollar cowboy boots as he angles to some big city bar for a straight up martini, no rocks. I thought the urban cowboy was a passing fad of the 1980s movie bearing the same name starring John Travolta. But after the movie Brokeback Mountain popularized cowboy culture there are a lot of reports of a resurgence of urban cowboy style. Urban cowboys don’t even angle at being dudes. Their interest is in the look, not the lifestyle.