Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.
It occurs to me that in my endeavors to shed light on little known, yet significant, people, places, and events in Old West history that I may have overlooked an obvious subject - the cowboy. The term is almost synonymous with the Old West. One rarely hears one mentioned without immediately conjuring images of the other. Many of us (at least those of my generation) grew up playing cowboys and Indians. The Old West cowboy has been romanticized and mythologized through film and literature for over a hundred years. But who were these men who captured the imaginations of future generations? What was life like for them? Let's find out together.
The cowboy tradition originated in Spain and dates back to the hacienda system of the medieval age. Spanish settlers brought these traditions with them to the Americas in the 16th century. In fact, it was these settlers who reintroduced horses to the continent. Prior to their arrival equines had been extinct in the Americas since the end of the prehistoric ice age. The first horses on the continent were of Andalusian, Barb, and Arabian descent. Eventually a number of uniquely American breeds would be developed through a combination of selective breeding and natural selection.
The first "cowboys" on the continent were Mexican vaqueros. Their traditions spread both North and South influencing culture from Argentina to Canada. Over time the lifestyle and language of the vaqueros transformed and merged with English cultural traditions to produce the cowboy as we know him. Traditions would continue to develop and change as the cattle industry expanded into new territory. Distinct climates and terrain would lead to changes in clothing, equipment, and the way the animals were handled. Regional traditions would blend together as cowboys combined the most useful elements of each.
American cowboys came from many different backgrounds. After the Civil War many former soldiers, both Union and Confederate, migrated West. So too did African Americans freed from slavery after the conclusion of the war. They were drawn in part by the fact that racial discrimination was less intense in the West than it was in other parts of American society at the time. Many Mexicans and Native Americans already living in the area also worked as cowboys.
Regardless of their ethnic background, there was one thing these men all had in common. They all came from lower social standing and worked extremely hard for very poor pay. The average cowboy earned about one dollar a day plus his food. When near the home ranch they enjoyed the additional benefit of a bed in the bunkhouse. The traditional bunkhouse was much like a military barracks with a single open room occupied by multiple bunks.
Life as a cowboy required one to possess horsemanship and roping skills. It also required physical strength and dexterity along with courage. Cowboys spent extended periods living outdoors enduring harsh conditions while on a cattle drive which could last up to six months depending on the starting point and final destination. They faced dangers from the elements, the animals they tended, and their fellow man. Heavy rains could cause rivers to flood endangering men and cattle alike. Lighting strikes in the open plains could result in prairie fires. The cattle could become easily spooked resulting in a deadly stampede. Rustlers and hostile Native American tribes could strike at any time.
Over time these hardworking men developed a culture and lifestyle of their own. It was a strange blend of frontier and Victorian values that retained vestiges of chivalry. They valued self-dependence, individualism, and personal honesty. Out of this grew an unwritten code of conduct, known popularly today as the Code of the West.
We'll delve into the Code of the West next week, but this brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.
As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page (www.bmiltonhyde.com) and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.
Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.