Join Active Minds for the story of the American Cowboy. We will peel back the mythology and explain how the origins of the Cowboy lie south of the border in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Join us as we seek to understand the development of the American Cowboy and its influence upon the country to this day.

Key Lecture Points

  • Belying its present-day association with Anglo-American culture, the cowboys of the expanding American West of the 19th century found their origins in the Spanish colonization of the area.  It was the Spaniards, not the English, who brought beef cattle to the Americas.  Additionally, the Spaniards developed the horse culture techniques of control of livestock that most associate with cowboys.
  • After the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, massive amounts of arid land fit for raising grazing cattle came under the control of the US.  Later, the Civil War stimulated the demand for beef that led to the long trail drives that are central to the cowboy mystique.
  • The raising of cattle on the open range and the historical period of the cowboy is usually dated from 1865 to 1900.  During this time period, best estimates indicate that 4-6 million head of cattle were driven from Texas to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska by 35,000 cowboys.
  • The cattle industry and the need for cowboys changed when the trail drives came to an end by the end of the century, due to the railroads, the invention of barbed wire and the relegation of Native Americans to reservations.
  • The enduring myth of the cowboy in American culture is due to need for a unifying image after the divisions of the Civil War, popular dime novels that romanticized the West and American fascination with wild west shows.
  • William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) had the most famous of the wild west shows.  He toured America’s major cities and internationally.  His show was part theater, part competition and glamorized the idea of the disappearing American frontier.
  • Denver’s National Western Stock Show generates $100 million in economic activity every January.  Voters have approved a $1.1 billion renovation and expansion of the Stock Show complex.

Exploration Questions

  • What qualities do you associate with cowboys? What would you include in a cowboy code of ethics?
  • Why is the cowboy such an important symbol in American culture?

Reflective Questions

  • When you were a child, did you want to be a cowboy? Why?
  • What is your favorite western movie? Why?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Black, Baxter. Cactus Tracks & Cowboy Philosophy. Penguin (Non-classics) 1998. 288 pages. This compilation of NPR commentaries by cowboy poet and former large animal veterinarian, Baxter Black, brings the cowboy spirit alive.
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  • Reyher, Ken. High Country Cowboys. Western Reflections Publishing Company. 2001. 188 pages. Reyher traces the historical movement of the cattle industry and its cowboys into Western Colorado.
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  • Knowlton, Christopher. Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West.  Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.  448 pages.  The author describes the rise of the cattle industry in the West, from the cattle drives to the boom towns of Abilene and Cheyenne.  While tracing this history he shows how the legacy of the Old West continues to define us as a nation.
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