Photograph by Robb Kendrick, National Geographic December 2007
When most people think of cowboys, they imagine scruffy, rough-hewn men dressed in chaps and boots, straight out of the Wild West. But cowboys and cowgirls are more than sepia-toned characters plucked from the past. Their job of protecting the herd makes them essential to today’s beef and cattle economy.
These skilled laborers can go by different names—vaquero in Mexico, buckaroo in the Northwest and parts of Canada, and cowpuncher in Texas and the Great Plains—each with its own cultural nuances. But the term cowboy is universal, as is the work, which includes roping and saddling horses; leading cattle to fresh pasture and water; calving, branding, and earmarking; doctoring when a veterinarian is unnecessary or unavailable; rounding up the cattle and getting them ready for market; and maintaining the ranch, including doing chores such as mending fences.
Today cowboys have a choice as to how closely they follow tradition. Many dress the part—chaps worn over Levi’s or Wrangler jeans, boots with spurs, bandannas around their necks, and brimmed hats to protect them from sun and rain. While some prefer to work as “straight-up” as possible, herding or doctoring cattle from horseback, others appreciate the convenience of pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles to cover vast expanses of territory. But nearly all carry cell phones and answer to accountants in the ranch’s main office.
A cowboy’s line of work is difficult, dangerous, and time-consuming. Up and out the door at dawn and often back after dark, they work in all temperatures and weather conditions, often living solitary lives away from their families, usually for meager pay. On the range, cowboys must be equipped to handle a variety of challenges, including fast-changing weather, predators like coyotes and bears, poisonous plants like larkspur, which can kill livestock, and accidents, such as scorpion bites, lightening strikes, wire cuts, and limb-shattering falls. Roping and riding can be fraught with danger. It’s not uncommon for a cattleman to lose a thumb while roping a steer or to suffer cracked ribs, a concussion, or broken bones from being bucked off a horse.
Whether cowboys are born into the profession, their families having lived the life for generations, or whether they choose the trade for the freedom and satisfaction it brings, they share a passion for their craft and a great appreciation of the outdoors—just like their predecessors.
The Spanish conquistadores and colonists introduced Iberian-style cattle ranching to the Americas with the importation of Andalusian horses and long-horned cattle. One of the first places this occurred was New Spain, which became Mexico. Many of the earliest vaqueros were of mestizo or native Mexican ancestry, while their bosses, known as hacendados, were of Spanish origin. The Mexican vaquero played an integral role in spreading cattle-related culture in North America. As Anglo-American settlers moved into Texas in the 1800s, the English and Spanish ranching traditions merged to form the vaquero culture, which became the basis for the American cowboy culture.
Gauchos from Argentina and Uruguay
Some of the world’s most famous cattlemen are from South America. Gauchos call the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay home. The men who have worked these rolling plains for three centuries derive their name from the Quechua word meaning orphan, poor person, or possibly outcast. The gauchos chose to live beyond the cities and lived on their own terms. By the mid-19th century the gauchos were no longer considered outlaws, but rather essential players in the new economy of organized ranching. Their strength and independence is still legendary, and they are a national symbol of Argentina.
Llaneros from Venezuela
Cowboys from Venezuela are known as llaneros. Their name comes from the Llanos grasslands in western Venezuela and eastern Colombia. Originally of mestizo origin, they developed a lively culture and their own style of music and dance.
The Chilean huaso
Huasos are horsemen from central Chile; today they’re celebrated national symbols, famous for their riding and roping skills.
The gardians of the Camargue, France, tend herds of black fighting bulls and ride the unique white horses of the region.
Australia has a huge cattle industry, with ranches known as stations, cowboys called stockmen or ringers, and trainee cattle-station managers known as jackaroos and jillaroos. Because stations can be vast, for decades stockmen have relied on helicopters, motorbikes, and four-wheel-drive vehicles to round up herds.
Cowboy poetry and songs are important, long-standing traditions in the Wild West. Every cowboy knows a few ditties passed down through the years, and new ones continue to pop up. One of the best known traditional ballads is “The Old Chisholm Trail,” sung from Canada to Mexico. There are many variations on the lyrics, and the song has been performed by artists such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. If a crowd gets going, it can be sung for hours. The ballad starts:
Come along, boys, and listen to my tale,
I'll tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm trail.
Coma ti yi youpy, youpy yea, youpy yea,
Coma ti yi youpy, youpy yea.
I started up the trail October twenty-third,
I started up the trail with the 2-U herd.
Oh, a ten-dollar hoss and a forty-dollar saddle,
And I'm goin' to punchin' Texas cattle.
I woke up one morning on the old Chisholm trail,
Rope in my hand and a cow by the tail.
I’m up in the mornin’ afore daylight
And afore I sleep the moon shines bright.
Old Ben Bolt was a blamed good boss,
But he’d go to see the girls on a sore-backed hoss.
Old Ben Bolt was a fine old man
And you'd know there was whiskey wherever he’d land.
This version of the lyrics can be found in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, published in 1938.
—Gabrielle E. Montanez
You can see an image of a 1913 broadside that features a slightly different version of the “Old Chisolm Trail” here.
Clayton, Lawrence, Jim Hoy, and Jerald Underwood. Vaqueros, Cowboys, and Buckaroos. University of Texas Press, 2001.
Dary, David. Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries. University Press of Kansas, 1989.
Dusard, Jay. The North American Cowboy: A Portrait. The Consortium Press, 1983.
Murdoch, David. Cowboy. Doring Kindersley Eyewitness Books, 2000.
Price, B. Byron. Fine Art of the West. Abbeville Press, 2004.
Watts, Peter. A Dictionary of the Old West. Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.
Wittliff, Bill. Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy. University of Texas Press, 2004.
Rojas, Arnold R. The Vaquero. McNally and Loftin, 1964.
This comprehensive site offers everything from cowboy quotes and music to instruction on how to saddle a horse.
“Buckaroos: Views of a Western Way of Life”
Delve into the history, customs, and clothing of Nevada’s buckaroos in this special presentation from the exhibit “Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada 1945-1982,” American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Western Horseman Magazine
This magazine’s website is a one-stop shop to learn about different facets of Western life, including horse care, ranching news, and rodeos.