The last Saturday of July is the National Day of the Cowboy.
Many of the first cowboys really were boys – at least, they were when they started out. The job was hard, dirty and dangerous – they had to quickly become men.
The cowboy began in the Southwest. The Spanish created the first big ranches on the American continent, and the stockmen who worked the ranches developed their own tools and equipment for the job. As the Americans made their way into Texas and the far west, the ways of the Vaquero were adapted and modified to fit the job at and, what we think of as the American Cowboy was born.
Their era really began in the 1860’s, deep in the heart of Texas. After the civil war, the demand for beef was strong in the East, but the herds were in Texas. These cattle were dangerous beasts, often half-wild from being left on the range while the ranchers were off fighting the war. Some 5 million cattle were roaming the Texas plains, many of them unclaimed. A quick way for an enterprising rancher to make a buck was to gather a crew of tough young men and take them to Texas where they could round up a herd and drive it north to the rails.
These tough young men were Cowboys. Some of them were veterans of the brutal civil war, others were victims of it, displaced by years of terrible strife. They came from both sides of the conflict, but after a few months of sharing the hardship and dangers of the range, it didn’t matter much where they come from. They had diverse backgrounds and included African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, as well as European Americans. The job bound them in ways nothing else could, because they had to rely on each other to survive. They knew that the measure of man was not in his words, but in his actions.
Over the years, a Cowboy Code has grown, a code of ethics that the cowboys in the movies in the early 1900s promoted. Heroes like Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger all had their oaths and codes for youngsters to follow to help them strive for lofty ideals.
Nat Love, a black cowboy who was born a slave but went west after the war ended slavery, wrote his Cowboy Code in his autobiography. It was simple. “There a man’s work was to be done, and a man’s life to be lived, and when death was to be met, he met it like a man.”