As part of our ongoing four-part series on the history of the American Cowboy, Guest writer and local author David Grasse continues his look at the history one of America’s most powerful icons. The history and lore of the American Cowboy is especially relevant to Arizona because so much of it happened right here in our backyards. Don’t be fooled however, the lure of the American West found it’s way all around the globe. So let’s look deeper into the fascinating origins of the original American Hero – The Cowboy… take it away Mr. Grasse…

The cowboy of the late 1880’s was strictly of the working class. Like the working class population of the Eastern cities, the cowboy usually worked from sunrise to sunset, twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week, and averaged about thirty five to forty dollars a month for their trouble.

Being a cowboy came with great risks. Both the cowboy and his mount were in constant danger of being toppled and gored by an irate steer or cow. The entire herd, “spooked” by lightning or a sudden noise, could suddenly and blindly stampede in any direction trampling everything in its path beneath its hooves, including men and horses. There were other perils as well. Rattlesnake bites and wild animal attacks were not uncommon and were the primary reason the cowboy carried firearms. Abrupt changes in the weather, in addition to causing cattle to stampede, could result in flash floods, prairie fires, and violent dust storms. Droughts and sudden freezes were commonplace hardships for both men and cattle. The inclement weather as well as poisoned watering holes and unsanitary conditions often led to physical illness and death on the trail.

In truth, cowboy-ing was a young man’s occupation and the average age of the cowboy of the late 1800’s was a mere 24 years. It was not the cowboy’s work ethic that earned him his wild and wooly reputation, but it was his behavior at the end of the drive. The cowboy was usually paid when the cattle arrived at market and were subsequently sold. With a pocketful of money, the cowboy would immediately pay a visit to the local bath house and dry goods store. As Teddy Blue recalled in his memoirs, upon hitting town “I bought some new clothes and got my picture taken… I had a new white Stetson hat that I paid ten dollars for, and new pants that cost twelve dollars, and a good shirt and fancy boots. Lord, I was proud of those clothes! When my sister saw me, she said: ‘Take your pants out of your boots and put your coat on. You look like an outlaw.’ I told her to go to hell. And I never did like her after that.” From there it was off to the saloons and the brothels of the town.

For the next few days, and sometimes for as long as two weeks, or until his money ran out, the cowboy would “raise hell” throughout the town, drinking copiously, gambling recklessly, and sporting with prostitutes. The Cheyenne Daily Leader described them: “Morally, as a class, cowboys are foulmouthed, blasphemous, drunken, lecherous, and utterly corrupt. Usually harmless on the plains when sober, they are dreaded in towns, for then liquor has an ascendancy over them.” The antics of the cowboys – getting falling-down drunk, starting fistfights, riding horses into the saloons, shooting out the street lamps – were generally the good-natured, though mischievous and obnoxious, behavior of young men. However, at times such raucous behavior would turn violent and deadly. Disagreements over cards or insults passed between parties would lead to the pulling of pistols and blood being spilled in the saloons, the dancehalls, and in the streets.

Ironically, it was the writers and journalists who would later serve to redeem the cowboy in the eyes of the American public. Stayed tuned for Part 3 (and 4!) to see how and read on about this well-known icon.

Stop in to Bookmans today to grab a title dedicated to the American Cowboy. Among our orange shelves are endless novels highlighting the beloved icon. See you soon!