We continue on with part 3 of our series on the American Cowboy by guest local author David Grasse. We have covered some of the history of the American West, the practical aspects of cowboy life and now we will discuss how the legend and lore became so deeply entrenched in the imaginations of millions. Why is the American Cowboy such a powerful icon and how did it maintain it’s appeal? Author David Grasse addresses these questions.


Since before the Civil War, Eastern newspapermen and dime-novelists had glorified the deeds of the frontiersmen and other adventurers who ventured into the untamed West. They printed heroic stories and tall tales about men like Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett for the consumption of the Eastern public, especially the working classes. The end of the Civil War, Westward expansion, and the completion of the transcontinental railway brought an end to the era of the frontiersmen, but not to the public’s desire for thrilling stories of the daring-do of Westerners.

Tales of fights with Indians, the routing of gangs of outlaws, and the rescue of fair damsels. Hack writers and journalists, like Prentiss Ingraham, seized upon the names of various plainsmen and scouts – like “Wild Bill” Hickock and “Texas Jack” Omohundro – inventing wild tales about their heroic exploits on the Western Plains to sell to the eager public. The coonskin caps and flintlocks of the frontiersmen gave way to the broad-brimmed Stetsons and Colt revolvers of the plainsmen. Later, these dime novelists would glorify the criminal deeds of known outlaws such as Jesse James and Henry “Billy the Kid” McCarty.

In addition to recasting the cowboy as the defender of the middle class, the Wild West Show also downplayed the cowboy’s reputation for wanton violence, focusing rather on his roping and riding skills, and it was these displays of prowess and daring by the performers, like “Buck” Taylor and “Arizona” Charlie, that began to change the public perception of the cowboy.

The other event that truly changed the image of the cowboy began as a friendly skill competition between various cattle outfits in Texas and Kansas. Challenges were made and bets were placed on sundry games such as who could stay on a bucking horse the longest, who could lasso and tie a calf the quickest, and who could wrestle a steer to the ground. These informal games of the cowboy quickly developed into serious competitions between exceptionally talented range hands which attracted participants and spectators from all over the country. In 1888, a group of cattlemen and investors in Prescott put together the first professional rodeo with paid attendance and purse money. Of course, the rodeo was primarily an excuse for gambling, but like the Wild West Show, it played up the skills and talents of the cowboy, while downplaying his less desirable qualities. The rodeo would also have the effect of keeping the traditions and heritage of the cowboy alive.

By the 1890s, the legend of the cowboy was already being constructed and defined within the confines of middle class culture. The dime novelists and newspapermen had introduced the cowboy to the public.

We are almost finished with this fascinating look at the American Cowboy. Look for the conclusion of our 4-part series coming soon. If these articles have wet your whistle for more, check out our Arizona, Western American and Outlaw sections in our Speedway location and available at all of our stores.