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The Era of the American Cowboy

Before the extension of the railways, writes Louis C. Kleber, long cattle-drives were the way of life west of the Mississippi.

The American cowboy; weather-beaten, self-reliant, independent, living in a hard environment, he was a man who became one of history’s most romanticized figures in his own time, capturing the popular imagination as few others. He could have been one of the great cattle barons like Charles Goodnight, a deadly gunslinger like John Wesley Hardin or one of those nameless cowboys who, often for less than $10 a month and their board, faced a host of dangers as a regular part of his occupation.

The cowboy’s origins very largely lie in Mexico, for it was from there that Francisco Coronado, the Spanish conquistador, explored northward into what is now Texas, taking with him cattle to supply food and the leather needed by an expedition into the wilderness. As with later exploratory parties, some of the cattle strayed, stampeded or were driven off by Indians.

In their wild state they rapidly multiplied until, by the late eighteenth century, large herds existed far from civilization. To these were added the cattle raised by settlements such as the Mission La Bahia del Espiritu Santo which claimed 40,000 head between the Guadalupe and lower San Antonio Rivers. Many were the cimarrones, tough and wild with a mixture of blood from Castilian bulls. Roaming at will, they had to be rounded up if the ‘owner’ wanted them.

To do this he relied on the Mexican cowboy, the vaquero. It was an uncomplicated life that held a tempting but nebulous hope that Texas could develop into a tranquil and relatively affluent land of Spanish ranches, missions and small settlements. Although the events that were about to envelop Texas were hardly favourable to peaceful development, they helped to lead the way to the era of the American cowboy.

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