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Mythbuster – Cowboys: Are They More than Rodeo Entertainers and Gun Slingers?

When most people hear the term cowboy, the first thing that pops into their mind is rodeos. If that is not the case then they think of old western movies, notorious for gun fights, with Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid or Doc Holiday. Cowboys were more than rodeo participants, and more often than not, they didn’t have to fire their gun unless they were on a hunting trip. Here I will discuss what the true cowboy was and why people have this misconception. All of this is done with disregard to the few exceptions that there always are in legends and myths.

First the word “cowboy,” it was intended for the men who had to brand, castrate, vaccinate and manage all animals on western ranches.[2] Some cowboys ended up on ranches as jobs going from one to another as time passed, while others were tied into the land by social forces, such as being born into the life and land. It was not just a job for white men either, black and Spanish men also were cowboys, and they shared the same skills. The larger ranches required teams of cowboys that were quite busy throughout the year, putting up fencing, handling livestock operations such as cattle drives, and roundups. Cattle drives are when a team of cowboys keep a heard of cattle together as they move them from ranch to ranch. Sometimes this takes up to a couple days or a week.

To put this into perspective on how large these ranches and cattle operations were, a ranch of 1,200 cattle was not as big as the ones in the true west and needed a small crew of cowboys.[2] A cowboy would have to know how to do almost everything alone. Although they more often had a crew it was their thinking that they had to help themselves before they asked for helped. Many of the cowboys never settled down and had families until later on in the early 20th century as ranches began to downsize.

As far as gun shootouts with Native Americans or outlaws, as seen in the movies, cowboys barely had enough time to keep up with their daily work, never mind getting involved with violent acts. It is an important job and a way of life, and most cowboys were not going to risk getting injured because they can’t do their job as well when they are wounded.

When rodeos began, it was a way to showcase the talent of the cowboy to the public. It soon turned into a competition for athletes and the wealthy. People would purchase expensive clothes and equipment, and train to do just those competitions in the rodeo. This would make them able to do what cowboy’s do, but it doesn’t make them a true cowboy. This is a major misconception to the public. When this type of cowboy participated in the rodeo, it leads to the true cowboys rarely winning. They spend their time doing maintaining the ranch, not training to win a prize in the rodeo.[1]

After researching about how the cowboy really was and spent his life I honestly think that they would be offended by what the majority of people assume they were. They were hard workers for 365 days a year, not just competitors for the weekends at the rodeos. They were important for the farming and cattle industry not western tough guys who liked shooting their guns. It is my belief that I can say this myth is busted and that the life of a cowboy should be known by everyone to straighten out the myth.

Author: Todd Zoppo


[1] McDowell, Bart. The American Cowboy in Life and Legend. (city of publication NA). The National Geographic Society. 1972

[2] Rector, Margaret; Graves, John. Life on the Texas Plains. Austin, Texas. Texas A&M University Press. 1982

[3]Wheeler, Keith. The Old West: The Townsmen. New York. Time-Life Books. 1975

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