draft after 2 days.
the intro's clunky but everything else is starting to feel nice :)
I’ve been obsessed with Westerns my whole life. There’s just something about them that’s so alluring to me. The setting, the characters, the dream of a simpler time, where good was good and evil was evil and there was no grey area between them.
But I’d never actually thought about whether cowboys were real or not.
And then I went to Utah for the first time. And I saw the landscapes that I’d seen cowboys crossing in movies. And I realized that if this place was real. Then cowboys, these characters from the movies I loved, had to be real too.
So I became obsessed with them. I read everything I could. Learned everything I could about the real American cowboy. And the more I read about the real historical characters, the more another truth started to solidify.
Cowboys are entirely made up. It’s not that they didn’t exist. Because they did. But it’s just that two versions of the cowboy exist - one that was a very real labourer in the last half of the 19th century. And another one - the one we know - that’s entirely a fabrication of mythology.
Which got me wondering. How did the cowboy become an American hero? And what does it mean that it did?
The story of the cowboy starts with the cow.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus is the first white guy to make contact with Haiti (I cannot explain the extent to which Columbus definitely did not discover America). He decides it’d make a good Spanish colony, so he comes back again the next year, in 1493, and this time he brings along colonists, disease, and some cows.
As the Spanish colonize other parts of the Caribbean and South America they bring those cows along with them. So those cows end up going from Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) to Cuba and from Cuba to Mexico.
Mexico turns out to be the perfect place for cattle ranching. And the Mexicans turn out to be incredibly good at it. And they basically develop all the tools, tricks, and lingo that we’d come to associate with the work of cowboys.
The Mexicans do the same thing the Spanish did — basically bringing these cattle with them everywhere they went. And that’s how, in 1680, you end up with 9,000 head of cattle grazing along the Rio Grande in the Northeast corner of Mexico. In a state called Coahuila y Tejas.
150 years later a chunk of that state would declare independence from Mexico and make their own country called the Republic of Texas. And that that country would become the 28th U.S. State — a slave state — 9 years later. And that not long after that it would become the Confederate State of Texas.
Now, when the Civil War breaks out in 1860 there’s only 600,000 people living in Texas. And Texas is huge. So, in the grand scheme of things, Texas is basically too rural to care about. It’s so far out of the way that slave owners actually went there to try and avoid the inevitable implications of the Emancipation Proclamation. And in a way they were partially successful — the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1st, 1863, and the enslaved people in Texas only heard about it on June 19th, 1865.
So if you were a white guy in Texas and wanted to fight for the confederacy, you actually had to leave your home behind and travel to other parts of the country to do so. And once the war was over, and the confederacy lost, the soldiers coming home to Texas found that life there had changed pretty dramatically in their absence.
For one thing they left one country and literally came back to another one. After being on the losing side of the war, Texas was one again part of the United States. Which means that they lived in a country that used U.S. currency, but all the money they’d made and saved in the last five years was confederate currency. The Texans basically got home to find their bank accounts full of Monopoly money.
The Southern economy (and, honestly, the entire U.S. economy) had relied heavily on unpaid slave labour, and so the emancipation of the enslaved people in Texas meant that the workforce driving the South had disappeared too.
Which meant that many Texans found themselves without any money. And without any way to make any more in the immediate future.
But at least they didn’t have to worry about starving. Ranches across the state had fallen into disrepair while their owners were away fighting the war. With nobody to feed or look after them, cattle broke free from the ranches in favour of plains that supplied an endless amount of food. Those cattle mixed with the feral cattle that already called Texas home and by the end of 1865 there was a veritable infestation of feral cattle in the Lone Star State.
Which was great for suddenly impoverished families who could go into the brush and capture and slaughter a cow if you had to feed your family. Which isn’t to say that it was easy - only that it was possible if you really wanted to.
But it also meant that if you were a rancher — if selling cattle was how you made money — you were suddenly selling something that there was no market for. In the unlikely event that you could find somebody who wanted to buy a cow, you’d only get between $2 and $4 a head for them.
Meanwhile, in the North, in places like New York, they’re seeing basically the exact opposite effect. They’d just won a war. The economy is booming. More people are making more money. And so peoples’ taste starts to change. Quite literally.
Pork had always been the cheap American staple. But as folks became more affluent, and thanks in part to a new meat processing plant in Chicago, they were developing a taste for beef. Which was hard to come by in the North. So hard to come by that cattle would sell for $40 a head in Northern markets.
So some entrepreneurial Southerners put together the pieces that you just did.
The feral Texas Longhorns wasn’t great meat. They were too strong and too muscly for most peoples’ tastes. Which is why they’d never been eaten much in the South. But if the North was starved for beef they likely wouldn’t be too picky about what kind of beef it was.
And if you knew what you were doing, there was good money to be made by going out into the thorny brush, catching and castrating a couple thousand mustangs, and delivering them to the Northern meat markets.
Except the size of your pretty big country made for a pretty big issue: the meat markets were in the North — thousands of miles away — and the only way to get to them was by railroad. But the nearest railheads were hundreds of miles away — in Kansas and Missouri. And the only way to get the cattle there would be to walk them. 15 miles a day. For 5 months.
And that’s how America’s most legendary occupation began.
Now seems like a good point in the story to emphasize that the job of the cowboys was literally to make sure that the cows escort cows from one place to another. And that the dangers involved in doing that, for both humans and cattle, were mostly natural — floods, droughts, thunderstorms, predators and stampedes. The sort of things you’d expect there to be when you’re camping outside for half a year.
And the people who did the work probably weren’t the people that you’re imagining either. They weren’t strong, rugged men. They were mostly young boys who were good on horseback. And boys of all races. A quarter of cowboys were black. 1 in 4 of them. And 13% were Mexican.
But of course nobody knows that. Because the veneration of cowboys as an American icon has nothing to do with who they actually were and everything to do with who America wanted them to be. Who they needed them to be.
The story of how the cowboy became a hero isn’t one of American history. It’s a story about American mythology.