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American Cowboy: Myth vs Reality Dissertation

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Updated: Oct 4th, 2019


Arguably the most idealized image in America is that of the cowboy. The cowboy is typically pictured as a lone English-speaking, self made man riding majestically on a horse. He surpasses his limits and rises above all troubles. This image of the cowboy inspires patriotic sentiments to the American and is a representation of the American ideals.

Hillis declares that there are “few cultural images as widespread and enduring as the image of the American cowboy” (17). The conceived image of the cowboy embodies the perceived virtues and abilities of the entire American society. The image of the stereotypical western cowboy who is brave, just and noble has all but erased the truth about the real cowboy who existed in the mid 1800s.

Wright acknowledges how much the history of the wild west has become enshrined in myth by stating that “it seems this land has become our tradition- a tradition based not on the West itself but on the myth of the West” (24). The West as most people think of it if therefore more of a historical force rather than a historical fact.

The reality is that the cowboy (the historical figure) was not as novel as the idealized creation makes him out to be. The battles he waged were seldom just and he did not represent peace. This paper shall set out to give a true depiction of the cowboy by differentiating the myths from the realities.

The paper will begin by tracing the birth of the cowboy and how the image of the cowboy has become enshrined in myth. The paper shall then explore the reality of the cowboy so as to reinforce the fact the image of the cowboy that most people have is an invention of myth and not reality.

Birth of the Cowboy

The Cowboy was born in Texas in the mid 1800s as a result of the great cattle herds that were available. Following the independence of Texas, many Mexican’s fled to the south leaving behind thousands of cattle which were grazing in the marshlands. These cattle were considered public property since they had no owners.

The inhabitants of southern Texas discovered that rounding up the strays and driving them to the market was good business. Wallace notes that the concept of rounding up cattle and driving them to the market was nothing new and the practice had been in existence even before the Civil War (17).

Ranches were also established by individuals or companies and here, large herds were reared. The success of a rancher was pegged on his ability to transport the large herds and sell them to the high demand regions. To do this, the cattle had to be moved northwards to the national markets or at least to the railroad shipping destinations.

The biggest problem involved the path through which the cattle would traverse. This was because settler farmers along the way did not entertain large herds marching over their crops and destroying them. In many cases, lawmen often stopped cattle from going through certain regions.

The only path that the cattle drive could take freely was Northwards, through Indian Territory where no law existed. To ensure the success of the cattle drives through this wild lands, a large number of cowboys were needed to mobilize the vast herds of cattle. Thus as these squads of cowboys drove their herds from South Texas to the north, the era of the American cowboy was born.

The journey by the cowboys on the trail was full of perils as they encountered numerous dangers that were traditionally associated with the Mississippi frontier (Hillis 18). In the vast plains, the cowboys where at the mercy of nature which was at times unforgiving. They had to bear with windstorms, prairie fires and even floods. In addition to this, there was the every present risk of attacks from Indians who inhabited the land.

However, the reign of the cowboy did not last for long and Hillis documents that less than twenty years after the first cattle drive, conditions developed that ended the cattle drive (18). This conditions included the extension of the railroad lines into the south therefore removing the need for cattle herds to be driven North by Cowboys.

In addition to this, local governments drew legal lines that denied the great herds the right to traverse through the plain headed north. Even so, the image of the cowboy continued to grow and with this growth an idealized image of the cowboy was created. This image was embraced by the public and continues to influence the image that most people have of the cowboy.

The Myth of the Cowboy

The Myth of the cowboy if one of the oldest in America and it is expressed in a wide body of literature and folklore spanning for a period of three centuries. Slotkin records that according to this myth, the means to the achievement of an American national identify was through the conquest of the wilderness and the subjugation of the original inhabitants of the land (10).

One of the most influential authors on the West, Walter Prescott Webb, describes the cowboy as a man who lives on horseback as do the Bedouins; he fights on horseback, as did the knights of chivalry; he goes armed with a strange new weapon which he uses ambidextrously and precisely; he swears like a trooper, drinks like a fish, wears clothes like an actor, and fights like a devil.

He is gracious to the ladies, reserved towards strangers, generous to his friends and brutal to his enemies. He is a cowboy, the typical Westerner (quoted in Frantz and Choate 80). This description of the cowboy as articulated by Webb embodies the image of the cowboy within existing literary myth.

Sullivan asserts that the cowboy is often required to fight and kill to establish a community that is structured around the European cultural systems (17). In addition to this, this hero is often required to live in the community. This implies that the capacity to colonize was a necessity so as to actualize the expansionist frontier ideal.

According to the myth, the cowboy is a man who is in charge of his destiny; he meets the challenges of every day and even in the face of great odds, he does not back down but charges onwards relentlessly. The myth holds that cowboys were universally possessed by a free sprit as they ventured out into the Wild West.

These courageous souls feared neither man, brute nor element and embodied the archetype of freedom. Frantz and Choate reveal that this folk figure embodies all the virtues of the Anglo-American man and he was a force to reckon with (72). The historical cowboy was not in charge of his own destiny since cowboys were mostly farm hands who were hired to help drive the large herds to the market.

The cowboys sold their skills in return for monetary gains and they followed the command of their masters. This reality contrasts with the mythical image of the cowboy as a self-assured man who is the master of his own fate. The sophistication which is given to the cowboy is also a creation of myth. Wister Owen who published The Virginian in 1902 is credited with adding a level of sophistication to the cowboy.

In his work, he altered the image of the western hero. Even and Pavich state that Wister added “gentility to temper the preexistent toughness, courage and cleverness” (370). This image had no historical merit since the cowboy was an unsophisticated farm hand whose livelihood was dependent on his acquired skills with cattle.

Even so, this image of Wister’s West was accepted by a large audience and continues to be the basis of the stereotypical cowboy image. Another mythical image of the legendary cowboy is that of the lawman. This image was first created by Norris who sought to change the image of the cowboy from that of villain.

Prior to this, the cowboy had been glamorized as a lawless hero with men such as Buffalo Bill personifying the cowboy. Norris’ creation presented the cowboy as the heroic Anglo-Saxon who was fighting for law and justice so as to subjugate a wild land (Even and Pavich 374). In his book, The Octopus, Norris represented the cowboy as a good man who was willing to die for a cause.

This man was brave, selfless and as such a hero. This is the image that is projected in most of the Western movies where the cowboy rides after the lawless characters and confronts them in an epic gun battle. Here, the selfless cowboy wins through his skill with the six gun, a gun which is symbolized as a weapon of peace and justice

Eugene Manlove Rhodes who was a writer who wrote about the cowboy owing to his literary craftsmanship and his involvement in the horse and cattle-West introduced the legacy of “The Code of the West”. According to this fictitious code, the cowboy was self-reliant, individualistic and accepted danger in all its forms.

The cowboy held class distinctions in disdain and had a self-imposed obligation to assist anyone in distress (Even Pavich 517). This myth showcases the cowboy as a person of honor who lives by a code much like the medieval knights did. Even and Pavich note that Eugene Rhodes idealized the notion of the west and his writings were romantic confections as opposed to the real truth.

The morality of the community is also embodied in the myth of the cowboy. A man in the Western lands was as great as he desired to be and as good or as bad as he wished. The law only existed within its immediate jurisdiction and outside of it every man was his own law. Another mythical image of the cowboy is as that of the last frontiersman who led the way for the imposition of order in the Wild West.

The acclaimed historian Frederick Turner defines westward expansion as “an invisible frontier line separating civilization from savagery” (Turner and Faragher 15). American development depended on the advancement of American settlement westwards and the civilizing of the savage regions. The cowboy personified this push of the frontier line forward.

According to this myth, the sensible Anglo Americans were able to survive on the land by imposing spatial order on the hostile environment led by the cowboy. The cowboy was a frontier survivor who attempted to lead a peaceful life but was ready to use violent ways (his skills as a gunfighter) to establish peace and justice (Sullivan 122).

The cowboy then drove into the sunset presumably to repeat the same scenario in a new uncivilized place further on in the west. This proclamation of the Anglo American’s capacity to impose order on untamed space is deemed by Sullivan as a familiar justification for the imposition of Anglo rule upon the West (121).

This myth advances that without a compulsive drive to expand and exploit the opportunities that exist on the other side, a culture and a nation will die or be weakened to the point where they can be dominated by a stronger people. The cowboy is therefore painted as an individual who loves his nation and is fulfilling the patriotic duty of a citizen by assisting in the colonization of the “empty space” that exists in the West.

Reality of the Cowboy

The myths about the cowboy paint a hopeful picture that is far from what the reality was. To begin with, the Conquest and settlement of the West which was supposedly led by the cowboys in the 19th century inevitably resulted in the destruction or at best displacement of the native people who had up to that point inhabited the land.

According to the cowboy stories, the Indians are shown to be a barbaric and savage tribe. In their journey westwards, the cowboy is constantly attacked by hordes of Indians with their bows and arrows. The cowboy bravely fights off these barbarians and hence spreads civilization to the desolate west.

This idealization or the cowboy and demonization of the Indian are far from the truth. In actual sense, the cowboys were guilty of attacking and killing Indians in their quest to acquire land from the natives. Iverson states that when settlers and ranchers wished to expand the horizon of the cattleman’s West, the Indians stood in their way (27).

As such, they had to be removed and the primary means through which this was achieved was with violence. The western frontier was not a vast and empty land that the cowboy bravely conquered. Instead, the west was Indian land and the Americans were intruders. The cowboy myth also perpetrates racism in America.

This is through the proposal that the American cowboy population was made up entirely of whites. Historians estimate that up to 40% of cowboys were Hispanic or black and their influence is evident in western occupational speech and slang (31). Even so, the popular image of the typical cowboy of the Old West is a white square-jawed male with a tilted hat on.

Limerick laments that the popular cowboy image ignores important characters: Native Americans, Hispanics and African Americans, who were an integral part of the actual American West story (323). This abject omission of these major players is the product of later racist stereotypes which have been politically and sociologically embraced.

Even and Pavich state that the white cowboy removes any acknowledgement of the deeper level of earlier indebtedness to other races that folklore suggested (31). The myth of the cowboy promotes the idea of a racial hierarchy. In this hierarchy, white people and in particular white people from the United States are ranked as first and the other races follow.

The racial aspect to the cowboy myth is further highlighted by Sullivan who notes that in most Western stories and movies, the good Anglo American triumphs over the evil Indians and Mexican therefore suggesting racial superiority (22). Violence is justified through the cowboy myth since it is suggested that only through violent confrontation is peace and civilization achieved.

The violence that the hero endures in Slotkin’s book appears to be justified by the ultimate consequences which is peace through out the land. Slotkin suggests that this theme of “regeneration through violence” which is recurrent in American frontier mythology may be responsible for the violence perpetrated by Americans both at home and abroad (650).

The cowboy myth also sustains the myth of the six gun (which was favored by Anglo Americans) as a weapon for peace. This is ironic considering the fact that the gun was used to forcefully evict the Native Americans from their land. Cowboys were guilty of engaging in dishonesty and social vices. Sullivan documents that most cowboys took to cattle rustling in a bid to make a quick fortune (34).

The cowboys did not only steal from people outside of their community but they also stole from their masters. Cowboys were also adventurers who left their families in search of adventure and or new fortunes in the wild. This image is a big contrast to the image of the cowboy who brings about law and order to the community. In actual sense, cowboys were also responsible for bringing about lawlessness in the community.

The conquest of the American West was not an honorable thing as the image of the cowboy suggests. In reality, it was violent and unjust and beneficial only to the immigrants. At the end of most frontier fiction, the cowboy hero is seen disappearing into the far mountains alone.

While this image does not state anything explicit, it implies the ideal of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. The cowboy leaves behind him a peaceful and fully functional community. He sets out in search on new territory which he will conquer through his violent frontier skills and later on bring about the same peacefulness that he left behind (Sullivan 17).

This myth overlooks the destruction that the cowboy brought about to the “uncivilized” people even as he set out to establish a civilized settlement. The cowboy was guilty of expediting the process of destroying the native Indians way of life. At the extreme, this destruction resulted in the massacre of entire tribes that stood in the path of the cowboy.

In retrospective, the inimitable cowboy Charlie Russell while talking about the old Indian way of life lamented that “They’ve been living in heaven for a thousand years and we took it away from ’em for forty dollars a month” (46).


The image of the cowboy continues to be presented as the idealization of American identity. The real cowboy as he existed in historical time has all but disappeared and what remains in his place is an idealized creation of the American folk. It should be noted that mythology plays a great role in the American national identity.

Mythology is the mirror through which the American people can derive an understanding of themselves and their experiences. It connects them with greater ideals and affirms a set of values that culture finds to be desirable. While the myth serves this useful role, it overlooks the catastrophic history that the American immigrants left in their wake as they ventured westwards.

The European settlers who first arrived to North America believed that they had discovered a vast and vacant land. The pioneers viewed the unoccupied land as their “promised land” with complete disregard to the millions of Native Americans who had inhabited the continent for millenniums before the discovery of America by the White settlers.

This paper set out to expose the truth about the real cowboy and hence help to differentiate myth from reality. From the discussions presented herein, it is clear that the cowboy saga was not characterized solely by hardships being met and overcome and creating an ideal society from the wilderness.

The cowboy saga also included numerous incidents of broken dreams and victimization of the Native Americans who historically owned the land. If history is to be looked at objectively, it is the Indians and not the cowboys who were the heroes. These Indians resisted and fought for their native land which was being invaded by the Americans.

While American’s prided themselves with being people of laws, their encounter with the Indians tells a different story. The American’s made treaties with Indians and later went against their words. In instances where the Indians were unwilling to enter into bargains with the American’s they were labeled as enemies and attacked on their own land.

This paper exposes the cowboy for who he really was: a hired man of horseback whose actions were seldom noble or inspiring. Without a doubt, the extraordinary journey that cowboys took from Texas to Montana was and remains to be something to be marveled at. The bravery of the cowboys who undertook this drives is without question.

However, the powerful symbol of cowboy as it is generally understood is a gross exaggeration and a myth which overlooks the bleak realities of the time. By portraying the Indians as savages, the cowboy myth offers justification for the American subjugation of these native occupants of the land.


The American cowboy myth continues to play a huge role in American imagination and many people have come to both identify with and accept it as the truth. This paper set out to show the true reality of the cowboy who has for decades been idealized in popular American culture.

The paper began by documenting the birth of the cowboy and the mundane reality that constituted the cowboy’s existence. The paper then highlighted the numerous myths of cowboys that are held as truth by the general population. It has been discovered that this myths were created out of the need for American mythology. The mythical image that we know of today is mostly the work of authors and poets who romanticized the West.

This paper has shown the reality of the west in an objective manner. From the arguments given, it has been seen that the cowboy was not a glorious or honorable and just person as myth makes him out to be. Instead, he was an invader who robbed the Native Americans off their lands through violence. From this paper, it is evident that the historically correct cowboy image is marred with a legacy of pain, prejudice and injustice.

Works Cited

Even, Larry, and Pavich Paul. A Literary History of the American West. Texas Christian University Press, 1987. Print.

Frantz, Joe, and Choate Julian. The American Cowboy: The Myth and the Reality. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Hillis, Craig. “Cowboys and Indians: The International Stage”. Journal of Texas Music History, Volume 2, Issue 1. 2002.

Iverson, Peter. When Indians Became Cowboys: Native Peoples and Cattle Ranching in the American West. University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. Print.

Limerick, P N. The Legacy of Conquest. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. Print.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1987. Print.

Sullivan, Tom. Cowboys and Caudillos: Frontier Ideology of The Americas. Popular Press, 1990. Print.

Turner, Frederick Jackson, and Faragher John. Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: the Significance of the Frontier in American History, and Other Essays. New York: H. Holt, 1994.

Wallace, Edward. The backside of American History. Jan 2008. Web.

Wright, W. Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1975. Print.

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