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The American cowboy came from a popular uprising of the vaquero (in North Mexico), which referred to an animal herder who looked after cattle in Northern America with the use of Horses (Pryor 33). Currently, the cowboy movement is a popular and legendary hallmark of American history.
In other parts of the world, the cowboy movement has evolved, with people who perform approximately the same tasks as those performed by the American cowboys springing up in countries such as Australia and other parts of Latin America. From the cowboy movement, a popular subtype of the cowboy movement called the wrangler came about.
The Wrangler was majorly known to use horsebacks to look after his cattle, but on the side, this subtype also used to work for (or participate) in rodeos. Also, from the cowboy movement, the cowgirl movement was birthed, but it does not cut a very importance meaning to American history as does the cowboy movement (Ryan 125).
However, in the recent past, there has been a significant amount of respect accorded to the movement (cowgirl movement). Nonetheless, the cowboy movement has a deep historic origin to the early settlers of America such as the Spanish settlers and other European settlers who lived in America.
Despite this clear origin, different cowboy movements have sprung up because differences in climatic influences and cultures have led to the emergence of various shades of cowboys with many cowboys now differing on the equipment, clothing and animal types to be used or handled (Pryor 33).
For instance, modern-day influences have changed the way cowboys operate, and in this manner, the cowboy movement has altered in the same regard. However, many classical aspect of the concept is still maintained to date. In recent times, there has been an increase in debates regarding the true image of the American cowboy, because there are claims that, Americans, through movies, films and products, have glamorized the image of the American cowboy such that, it has lost its true authenticity.
This claim has been supported by some researchers who note that, the American cowboy is not a specific place or time in history but rather, a state of mind where anybody could make it to be whatever they wanted it to be (Beard 12).
Due to this historic and popular clash of the American cowboy image, there have been increased calls to draw a distinction between the myth and reality of the American cowboy, with a clear-cut distinction between the historic lives of the American cowboys who worked solitarily in American ranches and the immensely publicized and highly glamorized lives of the American cowboy.
This identity clash defines the framework for this study because this study incorporates insights from previous researchers such as Jack schaefer and John Wayne, through their works, such as, Shane and the Searchers to determine the differences between the myth and reality of the American cowboy.
The American cowboy has been perceived from a popular myth among Americans that, he was a drunken individual who tendered to cattle and frequented the bars where he engaged people in numerous fights (Pryor 33). There is also a hint (among many Americans) that, the American cowboy was a lonely individual and a gunslinger that pushed cattle around the country and commuted with a horse everywhere he went.
There are many researchers who dispute this popular perception of the American cowboy by drawing a distinction between what Americans see (or have seen) in the movies and what happens in reality. These researchers claim that, the real American cowboy did not live the lifestyle most people see in the movies (Eons 1).
For instance, they note that, the popular dressing styles of the American cowboy, shown in the movies are not the exact dressing style daunted by the American cowboy in the 19th century. In contrast to the cowboy boots and hats, compounded by the huge buckle belt, the American cowboy is said to have worn anything that he could come across (Eons 1).
Their dressing came from their inclination to wear whatever clothing that was discarded by the higher classes and this is why it is said that, it was rare to see cowboys wearing clothing such as suits or vests (Eons 2). The popular cowboy hat was said to be any type of hat found within the cowboy period; meaning that, it did not necessarily fit the description of the cowboy hat known to Americans today.
However, such hats were known to have wide brims to keep the sunlight away, while shades of cowboy dressing characterized by suits were a preserve for the cowboys who had a lot of money (Eons 2). Still, on the cowboy dressing, Eons notes that:
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“The origins of the Cowboy boots are well-researched and started life as riding boots for the marauding Mongol tribesmen. The Cavalry issued the Cowboy boot (as Cavalry boots), which were mass-produced using, reinforced cardboard. Cowboys of this era, as it is today, had to be “Jack of all Trades” (Eons 14).
There were however several common activities that a cowboy ought to know. They included saddling, riding, roping and broncing, but more importantly, they needed to understand how to take care of animals because in the cowboy days, there were no veterinary doctors who could treat cattle.
The cowboys also needed to know how to construct shelters quickly, with a special expertise on how to construct their home fronts. However, with the dawn of the 20th century, there came additional attributes of the American cowboy culture.
For instance, in the onset of the 20th century, there came a “duster movement” among the cowboys which saw the introduction of a “duster” which was meant to keep off dust from the cowboys’ clothes. The cowboy boots also changed because in the past, cowboys were known to wear pointed boots because they spent most of their time on saddlebacks, but with the onset of the 20th century, the cowboys started wearing wrinkle boots.
Black and white movies drew a distinction between white and black cowboy hats, where black hats were known to belong to the bad boys and the white hats were known to belong to the good boys (Eons 12). The modern cowboy can also sing, look after cattle during the day and drink in the evening, besides staying around the campfire at night with a handkerchief around his neck.
In the middle of the 20th century, the cowboy buckle was introduced and the cowboy hat’s size was standardized. With this modification, the cowboy hat also adopted the cowboy crown and it was perceived as the symbol of cowboy pride in America. In the 21st century, the cowboy craze is not as strong as it were; however, it is still alive and active.
For instance, the cowboy buckle has been known to spread into the hip-hop culture, where rappers today dawn huge buckles, which trace their roots to the cowboy culture (Eons 12). However, some aspects of the cowboy cultures are on the decline because of their cultural implications.
For example, the confederate flag which was a symbol for the cowboy flag is currently being perceived a symbol of hate by the African Americans (Eons 12). However, some aspects such as the cowboy jeans remain very alive and a true symbol of the cowboy culture. However, other aspects such as the cowboy horse have changed with the present-day cowboy, having the American four-wheel drive vehicle as a means of transport.
The 21st century has also seen the music industry change with the influence of the cowboy culture because influential musicians have had an impact on the cowboy culture, especially on the dressing style of the cowboys. Prominent musicians such as Garth Brooks, Group Brooks and Dunn are known to be at the forefront of this revolution (Eons 20).
They can also be attributed to the emergence of new elements in the cowboy culture, such as smoking the Marlboro; carrying the Copenhagen Cans, Winchester rifles and the likes. Other symbolic items like the cowboy rope and the cowboy stirrup have been replaced with sunglasses and mobile phones, but it is no disputed fact that, the cowboy movement has completely changed with time and probably more is yet to be seen.
From this analysis, many questions have been asked regarding the evolution of the cowboy, but if the authentic meaning of the cowboy is relevant today; the cowboy movement is nothing but a superficial movement among Americans. More questions have been asked regarding if Americans find the cowboy movement any relevant today.
However, today, it is no disputed fact that, the American cowboy is more of a mindset than an actual person; but it is more unfortunate that, many Americans have disregarded the real cowboy code which speaks for toughness, hard work and morality (Rowell 3). This disregard for the cowboy code has misguided many people to have misconceived ideas about cowboys.
For example, cowboys are normally perceived as slow individuals, but in real sense, they truly enjoy the life around them. In this regard, many researchers advocate for the reexamination of the past; where the real cowboys left it off and establish why they were able to take over the west, with their tools of trade (horse, gun and barbed wire); but it is also no doubt that the cowboy movement played a huge role to the emergence of American culture as it is today (Rowell 3). Nonetheless, in understanding the real cowboy, it is important to understand the cowboy code.
The True Cowboy (Cowboy Code)
The true cowboy has often been perceived as a true hero among the American society because of his strong regard for morals. The morals of cowboys are normally known to be steadfast; for example he is known never to take advantage of anyone; even an enemy (Rowell 3). However, he is also known never to decline a challenge, regardless of how dangerous the task may be, or how difficult it may be.
In close association with this attribute, the cowboy is also known to take up challenges for his own pride and not to get a given title or belt that suits the challenge. The true cowboy is also known to stand by the truth (and what is pure) as opposed to what is evil and false because they understand that, their morality is their bedrock of existence and the reason for their true respect.
Real cowboys also have it in their mind that, a given task ought to be accomplished no matter what the situation. This is the reason why a true cowboy is said to have the potential of travelling hundreds of miles steering cattle along the way, or travelling hundreds of miles to take a dog to a veterinary doctor for a small child (sometimes even going without sleep).
This trait is complimented by one cowboy code which observes that, cowboys are good workers and carry out their duty with diligence and satisfaction (Rowell 3). The real cowboy is also known to refrain from looking for trouble, but when he is faced with a difficult situation, he does not shy away from defending himself.
Besides defending themselves, cowboys are also known to defend good people from bad people (an attribute which stems from their strong inclination towards working for the good of humanity and living up to the virtue of honesty and all that represents good) (Rowell 3).
With regards to language, a true cowboy is never known to curse or talk ill of people; on the contrary, he is known to be soft-spoken, but firm. Moreover, his language can easily match that of an educated man because he knows what to say around educated people (though he may be a little slower and less elaborate when compared to educated people).
Around women, the cowboy is known to be slightly shy but this is attributed to the fact that, he spends very little time around people. Most importantly, the cowboy is known for his high regard for trust because he does not go back on his word and in the same manner, he cannot betray someone’s trust as well (Rowell 3).
It is also a strong code among cowboys to respect the old, children and animals because they are often weak and need the support of other people. In this regard, they are often gentle to them and would never hesitate to help someone who genuinely needs their help (Rowell 3). Though the cowboy is known to have a strong respect for the old and the weak, he is also known to have a strong regard for his parents and womanhood in particular (Rowell 3).
This strong respect is compounded by the strong respect for the country’s laws; therefore meaning that, true cowboys are very patriotic. Though some attributes of the cowboy have been known to posses racist remarks and show signs of racist intolerance, the true cowboy is not known to have these traits (including having religious intolerance).
This gives true cowboys the clarity of conscience in thought, word and deed because they do everything for the good of humanity (Rowell 3). This is in sharp contrast to the superficial perception of cowboys, which is focused on superficial aspects of the cowboy such as clothing.
These unique cowboy attributes envisioned in the cowboy code have been documented in various literary excerpts such as Jack Schaefer’s Shane where there is a clear depiction of the surroundings and deeds of the true cowboy. The following examples explain this fact.
The Novel, Shane, represents the true example of the American cowboy. Running from a turbulent past; Shane finds refuge in the Starret family where he calls home, for a while (Schaefer 1). During his time with the family, Shane’s deeds exemplify the true qualities of a real cowboy because he performs deeds which concur with the cowboy code.
For example, he helps the Starret homestead fight evil advances from a ruthless rancher, out to finish the family. This deed is coherent with the cowboy code of ethics which explains that, a true cowboy always helps those who require his help. The Starret family was one such family and Shane did not hesitate to defend the family from evil.
He used his cowboy skills such as his high mastery of the gunslinger sport and his lethal character to wade off evil advances from the big time rancher in the novel. Shane’s story is critical to the analysis of America’s mythos because it is critical to the understanding of democracy and humanity as is explained by BrothersJudd who notes that:
“The great Westerns penetrate deep within the American psyche; they strike a chord that lies somewhere within our national character, just waiting to be plucked. I believe that, their unique power derives from a truly elemental facet of democracy–that in order for men to enjoy the freedom that a democracy allows, they must be able to depend on the fundamental goodness of their fellow men” (BrothersJudd 3).
The relation between morality and democracy of patriotism stems from the fact that, a strong regard for self-morality, as exposed by Shane is critical to the enforcement of a political system which prides itself in liberty. BrothersJudd further explains that,
“Certainly the Western and the code of the West represent a sanitized and romanticized view of the Frontier and the men who tamed it, but it is a romance that serves the democratic purpose. These morality tales are instructive and aspirational” (BrothersJudd 3).
Protagonists such as Shane are critical to the development of the national myth on ethics and patriotism because they play a critical role in the enforcement of democracy and morality.
In Shane’s story, he is described by a small boy as a person who could be trusted (and a father), though he was not necessarily a father (Schaefer 3). He was perceived by the Starret family as a dangerous and lethal man, but he could not harm them, or those who intended to do “good”.
His lethal nature was only directed to those who intended to do evil to them. This trait enforces the fact that, cowboys are normally firm, courageous and confident about themselves, but they never take advantage of their strengths to trample over the weak; they only use such strengths to help the weak and wade off any evil provocations form the evil people.
Shane’s character fits that of a good man and it is from this perspective that we draw a strong comparison between his character and that of Starret because Starret was also a good man; in fact, of equal measure to Shane but they differed on the basis that, Shane had a fast speed on the draw and Starret did not. His skills to defend himself and those of handling weapons also draw the comparison between them, but again, these skills are not used for the wrong purposes, but rather, for the good of the weak.
This fact can be affirmed by Shane’s instructions to young Bob when he was teaching him how to use a gun. He said, “Listen, Bob. A gun is just a tool. No better and no worse than any other tool, a shovel–or an axe or a saddle or a stove or anything. Think of it always that way. A gun is as good–and as bad–as the man who carries it. Remember that” (BrothersJudd 5).
From this assertion, there is a strong level of personal responsibility upheld by Shane because he teaches Bob how to take responsibility for his actions, especially when handling the gun. A contrast can be made of the current gun debate going on in the society today with antagonists claiming that guns are evil, regardless of the person who wields it, and therefore a strong control policy should be enforced to curtail the possession of guns.
In this debate, there seems to lack a strong regard to the character of individuals holding such guns, but in contrast to this analysis, Shane gives another perspective where he proposes that, people who handle guns are evil and not the gun itself. This is the kind of personal responsibility that a true cowboy should possess.
In other words, guns should not be seen as the true cause of violence, but rather, people should be held responsible for the violence they wield on other people with the guns they posses. Though the Shane story talks of the true character of the American Cowboy, it also upholds certain elements of the Cowboy culture which has been blown out of proportion by superfluous American filmmakers.
Such attributes include the bar brawls and shoot outs which have often been perceived as the epicenter of the cowboy culture, but this is not the case. More emphasis should therefore be made of the charismatic nature of Shane and his relentless quest to do “good” as part of the true cowboy culture. For instance, Shane’s resilience to help Starret improve his farm is part of the true nature of being a cowboy.
Contrary to the ruthless stereotype given to cowboys by present-day society, the true cowboy, as explained by Shane’s story, is the opposite of such a perception. In fact, Miriam (the woman in the Shane story describes Shane as “nice, polite and sort of gentle” (Schaefer 11).
She however goes on to say, “But there is something about him. Something underneath the gentleness…Something…Mysterious. But more than that. Dangerous” (Schaefer 12). These traits describe the true character of a cowboy.
The searchers, a 1956 film also shows the character of a true cowboy, based on its plot revolving around the life of a civil war veteran, Ethan (Turner 1). Ethan’s character and life are a true representation of the real character of a real cowboy in the sense that, the kindness and honesty manifested in the Cowboy’s code is a component of his overall character.
For example, when Ethan came back from the civil war, he settles with his brother in a cowboy ranch and when his neighbor’s cattle is stolen, he never hesitates to join forces with several other cowboys to track down the thieves. However, when they realize that the entire exercise was part of a ploy to make them leave their homesteads, they rush back, but unfortunately, they find that some of their family members had been killed.
From this analysis, we see that, Ethan’s lack of hesitation to pursue the cattle thieves who stole the neighbor’s cattle is an act of goodwill expected of every cowboy. Moreover, the open willingness to help people in need is in tandem with the cowboy’s code to help others when they need help.
The resilience expected of a true cowboy is also manifested in Ethan’s character because when he finds out that, the Indians had already attacked his host’s homestead, he decides to pursue them once again, but some of his team members either pull out of the plan, or fail to make it to the destination.
Their reduction in numbers reduces their chances to defeat their enemy, but Ethan and Brad (another cowboy in the team) decide to pursue the enemies further. They decide to do so, despite the fact that, they were only two people and their chance of defeating their enemies was very low (Turner 4).
According to the cowboy’s code, a true cowboy is expected to have these qualities because resilience and perfection are requirements towards the accomplishment of any given task. Ethan and Brad managed to show this resilience despite operating against unfavorable odds. Also, when Brad is killed Ethan never loses the hope of searching for the enemies when he joins forces with Martin Pawley.
They search for the trail of the enemies until they lose the enemy’s trail in winter when their tracks became difficult to trace. Despite this challenge, they never lose hope. The same resilience is observed when Ethan and Martin find Debbie (who was abducted by the enemies) and the enemies, because they are determined to leave with Debbie, even though Debbie refuses to go back with them and vows to stay with the Indians (enemies).
Ethan however, declares that, he would rather see Debbie dead than live with the Indians. When they retire for the night, Ethan leaves to track the enemies alone (without Martin). This shows the popular perception of cowboys travelling alone, but most importantly, it shows the resilience and courage of Ethan as a true cowboy. Martin however gets a horse and tracks him down.
The film also shows the compassion a cowboy is supposed to have, based on the actions of Ethan on his niece Debbie. Though Ethan sets off on a dangerous journey to avenge the death of some of his family members, he decides not to kill Debbie; even though she decided join his enemies and conspired to bring him down (Turner 2).
This level of compassion is expected of true cowboys because it is within the cowboy code for cowboys to be understanding and compassionate to their family members. In fact, Cowboys are known to have utmost respect for their family members and more especially children or young ones. His hesitation to kill his niece is a true representation of the cowboy’s respect for family members.
Ethan’s action in this regard is also representative of the cowboy code requiring all cowboys to refrain from shooting or killing people who are weak or beneath them. In other words, this would be perceived as an unfair act on the part of the cowboy because they are required to uphold a high level of ethics since shooting or killing a weak person is not fair.
This study exposes the real meaning of a cowboy and notes that, the popular concept of a cowboy has often been unjustifiably used without regard to the real meaning of a cowboy. The real meaning of a cowboy is summed up in the cowboy code where cowboys are required to uphold certain ethical and moral principles which define their character.
From this understanding, the real meaning of a cowboy is envisaged in their character and behavior, but the focus on symbols, clothing and such superfluous elements of the cowboy culture is just but a myth. Jack Schaefer’s Shane and John Wayne’s film ‘the searchers’ show the true characters and behaviors of cowboys – representing the real cowboys.
Both protagonists in the two features are expressive of the compassion, honesty, truthfulness, and respect expected of all cowboys. From this understanding, we therefore note that the real cowboys are identified by their acts.
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Eons. Myths & Realities of Cowboys. 2006. Web.
Pryor, Alton. Cowboys: The End of the Trail. New York: Stagecoach Pub., 2005.
Rowell, Harry. Gene Autry’s “The Cowboy Code“. 2011. Web.
Ryan, David. America: A Guide to the Experience. New York: Kozmik press, 1986. Schaefer, Jack. Shane. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949.
Turner. The Searchers. 2011. Web.