23. February 2013 · Comments Off on The Cowboy Way · Categories: Old West, Random Book and Media Musings

I never have quite understood the appeal of the cowboy, when it came to the whole western-frontier-nostalgia-gestalt. How on earth did that particular frontier archetype sweep all others before it, when it came to dime novels, movies and television shows – given that the classic ‘cowboy’ functioned only in a very specific time period; say for about twenty years after the Civil War. Admittedly, the Western cattle industry seemed to be co-located with spectacular bits of scenery, and the final years of the frontier per se offered all kinds of interesting potential story lines, many of them guaranteed to thrill urban, eastern wage slaves living blamelessly dull lives� but still.

For the generic cowboy was a himself hired hand. Yes, indeed – working for wages as hard (or harder) than any store clerk or factory laborer, tending to semi-wild cattle – and, not to put too much of a fine point on it – herding cattle, even on horseback was unskilled labor in the 19th century. It was grueling, low-skill, low-paying labor, most often seasonable, and most intelligent and ambitious young sparks didn’t do it for a month longer than they needed to. It was the sort of work done these days by high-school kids and illegal aliens, mostly until better employment opportunities came along.

You have to wonder, especially when there were so many other truly heroic epic adventurers available to hang the hero worship on. How did the cowboy even begin to loom so large – especially when the cattle business (and it was a business!) didn’t really begin to thrive until all the excitement was practically over? What about the mountain men, living on their wits in the early days, alone among the variously tempered tribes of the Great Basin? And surely the miners in the various gold and silver booms; they worked just as hard at pretty mucky drudgery, for themselves in the earlies and for their employers later on. And what about my own personal favorites among the frontier archetypes, the wagon-train emigrants, setting out with their whole families along a two-thousand mile road through the empty lands? Stage drivers and teamsters were quite a bit more likely to have adventurous encounters with the lawless element, or particularly hostile Indians – although even the stereotype of the Western towns being particularly lawless falls down a bit in contemporary comparison to elements of big cities in the East. Why one particular line of work would inspire a century of dime novels, moves and television shows is enough to make you shrug your shoulders and say ‘que?!‘ to the camera, like Manuel in Fawlty Towers.

So how did all that glamour and mythic stature come to sprout from acres of Western cow pies? Damned if I know, although I can take some guesses. The popular press fairly exploded after the Civil War, creating a demand for tales of frontier adventure. Right time, right place; and it has often been noticed that the typical Western TV show or movie perpetuated ever since is more often set in about the 1865-1885s time frame. Telegraph and the transcontinental railroads are in place, the Indians are reserved (with sporadic exceptions necessary to the plot of the moment, of course) and all the little towns have wooden sidewalks and glass windows, suitable for a reckless cowboy to ride his horse down one and crash through the other. But still … a pretty limited visualization of the frontier west; surely there was more, even in the late 19th century for popular culture to fixate on?

I wonder if the attraction for the cowboy thing wasn’t based on a melding of one particular and very old archetype and a certain cultural folkway. The archetype was that of the independent horseman, the chevalier, the knight – able to go farther and travel faster than a person on foot. There was always a predilection in the West to look up to the man on a horse, to see them as beings a bit freer, a little more independent. The cowboy might be a paid laborer, but in comparison to man working in a factory, much more independent in the framing of his work day and much less supervised. And as was noted in the lively yet strangely scholarly tome Cracker Culture, the Scotch-Irish-Celtic-Borderer folkway which formed a substantial layer of our cultural bedrock rather favored herding barely domesticated animals (and hunting wild game) rather than intensive cultivation. Better a free life, out of doors and on horseback, rather than plodding along behind a plough, or stuck behind a workbench, even if it didn’t pay very much at all.

It was and remains fascinating to go back to the roots of the cattle industry, as I did for the Adelsverein: The Harvesting, and for the sequel, The Quivera Trail (Barsetshire with Cypress Trees and a Lot of Sidearms) – just to discover how very, very different it was from what has always been popularly presented. Owen Wister didn’t get the half of it.

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