By Don Hedgpeth
This is part of a chapter from the book Traildust, which featured exceptional art of Jim Reynolds. The book was published by Greenwich Workshop Press in 1997
The story of the West is a tale of triumph and tragedy with a full cast of characters, both heroes and villains, in the best tradition of classical drama. One figure stands out more starkly than all the others, idealized and immortal in our collective consciousness: the cowboy. He is a symbol; of the idea of the West, both real and imagined, forever riding wild and free across a prairie dreamscape. Romantic fascination swirls around the cowboy and makes it difficult for us to see him clearly. Cowboy reality, both historical and contemporary, has been overwhelmed by a mythological haze of gunsmoke and traildust. The truth is hard to get at and is not what it once had been - when, in fact, it never really was.
The genesis of the America cowboy traces back through time and across a broad ocean to Spain. Conquistadors, haughty and brave, introduced cattle and horses to the New World when they landed on the shores of Mexico early in the sixteenth century. The Indians of Mexico became the first American cowboys. They adapted Spanish techniques of livestock management to new and diverse environments. Open-range cattle raising became an economic cornerstone of the Spanish colonial empire, spreading throughout Mexico and into American Southwest, particularly California and Texas.
The flavor and style of Spain were retained in the horse-back heritage of California. But in Texas, Hispanic vaqueros and Anglo cowboys developed their own way of doing things in response to the hard charter of the country. Texas cowboys, Texas horses and Texas cattle set the style for the Western livestock industry on the Great Plains east of the Rocky Mountains, from the Rio Grande north to the Canadian border.
The cowboy's golden age began in the dark days following the Civil War. As railroads built westward, shipping points were established in rough and rowdy Kansas cowtowns like Dodge City and Abilene. Millons of Texas cattle followed the old trader's track called Chisholm Trail northward across the Red River and on through the Indian Territory to the Kansas railheads...food for war-weary, beef-hungry nation.
These were the glory days: a brief two dozen years when the cowboy captured the imagination of an entire worked. They were wild rovers, horsemen daring and bold and most of all, free and unfettered. Legend grew up along cattle trails. The cowboy became something more than what he really was...just a hired man on horseback changed with welfare of cattle that bore the boss's brand.
The modern age was dawning and with it came the curses of crowded cities and industrialization. People bowed beneath the weight of the drab, colorless lives marked by routine and monotony. There was an enormous appeal in the romantic notion of the cowboy, a free ranging rider galloping toward adventure in a land of high lonesome. The idea of such a figure provided a means of vicarious escape for all those who were trapped in bleak ordinary lives. The popular press of the day rushed to cash in on the public appetite. By the turn of the century, the cowboy had been transformed by printer's ink into a legendary charter of such proportions as to rival the heroes of ancient mythology.
Three men played prominent roles in creation of the cowboy legend. They were Owen Wister, Frederic Remington and Theodore Roosevelt. Wister created to prototypical cowboy myth when he published his enormously successful novel The Virginian in 1902. Wister's cowboy was strong and laconic, honorable and gallant: chivalry incarnate, a knight on the Western plains. But there was little of cowboy reality in Wister's story- not even the presence of cattle. Morality was more important to Wister's cowboy hero than handling cattle and topping off broncs, and the gun replaced the lariat as the cowboy's favored tool.
Theodore Roosevelt had a genuine appetite for adventure and a zest for the rigorous life. As a young man, he briefly owned two ranches in the Dakota territories and reveled in the company of cowboys. In later years, Roosevelt idealized his Dakota days. He wrote and spoke of cowboys as men both primitive and pure. His cowboy memories were colored more by romantic notion than by rawhide reality, But he enjoyed a "bully pulpit" throughout his life and the public believed him. After all, he had been there and they had not.
Frederic Remington had a major role in shaping the world's perception of cowboy's. He, like Wister and Roosevelt, was an outsider, a visitor to the West whose experiences were transitory and his observations superficial. Remington, in his art and his writings, showed us how cowboys "looked" but not much about how they "were." Visiting a cow camp is very different than living in one for a roundup season.
Wister, Roosevelt and Remington, taken together, exerted tremendous influence on the public through their separate and joint ventures, particularly in the proper press of the day. They created an image for the cowboy based on heroic drama, rather than the mundane reality of dirt, sweat and saddle sores. Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West theatrical productions lent further substance to the myth, as did a booming market for pulp fiction featuring the exciting exploits of cowboys based on Wister's Virginian.
Early in the twentieth century, the wilderness was fading fast and the nation hungered for a hero. The cowboy was chosen and thereby exiled to a romantic purgatory where he became a quixotic rider on the trail of glory. Few cared that he had survived the passing of the frontier era. Not all cowboys had died in stampeded on stormy nights or had been shot down on the duty streets of Dodge or pierced through with Comanche arrows on a lonely stretch of prairie.
The world was rushing headlong into a new age in which there seemed no comfortable niche for a new generation of cowboy. Literature and then the movies relegated him to an earlier time. The cowboy became an icon of history but an outcast in modern day. Americans still craved beef but seemed somehow unaware that the cattle business existed beyond Midwestern feedyards and the local butcher shop. Out West, sun and rain still nourished the prairie grass which sustained the grazing herds on ranches that were still run in the traditional manner, with those hired men on horseback, the cowboys. That they were ignored by the rest of the world bothered them not at all.
The concept of the cowboy as a legendary historical figure became even more entrenched through the movies. Hollywood exploited the appeal of the cowboy just as the popular press had earlier. Hollywood transformed the cowboy from a mounted herdsman to a tireless warrior in the eternal conflict between good and evil. While the genuine article was still out there somewhere looking after cattle for pitiful wages, those who assumed and altered his true identity, through costume and dramatic contrivance, became rich.
Generations of small boys sat in the Saturday afternoon darkness of movie theatres, entranced by the masquerade and caught up in a world of make-believe. Seasoned actors took on the identities of imaginary cowboys and spent their entire careers feeding the fantasy. They were what we believed to be cowboys. But it was not true. Reality was far away from the footlights, out among the scrub and sage, where cold wind blew down the canyons and men rode out obscure lives defined by cow work and the cycle of seasons.
Cowboy reality was and still is, a sharp-honed, self-reliant attitude. A set of work skills, a strong sense of pride and loyalty and an assortment of gear he calls his outfit. Everything else that has attached itself to cowboys is incidental, or imagined. The truth lies in the timeless natural chemistry of grass, rain, cattle, horses, and men, a phenomenon based on mankind's natural appetite for beef. The cow is critical core around which cowboy reality revolves.
After something close to a hundred years, chinks have begun to appear in the armor of myth surrounding the cowboy and the broader context of Western history. The world has discovered that there still is a real West.....wild and wide open places scarcely touched by at all by the ravages of the Modern age. And in those places, amazingly, there are still cowboys...like an ancient extinct species rediscovered on a forgotten island in a remote corner of a faraway ocean.
Resurrection and renaissance are loose upon the tireless prairie wind...the cowboy lives-not next door, or down the block, but out there someplace uncrowded, comfortable in the company of his own kind. Most remarkable of all is that he is essentially the same kind of man who inspired the myth a hundred years ago. And America is drawn to him again for much of the same reason as in the beginning before the myth took hold.
Penned by Don Hedgpeth, our resident renaissance cowboy: historian, author, art expert, poet. He also sings and plays traditional cowboy songs and recites a few poems he has written. Don lives with his wife of nearly 50 years, Sug, and they, together, can be found at poetry and art gatherings, or at home in Medina, Texas.
He does not have, nor shall ever have a computer. He has no cell phone nor typewriter and still writes longhand. He is wary of mechanical things getting between him and his muse.
Books by Don Hedgpeth:
Howard Terpning: Spirit of the Plains People
Desert Dreams, the Western Art of Don Crowley
The Texas Breed: A Cowboy Anthology
From Broncs to Bronzes: The Life and Work of Grant Speed
Under Western Skies: The Art of Bob Pummill
Bettina: Portraying Life in Art
Remember Me To Them That Ride By