The American Cowboy: Myth vs. Reality

Essay by aslindeUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, April 2006

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Historian Frederick Jackson Turner's famous essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" defines the "frontier" as a place of westward expansion with new opportunities, heroism, triumph and progress mainly by brave white men. While he writes that the "closing of the frontier" occurred with the extinction of the Western frontier and cowboy's character, Americans have found a way to glamorize the image of the cowboy in the west during the 1800's. It is important to emphasize the distinction that historians make between the pop-culture romantic image of the cowboy and the actual lives of cowboys who worked the ranches in a quiet and solitary manner.

Contemporary accounts of so-called cowboys offer many different images. John Clay, an old rancher who actually lived and worked among these men described them as a "devil may care, immoral, revolver-heeled, brazen, light fingered lot who usually came to no good end" (Carlson 3).

Until the late 1880's, the term "cowboy" was synonymous with "drunkard," "outlaw," and "cattle thief" (Carlson 5).

Adding to the confusion surrounding the cowboy is that historians are inundated by a lack of documentation concerning cowboys. Most cowboys themselves were illiterate, and few intellectuals of the day had much interest in them. As a result, "no class of men were ever so unfaithfully represented and in consequence so misunderstood and unfairly judged by people generally as the old time cowboy has been" (Rainey 4). Another source of information on the romanticized cowboy comes from "professional writers, journalists, and filmmakers who are often located outside the West itself or in that peculiar corner of it, Hollywood" (White 614). These are the versions we see throughout the mass media including books, magazines, and movies. Until the late 1880's, the term "cowboy" was synonymous with "drunkard," "outlaw," and "cattle thief"...