Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


American cowboy circa 1887

A cowboy is a herder, usually hired by a rancher to tend his livestock, especially cattle. A cowboy is responsible for feeding the livestock, branding cattle and marking other livestock, and tending to their injuries or other needs. They also repair fences and maintain other equipment. Working in the wild, cowboys often have many other skills. Danger and excitement are a part of a cowboy's daily life. In spite of the term, cowboys are often adults.


The Spanish were adept at herding livestock. During the 15th century, they brought the tradition with them to the New World. American ranchers absorbed Mexican vaquero culture after the Mexican-American War in the 1850s, borrowing vocabulary and attire from their southern counterparts. In particular, the vaquero lifestyle appealed to freed African-American slaves.

Over time, the cowboys of the American West developed a culture of their own, a blend of frontier and Victorian values. Such hazardous work in isolated conditions bred a tradition of loneliness and misery, which is exemplified in their cowboy songs and cowboy poetry. Poor weather and management in the 1880s lessened the need in America for ranching cowboys, so the profession of rodeo cowboy was invented to keep their traditions alive. In the 1930s and 1940s, Western movies popularized the cowboy lifestyle but also formed persistent stereotypes.

See also: gaucho, paniolo

Further reading