It's a fairly safe assumption to say everyone knows what a cowboy is. Who hasn't grown up with the idea of Westerns surrounding them in varying shades of ubiquity? Ask someone to describe a cowboy and they'll likely come up with some version of the following: a rugged, tanned bloke in a broad-brimmed hat who strides into saloons, drinks whiskey, gets involved in fistfights and quick-draw shoot-outs in the filthy dirt of the main drag outside, before riding off into the sunset leaving a trail of broken hearts and broken black-hats behind him.
But that’s not what really happened. Real cowboys were rugged and tanned, certainly, and there probably were a fair few fistfights over faro or females, but day to day there was hard work to be done out on the ranges of North America. And only the Marlboro Man was up to the challenge...
During the era we’re talking about – roughly 1866 to 1886 – there was big money to be made from beef. In the wake of the US Civil War, there was a big market for the stuff up north and a big supply of longhorns in the south. The trains hadn’t extended as far as they were needed yet, so men were needed to bridge the gap from ranch to rail. Men with big hats, dust-beating bandanas and big-heeled boots. Men who were boys. Cowboys.
Contrary to their on-screen counterparts, more than a quarter of the real-life cowboys – named for a direct translation of the Spanish vaqueros – were black. Their lives were often as exciting as those scripted adventures, however, as they drove thousands of recalcitrant cattle across hundreds of miles of rough terrain in conditions ranging from thunderstorms to drought, watching for stampedes, wild animals and even wilder cattle rustlers. It was a seasonal life, with different jobs to be done in winter (catching drifting cows), spring (rounding up the stock) and summer (hitting the trail drive to market).
How did this two-decade golden age of savage frontier individualism end? Barbed wire. Yep, that bane of trespassers and escapees alike brought down the cowboy way of life, exchanging wide-open spaces and sleeping under the stars for cordoned-off pastures that worked well with the expanded railways and more stringently enforced land laws. Suddenly ranch owners didn’t need these itinerant rounders-up to keep their cows in one place all year.
Cowboys didn’t entirely disappear, of course, even as the work shifted and changed to include more fence-mending and long-range travel. Today, people still perform a version of the work that launched an entire genre of fiction across film, TV, comics, novels, radio shows and games. They’ve even kept a lot of the wardrobe.
Further explore cowboy mythology with Robert Redford’s The West, which starts Sunday 8 October at 8:30pm on SBS.