A cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and became a figure of special significance and legend. A subtype, called a wrangler, specifically tends the horses used to work cattle. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work for or participate in rodeos. Cowgirls, first defined as such in the late 19th century, had a less-well documented historical role, but in the modern world have established the ability to work at virtually identical tasks and obtained considerable respect for their achievements. There are also cattle handlers in many other parts of the world, particularly South America and Australia, who perform work similar to the cowboy in their respective nations.
The cowboy has deep historic roots tracing back to Spain and the earliest European settlers of the Americas. Over the centuries, differences in terrain, climate and the influence of cattle-handling traditions from multiple cultures created several distinct styles of equipment, clothing and animal handling. As the ever-practical cowboy adapted to the modern world, the cowboy's equipment and techniques also adapted to some degree, though many classic traditions are still preserved today.
Development of the modern cowboy image
The traditions of the working cowboy were further etched into the minds of the general public with the development of Wild West Shows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which showcased and romanticized the life of both cowboys and Native Americans. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing to the present day, Western movies popularized the cowboy lifestyle but also formed persistent stereotypes, both positive and negative. In some cases, the cowboy and the violent gunslinger are often associated with one another. On the other hand, some actors who portrayed cowboys promoted positive values, such as the "cowboy code" of Gene Autry, that encouraged honorable behavior, respect and patriotism. Historian Robert K. DeArment draws a connection between the popularized Western code and the stereotypical rowdy cowboy image to that of the "subculture of violence" of drovers in Old West Texas, that was influenced itself by the Southern code duello.
Likewise, cowboys in movies were often shown fighting with American Indians. However most armed conflicts occurred between Native people and cavalry units of the U.S. Army. Relations between cowboys and Native people were varied but generally not particularly friendly. Indian people usually allowed cattle herds to pass through for a toll of ten cents a head, but raided cattle drives and ranches in times of active white-Native conflict or food shortages. In the 1860s, for example, the Comanche created problems in Western Texas. Similar attacks also occurred with the Apache, Cheyenne and Ute Indians. Cowboys were armed against both predators and human thieves, and often used their guns to run off people of any race who attempted to steal, or rustle cattle.
In reality, working ranch hands past and present had very little time for anything other than the constant, hard work involved in maintaining a ranch.