Cowboys played an important role in the settling of the west. Ranching was a big industry and cowboys helped to run the ranches. They herded cattle, repaired fences and buildings, and took care of the horses.
The Cattle Drive
Cowboys often worked on cattle drives. This was when a large herd of cattle was moved from the ranch to a market place where they could be sold. A lot of the original cattle drives went from Texas to the railroads in Kansas.
Cattle drives were tough work. Cowboys would get up early in the morning and "guide" the herd to the next stopping point for the night. The senior riders got to be at the front of the herd. The junior cowboys had to stay at the back where it was dusty from the large herd.
There were usually around a dozen cowboys for a good size herd of 3000 cattle. There was also a trail boss, camp cook, and wrangler. The wrangler was usually a junior cowboy who kept track of the extra horses.
Each spring and fall the cowboys would work on the "roundup". This was when the cowboys would bring in all the cattle from the open range. Cattle would roam freely much of the year and then the cowboys would need to bring them in. In order to tell what cattle belonged to their ranch, the cattle would have a special mark burned into them called a "brand".
Cowboy Herding Cattle from the National Park Service
Horse and Saddle
The most important possession of any cowboy was his horse and saddle. The saddles were often custom made and, next to his horse, was probably the most valuable item a cowboy owned. Horses were so important that horse stealing was considered a hanging offense!
Cowboys wore special clothing that helped them with their jobs. They wore large 10-gallon hats to protect them from the sun and the rain. They wore special cowboy boots with pointed toes that helped them to slip in and out of the stirrups when riding a horse. This was especially important if they fell so they wouldn't get dragged by their horse.
Many cowboys wore chaps on the outsides of their legs to help protect from sharp bushes and cacti that their horse may rub up against. Another important piece of clothing was the bandana which could be used to protect them from the dust kicked up by cattle.
The cowboys of the Old West had an unwritten code that they lived by. The code included such rules as being courteous, always saying "howdy", don't wave at a man on a horse (you should nod), never ride another man's horse without his permission, always help someone in need, and never put on another man's hat.
The rodeo became a sports competition with events based around the daily jobs of a cowboy. Events include calf roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, bareback bronco riding, and barrel racing.
Interesting Facts about Cowboys
When living on a ranch, cowboys lived in a bunkhouse with a lot of other cowboys.
Cowboys often sang songs at night for entertainment and to soothe the cattle. Some of the songs they sang included "In the Sweet By and By" and "The Texas Lullaby".
Other names for cowboys include cowpunchers, cowpokes, buckaroos, and cowhands.
A new person to the Old West was called a tenderfoot, pilgrim, or greenhorn.
The harmonica was a popular musical instrument to cowboys because it is so small and easy to carry.
The average cowboy in the Old West made between $25 and $40 a month.