History of the Cowboy
The word "cowboy" first appeared in the English language around 1715 - 1725, and is likely a direct English translation of vaquero, a Spanish word for an individual who managed cattle while mounted on horseback. It was derived from vaca, meaning "cow." This Spanish word has a long history, developed in part from the Latin word vacca.
In addition to Latin roots, there may be an Arabic influence as well. Another English word for a cowboy, "buckaroo", is also an English equivalent or translation for vaquero, which reflects the archaic Spanish pronunciation of vaquero, suggesting the possibility of being derived from the Arabic word bakara or bakhara, also meaning "heifer" or "young cow."
The word "cowboy" also had English language roots beyond simply being a translation from Spanish. Because of the time and physical ability needed to develop necessary skills, the American cow "boy" (as well as the vaquero) often began working on ranches as an adolescent. Folklore suggests the word "cowboy" came about from a manner in which cattle bosses barked orders to these young adolescent boys, such as, "fetch that Cow, Boy!".
The Spanish developed what we now know as cowboy tradition, beginning with the hacienda system of medieval Spain. This style of cattle ranching spread throughout much of the Iberian peninsula and later was imported to the Americas. Both regions possessed a dry climate with sparse grass, thus large herds of cattle required vast amounts of land in order to obtain sufficient forage. The need to herd cattle over vast distances gave rise to the development of the vaquero mounted on horseback.
During the 16th century, the Conquistadors and other Spanish settlers brought their cattle-raising traditions as well as their horses and cattle to the Americas, starting with their arrival in what is now known as Mexico and Florida. These traditions were transformed by the geographic, environmental and cultural circumstances of New Spain, which later became Mexico and the southwestern United States. In turn, the land and people of these regions experienced dramatic changes due to Spanish influence. The traditional cowboy we now know evolved from Hispanic origins, particularly in the Central States of Mexico, where the Mexican cowboy would eventually be known as a "charro", as well as areas to the north that later became the Southwestern United States. Most vaqueros were men and boys of mestizo and Native American origin while most of the hacienda owners were Spanish.
The arrival of horses was particularly significant, as equines had been extinct in the Americas since the end of the prehistoric ice age. However, horses quickly multiplied in America and became crucial to the success of the Spanish and later settlers from other nations. The earliest horses were originally of Andalusian, Barb and Arabian ancestry, but a number of uniquely American horse breeds developed in North and South America through selective breeding and by natural selection of animals that had escaped to the wild. The Mustang and other colonial horse breeds are now called "wild horses", but in reality are descendants of domesticated animals.
As English speaking traders and settlers moved into the Western United States, English and Spanish traditions and culture merged to some degree, with the vaquero tradition providing the foundation of the American cowboy. New England merchants who traveled by ship to California encountered both hacendados and vaqueros and traded their manufactured goods for the hides and tallow (the fat of cattle and sheep) produced from the vast cattle ranches. American traders along what later became known as the Santa Fe Trail had similar contacts with vaquero life. Starting with these early encounters, the lifestyle and lingo of the vaquero began a transformation which merged with English cultural traditions and produced what became known in American culture as the "cowboy".
Founded in 1658, Deep Hollow Ranch in Long Island, New York is the oldest cattle ranch in the United States and is believed to be the actual birthplace of the American Cowboy. It has been operating continuously ever since and has become a destination for tourists, offering horseback riding and hay rides. At its peak 6,000 cattle, horses and sheep roamed the land. In the 1700s three houses were on the eastern tip of Long Island running from west to east. The first house burned down, the second house is near the populated center of Montauk and now operates as a museum, and the third House operates as the headquarters of Deep Hollow Ranch.
Development of the modern day Cowboy
As the frontier ended, the cowboy life came to be highly romanticized. Exhibitions such as Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show helped to popularize the image of the cowboy as an idealized representative of the tradition of chivalry. In fact, Buffalo Bill Cody is considered the first person to be known as a true celebrity. He traveled across Europe with his show introducing the image of the Cowboy and wild west to the world. Achieving international notoriety and stardom, he would draw crowds of people seeking autographs, something that was fairly new for that time, at least of that magnitude. At the turn of the 20th century Buffalo Bill Cody was the most recognizable celebrity on earth, achieving the status and stardom comparable to that of any modern day rock star. Buffalo Bill Cody was instrumental in making the North American "Cowboy" one of the most popular and recognized cultural icons in the world.
Over time, the cowboys of the American West developed a personal culture of their own, a blend of frontier and Victorian values that even retained signs of chivalry. Such hazardous work in isolated conditions also bred a tradition of self-dependence and individualism, with great value put on personal honesty, exemplified in their songs and poetry.
Western movies further popularized the cowboy image and lifestyle but also created persistent stereotypes. John Wayne is a globally recognized icon associated with exemplifying the ideal cowboy, one who is brave and honest with strong ethics and values, and fought for freedom and justice. In modern pop culture, the cowboy and the gunslinger are often associated with one another. In reality, working ranch hands had very little time for anything other than the hard work involved in maintaining a ranch. Likewise, cowboys in movies are often shown fighting with American Indians. However, in reality, most armed conflicts actually occurred between Indians and cavalry units of the U.S. Army. Cowboys however were often hired by the U.S. Army as scouts because they knew the terrain and often traded with the Indians.
In today's society, there is little understanding of the daily realities of actual ranch and cowboy life. Cowboys are more often associated with the Indian-fighting and gunslinging cowboys portrayed in movies even though most western movies seldom bear much resemblance to real cowboy life. Arguably, the modern rodeo competitor is probably closer to resembling a real cowboy, as many were actually raised on ranches and around livestock, and the rest have learned livestock-handling and horsemanship skills through training and practice rituals to prepare themselves for competition.
The long history of the West in popular culture tends to define those clothed in Western clothing as cowboys or cowgirls whether they have ever been on a horse or not. This is especially true when applied to entertainers and those in the public arena who wear western clothing as part of their persona. Many people, particularly in the West, wear elements of Western clothing, particularly cowboy boots or hats, as a matter of form or fashion statement. Actual cowboys in general tend to value personal honesty and have expressions for individuals who adopt cowboy mannerisms without any actual understanding of the culture. For example, a "drugstore cowboy" means someone who wears the clothing but cannot actually ride anything more than the stool at the local drugstore soda shop. The phrase, "all hat and no cattle," is used to describe someone who boasts about himself as being a cowboy, far in excess of any actual accomplishments. The word "dude" indicates an individual unfamiliar with cowboy culture, especially one who is trying to pretend to be a cowboy, "greenhorn" and "tenderfoot" are misconstrued words also often used to describe someone who's pretending to be a cowboy, but actually are terms used to describe someone who's inexperienced and trying to learn cowboy skills, such as a rookie. In modern times, the slang term "wannabe", is loosely used in describing anyone who's either learning or pretending, and is usually considered more insulting than traditional terms. Another lesser known word, "gunsel", which is an old word that has various meanings depending on the culture and context in which it's used. In some cowboy circles, especially rodeo, the word "gunsel" is used to describe someone who's a flunky or a slow learner, usually associated with those who lack cowboy skills and just hangs around cowboys with hopes of achieving acceptance as being a cowboy, often taking on duties such as working the chutes and pushing livestock.
Cowboys and Ranching also has a prominent history in Canada as well, and has primarily been dominated by one province, Alberta. The most successful early settlers of the province were the ranchers, who found Alberta's foothills to be ideal for raising cattle. Most of Alberta's ranchers were English settlers, but American cowboys such as John Ware brought the first cattle into the province in 1876. American style open range dryland ranching began to dominate southern Alberta by the 1880's, where cattle today out number people in the province. The nearby city of Calgary became the center of the Canadian cattle industry, earning the nickname "Cowtown". While cattle ranches defined by barbed wire fences have replaced the open range just as it did in the US, the cowboy influence lives on. Canada's first rodeo, the Raymond Stampede, was established in 1902. In 1912, the Calgary Stampede began, and today is the world's largest outdoor rodeo attracting thousands of visitors from around the globe wanting to see and experience the cowboy lifestyle. (*photo from 1912 rodeo - courtesy of the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede Archives)