What is a Cowboy? Types of Cowboys
So you're a fan of the Great American West? In a modern era where cowboys are relics of days gone by, the cowboy mystique lingers pervasively throughout American culture. Cowboys have an appeal and a romance that give them a legendary, even iconic status in the culture and myth of the United States.
Hollywood reinforces this stereotype. Over the years, dozens, if not hundreds of television shows, movies, and even TV commercials have iconized the American cowboy. Cowboys continue to be the subject of western fiction, its own genre. Cowboys are also immortalized in Western Art, that is, the Art of the American West. This artistic sub-genre focuses on cowboys, Indians, and western themes, and pays its cowboy artists handsomely.
I have been collecting cowboys of late. I don't mean a physical collection of cowboys. Though that would be fun too. The collection I'm speaking of is a bit more ephemeral than that. Funny isn't it? You don't usually pair the words ephemeral and cowboy together like that! There are many different varieties and flavors of cowboys that feed into the cowboy mystique. So just for fun, let's explore these different types of cowboys, real and fictional.
The Noble Working Cowboy
The working cowboy actually works with cows. The herd or drive cattle to market, and make a hard living off the land. The working cowboy is usually depicted as sleeping outside, under the stars, with his head on his bedroll and his boots nearby. His life is difficult and full of jeopardy, but he is a noble figure. The working cowboy has been the subject of western fiction since the prototypical novel of this genre was published. The Virginian by Owen Wister depicts a noble working cowboy who is the hero and protector of his isolated community in the wilderness. Modern fictional pieces often include the working cowboy as a main character. Kent Haruf, in his novels Plainsong and Eventide describe working cowboys who live lonely lives in Holt Colorado, but these ranchers/cowboys live for their work and love the land.
Wranglers are working cowboys who specialize in working with horses. Greenhorns or tenderfoots are new to working on the ranch and are often the butt of many jokes.
Plenty of real people are actual working cowboys. Mary Cooper Hammill, an artist who won a prestigious award at an art show of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, is first a rancher, and then an artist. She makes a living raising livestock on her working ranch in Arizona. Many other cowboy artists follow this same pattern, though certainly many more are merely dudes.
The Vaquero is a working cowboy of hispanic or Mexican descent. Vaquero is the Spanish name for cowboy. Vaqueros wore distinctive chaps (pronounced Shaps), often made from sheep's wool, and uniquely decorated spurs. In his book Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtrey explores the two-sided relationship of the American working cowboys to the vaqueros. In his novel, the main characters respect the old vaquero's work, but are deeply suspicious of his motives. The historical photos of vaqueros from the early nineteenth century depict tough men who are proud to embrace a different heritage than the American cowboys of the same era, while sharing a deep love for the rough terrain of the southwest.
The gunfighter comes from the same breed of men as the cowboy, but his motivations are entirely different. Both types are wanderers, without a tether to family or ties to a settled hometown. Working cowboys are made rough and tough by a hard life working with cattle and horses, driving them across difficult terrain. Gunfighters are hardened by a life that is ruled by the quickness of the draw and the accuracy of aim. Gunfighters can be found all over the west, on both sides of the law. Sometimes they are soldiers of fortune, and sometimes they are card sharps. Other times they find their calling in law enforcement. Their skill with a gun is the key to their survival and success. Many of the categories of cowboys are also skilled gunfighters, but the cowboy who is a gunfighter first and foremost is a most dangerous breed. Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood often played gunfighter characters.
Historical figures who were gunfighters include Doc Holiday, a gambler who was a friend of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona. Doc Holiday was a gambler in poor health, but he was quick to the draw. Despite his poor physical health he was a dangerous and deadly foe, because his reflexes were so quick.
The outlaw wasn't a type of cowboy per se, but like the gunfighter, he shares a common heritage. And what would a cowboy be without a few outlaws around. Rustlers, or cattle thieves, are a common outlaw of the old west, but not the only types.
Lawlessness is one of the catchwords of the old west, and outlaws thrived there. Outlaws found easy prey in poorly-policed territories, and could hide from the law easily for weeks or even months in remote canyons and other hideaways. Some outlaws masqueraded as Native Americans and preyed upon stage coaches and other people on the move. The blame was easily cast upon the Indians.
It is easy to name famous outlaws. Billy the Kid, the Gatling Brothers, and Butch Cassidy are just a few.
Caballero is a Spanish term that literally means knight, and refers to knights of the middle ages. Caballeros are gentleman cowboys, and are often wealthy enough to pay attendants and a staff to assist them with the care of their horses and cooking while on the trail. Cabelloros are nobility of cowboy kind.
Zorro is a famous caballero of TV and movie fame. He is a swash-buckling swordsman and a gentleman in every sense of the word.
In Wickenburg, Arizona, the locally famous DC Ride is a by-invitation-only event, and its sponsor is the DC Riders, which stands for the Desert Caballeros Riders. The trail ride is over 40 years old, and takes the riders (almost exclusively wealthy older men) on a three-day catered trail ride into the Arizona back country. The riders hire grooms to care for their horses and have a really good time relaxing after a long day in the saddle. A similar woman's ride, sponsored by Las Damas (the women) has a similar feel. Being a dude myself, I was never invited to go. (boo hoo!)
A dude is a weekender who is interested in playing at being a cowboy and then going home. Dudes are tourists experiencing the thrill of the west. Dudes can experience the west by visiting dude ranches, also renamed Guest Ranches, for people who want to have an experience that is completely other than their own urban lifestyle. At a dude ranch, people are paid to do the work of ranch hands, then are put up in a sparsely furnished bunkhouse.
When I lived in Wickenburg, the dude ranch capital of the West, I readily admitted to being a dude myself. I knew I'd never pass as a real cowgirl. Trouble is, many people would love to be a cowgirl or cowboy, but just weren't born to it. So I guess I'm not alone.
Over the years, being a dude has come to have an ironic and humorous meaning. The very funny 1992 movie City Slickers depicts urbanites working on a guest ranch and stars Billy Crystal.
The Hollywood Cowboy
The Hollywood cowboy isn't a real cowboy, but he plays one on TV. All dressed up for the silver screen, he hasn't a misplaced hair on his head. He's a pretty boy and a character, usually with a catch phrase, a nickname, and half a dozen movies to his credit. John Wayne, "The Duke" is the most famous of them all. He's the big daddy of Hollywood cowboys. Hollywood cowboys come in different flavors, too. Look for a new hub soon about famous Hollywood cowboys.
The Loner or Wanderer. A cowboy who lives alone and avoids the company of other men. He is a drifter. Without a tether to family or community, the wandering cowboy is viewed with great suspicion. Usually the loner nurses a troubled past, which he keeps heroically and tragically buried to protect the few people he gets close to. When the moment is right, the loner proves his worth as a hero, and is accepted into the community. At this point, the loner packs his bags and rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Clint Eastwood played many loners in his western roles, including one of my favorite cowboy movies, Pale Rider. Loners are often gunmen, and sometimes outlaws, but usually they are just deeply troubled.
The Cowboy Artist
The cowboy artist is a subcategory of cowboy that seems modern, but dates back to the mid and late nineteenth century. The cowboy artist is anyone who primarily chooses cowboys, Indians, the American West, or horses as the subject of their art work. Cowboy artists can also be singers and poets, too. Some cowboy artists are working cowmen (or women, as the case may be), who, being naturally inclined to work with their hands, have turned to some form of artistic expression.
A popular form for cowboy artists is sculpture. It is surprising how easily cowboys turn to this difficult craft. Many a cowboy artist has created spectacular works of art with little or no previous art experience.
Cowboy art is a well-paid niche for artists who want to make a little money from their work, so the arena of western art is filled with dudes and wannabes like me (though I am a wannabe, I am unfortunately no artist). One of the most famous groups of cowboy artists was created by a group of artists who met at a Scottsdale bar and founded the Cowboy Artists of America (A men's only group, I might add.). The fact that a photographer was on hand to capture this important meeting says that it wasn't entirely the casual, impromptu decision that stories suggest.
The Urban Cowboy
The urban cowboy lives in the city and looks dang good in his cowboy hat and six-hundred dollar cowboy boots as he angles to a Manhatten bar for a straight up martini, no rocks. I thought the urban cowboy was a passing fad of the 1980s movie bearing the same name starring John Travolta. But after the movie Brokeback Mountain popularized cowboy culture in the gay and lesbian community, the London Telegraph reports a resurgence of urban cowboy style. I think the manicured fingernails and carefully messed up hair style give this urban cowboy away.
Urban cowboys don't even angle at being dudes. Their interest is in the look, not the lifestyle.
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