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Life of the American Cowboy and Celebrating the National Day of the American Cowboy

Updated on April 4, 2020
mactavers profile image

I've lived in Arizona for 70 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

Bronc to Breakfast

Postcard reprinted from original painting by Charles Russell on display in Helena Montana
Postcard reprinted from original painting by Charles Russell on display in Helena Montana | Source

National Day of the Cowboy

Most Americans are familiar with the proclamations that have created special recognition days from Mothers Day to a National Day of Community Service. American Cowboy magazine searched for a way to preserve the heritage of the cowboy and in 2005, former President George Bush declared that every 4th Saturday in July would be the National Day of the Cowboy to honor the American Cowboy. The late US Senator, Craig Thomas, from Wyoming continued to voice support for the celebration in 2006 and 2007, and then the Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords sponsored a resolution in the US House of Representatives and in the Arizona House of Representatives. The holiday is not a law yet, but every year it gains those who think that honoring the American Cowboy and Cowgirl should become an official holiday.

I first heard about this special recognition day in 2010 when the city of Sedona Arizona in conjunction with local business sponsors organized a parade and celebration. A National Day of the Cowboy celebration in Sedona is so fitting since long before Sedona became a tourist destination, Sedona was known for farming and cattle ranching. Also, Sedona is the birthplace of the Cowboy Artists of America. Cowboy artists Joe Beeler, George Phippin, Charlie Dye and writer John Hampton gathered at the former Oak Creek Tavern (presently the Cowboy Club) to drink a little beer and to discuss ways to promote their western art and to provide an awareness of the contributions that cowboys had made to the development of the West. The Cowboy Artists of America association became very successful.

I've heard several explanations of the term cowboy and where the name originated. One explanation which seems reasonable to me is that an owner of a cattle ranch was termed a cattleman, a cow hand was an experienced or mature worker on a cattle ranch who could demand a higher wage, and a cowboy was a young guy just learning the cattle business. Some sources say that two cowboys could be hired for the same wages as one cow hand. Cowboys would perform the harder more risky jobs to "prove" themselves and it was a natural consequence that there would be contests to see who could ride the fastest or rope the most cattle. Pretty soon towns started sponsoring contests on holidays or other celebrations which were the beginnings of the Wild West Shows and redoes.

Early Hollywood Western films created lasting impressions that the good cowboys always wore white hats and were hard working and honest and at the end of the film, the good cowboy always made troubles right and therefore "got the girl." Bad cowboys always wore black hats and loafed in saloons until they received employment as hired guns, stage robbers, gamblers or cattle rustlers. In classic westerns bad cowboys deserved to be shot or hung. Western films have entertained generations of movie lovers everywhere, but in truth, the lives of real cowboys had little to do with the lives of the cowboys in films.

Since much of the territory that is now the American West was once part of Spain and later Mexico, the vaquero, Spanish for one who herds cattle, is credited for the use of the Spanish bit, the reata and the lariat. Unlike the fancy cowboy duds worn in Western films, the working cowboy wore his wool "unders", a rough long sleeved shirt, a leather vest to protect his chest and back, pants, leather leggings to protect his legs from thorns and cacti, rough leather boots, spurs and a broad brimmed hat to shield his face from the hot sun, or other harsh weather. A cowboy's work was hard and repetitive. He was responsible for breaking horses, for the care and feeding of his horse, and he had to possess skills with a rope, knife, a gun and a branding iron. A cowboy's ability to "read" the ways of cattle meant the difference between being a top cowboy or a liability to his ranch. Some nights a cowboy slept in a bunkhouse, but many nights, he slept on his blankets or canvas on the ground fending off scorpions, centipedes, snakes and other unwanted creatures. Bigger ranches employed cooks who ran a chuck wagon, but many cowboys ate dried beef, cold biscuits, salt pork or bacon, or small game which were cooked over a small campfire. Hot black coffee, a bottle of spirits, tobacco or a can of tinned peaches were considered treats. As the West was settled, the cowboy learned the use of barbed wire and the fence post. Contests of skill with other cowboys, card playing, practical jokes and an occasional trip to town helped to break the loneliness and monotony. Wages varied from ranch to ranch, but most cowboys earned a few dollars a month, and it is said that for a cowboy to have fifty cents in his pocket would have been unusual. Injuries and death were never far away.

1600 lb. Bull Jumping Car


The Cowboy Art of Storytelling and Bragging Yells

Sitting around a campfire with a 12 string guitar and singing was mostly a Hollywood myth, but telling and retelling stories was a fine way to pass the time. Stories about Col. David Crockett, Mike Fink, Jesse James, William Bonney (Billy the Kid), J B Hickok (Wild Bill), Judge Roy Bean, Buffalo Bill Cody and many others was a way to pass the time.

Cowboy yells lifted bragging to a fine art. The yell was a cowboy introduction and a competition to let other cowboys know just how rough and tough they were, and yells could be honed to a fine art. "I'm half horse, half alligator with a little touch of a snapping turtle, and a streak of lightning... slid down a tree with a wild cat under each arm and never got a scratch. I'm a two gun man, a very bad man..raised in the backwoods and suckled by a polar bear...steel ribs, wire intestines, and a barbed wire tail, and I don't give a dang where I drag it. Whoopee-whee-a-ha!" This and other amazing cowboy yells and tall tales can be found in A Treasury of American Folklore, Stories Legends, Tall Tales, Traditions, Ballads and Songs of the American People, edited by B. A. Botkin forward by Cal Sandburg.

Mickey Hicks Rodeo Rider Riding Blackhawk

Types of Cowboys

In the early 1900's another type of American cowboy was gaining popularity. Show business cowboys and cowgirls of the Wild West Shows sang, told tall tales, performed tricks on horseback, were sharpshooters and knife throwers. Ranches such as the 101 Ranch near Ponca City Oklahoma, became a headquarters for cowboy performers such as Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill Cody, Will Rogers and their show business stock. Early writers of popular Western novels such as Zane Grey, Stuart White and Harold Bell Wright, wrote about cowboys and their troubles and the "outfits that they worked for. Well known Hollywood cowboys such as Tom Mix, Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger became household names. Television series kept the cowboy mystique alive with programs such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza and High Chaparral.

Rodeo cowboys also have earned their place in American history. Rodeo is a professional sport today, but it began with a few bragging cowboys anxious to test their roping and riding skills against each other. The word rodeo comes from the Spanish word rodear meaning to surround. Over time as the West became settled by Americans, the word rodear changed to rodeo. Roundup time was always a great time for cowboys to prove their roping and branding skills. As cattle ranches began diminishing, some cowboys began traveling with informal rodeo competitions. In 1936, a groups of cowboys staged a protest at the Boston Gardens and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys' Association was formed.

The National Day of the Cowboy organization located in Prescott Arizona, maintains an informational website. The organization promotes cowboy and rodeo history and issues Cowboy Keeper Awards each year to the individuals and organizations that promote western heritage events. This year's National Day of the Cowboy, 2020, is Sat. July 25th and events will include, cowboy poetry and storytelling, gunfights, bullwhip cracking, dancing to Western music, Western artists at work and Western films.

© 2011 mactavers


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