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

Updated on June 25, 2014

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. 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 chuckwagon, 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


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. Ascattle 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, 2014, event in Uptown Sedona will be on Sat. July 26th from 11 AM to 8 PM will include, cowboy poetry and storytelling, gunfights, bullwhip cracking, dancing to Western music, and Western artists at work.


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    • WesternHistory profile image

      WesternHistory 6 years ago from California

      Excellent hub. Most history of the American cowboy comes from the Spanish vaqueros who came along with the conquest of the Aztecs. It's a very interesting history and how the cultures tended to blend over time.

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 6 years ago

      Wow, your kind comment made my day. There is so much Western lore that needs to be told. Thanks again.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 6 years ago

      ..this is such a definite hub subject here and most essential to the history of the Hub archives - they really should put this into their time capsule with the way you write so passionately and with a labor of love too - please get in touch with WAYNE BROWN and WILL STARR - they would both love this hub as much as I do - but in the meantime I will post this beauty to my facebook page with a direct link back here so perhaps more people can get turned on to your fabulous writing

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    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 6 years ago

      The American Cowboy has always been such a Romantic Figure. Your Hub is a very Interesting and Informative read Mactavers. I look forward to following your Hubs.