Cowboys & Trail Blazers

The American Cowboy played an important role as settlers moved across the country during the era of Westward Expansion. These wranglers of cattle and horses performed several ranching tasks, including tending to the care of animals, riding the range to see that cattle didn’t stray too far, branding the calves, and driving cattle herds to market.

The cowboy tradition began in Spain when the earliest European settlers brought cattle to the Americas. As Americans pushed westward, many Mexican vaqueros were working cattle, and the new settlers learned from them. However, lifestyle and traditions changed throughout the years due to differences in terrain and climate, distinct equipment styles, clothing, and how the cowboys handled the animals. The chief qualifications to work as a cowboy required courage, physical fitness, horsemanship, and skill in using the lariat.

American cowboys created a style and reputation that was all their own, which was glamorized in countless books and magazine articles, especially when Texas cowboys began to drive their herds north to meet the railroad in Missouri and Kansas, and to the rich unsettled grasslands of Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. Driving the herds to reach the railroad resulted in several wild and wooly cowtowns, where the cowboys, who had been long on the trail, often made quite a ruckus, which was documented in newspapers, books, and magazines.

Even when the American West had been settled, writers continued to expound on the American Cowboy, who had long been seen as a rough and lonely figure who faced grueling work. For years, he has been romantically viewed in movies and television shows.

Today, many traditions of the cowboy are still preserved.

Raton, New Mexico Cowboys

Raton, New Mexico Cowboys

Modern-day cowboys herding longhorn cattle in Texas by Carol Highsmith.

Modern-day cowboys herding longhorn cattle in Texas by Carol Highsmith.

© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2022.

Also See:

Adventures in the Old West

Cowboys & Trailblazers Photo Gallery

Old West Photo Galleries

Who’s Who in American History