The American Cowboy

Cattle Roundup

Cattle Roundup

The life of the cowboy is always one of excitement and of romantic interest. His waking hours when riding on the trail are spent in the saddle, and at night he makes his bed upon the lap of mother earth.  The great herds which are yearly driven out of Texas to the northern ranges usually embrace from 2500 to 4000 young cattle each, and the movement has since its beginning, about eighteen years ago, amounted to about 4,000,000 head, worth nearly $50,000,000. Each herd is placed in charge of a boss, with from eight to ten cowboys, a provision wagon, and a cook. Four horses are supplied to each cowboy, for the duty is an arduous one. The range cattle when away from their accustomed haunts are suspicious and excitable, and need to be managed with the greatest care to keep them from stampeding. When on the trail they are close herded at nightfall, and all lie down within a space of about two acres. The cowboys then by watches ride around them all night long. The sensible presence of man appears to give the animals a feeling of security.

The journey from southern Texas to Montana requires from four to six months. Herds are also driven from Oregon and Washington Territory to Wyoming and eastern Montana.

It is impossible for one who has not had actual experience in  riding on trail to imagine the difficulties involved in driving a large herd of wild cattle over mountain ranges, across desert lands where in some cases food and water are not found for many miles, and where streams must be crossed which are liable to dangerous freshets.

A large part of the northern ranges is embraced in the area which Silas Bent, an accomplished meteorologist, terms the birthplace of the tornado. Thunder and lightning are here frequent, and they are especially terrifying to range cattle. The most thrilling incident in the life of the cowboy occurs on the occasion of a thunder storm at night. Such an occurrence is thus described from personal observation by Mr. William A. Bailhie Grohman, an English writer:

“On the approach of one of these violent outbursts the whole force is ordered on duty; the spare horses of which each man has always three, and often as many as eight or ten are carefully fed and tethered, and the herd is rounded up, that is, collected into as small a space as possible, while the men continue to ride around the densely massed herd. Like horses, cattle derive courage from the close proximity of man. The thunder peals, and the vivid lightning flashes with amazing brilliancy, as with lowered heads the herd eagerly watch the slow, steady pace of the cow-ponies, and no doubt derive from it a comforting sense of protection. Sometimes, however, a wild steer will be unable to control his terror, and will make a dash through a convenient opening. The crisis is at hand, for the example will surely be followed, and in two minutes the whole herd of 4000 head will have broken through the line of horsemen and be away, one surging, bellowing mass of terrifying beasts.”

Cowboys at a Mess Scene, 1887

Cowboys gathered around the chuckwagon ready for “chow” on the ranch, 1887

Fancy a pitch-dark night, a pouring torrent of rain, the ground not only entirely strange to the men, but very broken, and full of dangerously steep watercourses and hollows, and you will have a picture of cowboy duty on such a night. They must head off the leaders. Once fairly off, they will stampede twenty, thirty, and even forty miles at a stretch, and many branches will stray from the main herd. Not alone the reckless rider, rushing headlong at a breakneck pace over dangerous ground in dense darkness, but also the horses, small, insignificant beasts, but matchless for hardy endurance and willingness, are perfectly aware how much depends upon their speed that night if it kills them. Unused till the last moment remains the heavy cowhide quirt, or whip, and the powerful spurs with rowels the size of five-shilling pieces. Urged on by a shout, the horses speed alongside the terrified steers until they manage to reach the leaders, when, swinging round, and fearless of horns, they press back the bellowing brutes till they turn them. All the men pursuing this maneuver, the headlong rush is at last checked, and the leaders, panting and lashing their sides with their tails, are brought to a stand, and the whole herd is again rounded up.

Throughout time northern ranges, sobriety, self-restraint, decent behavior, and faithfulness to duty are enjoined upon the cowboys. A great improvement is also observable in the cowboys of Texas. Deeds of violence among them are now few. The morale of the entire range and ranch cattle business of the United States now compares favorably with that of other large enterprises.


I wish I could find words to express the trueness, the bravery, the hardihood, the sense of honor, the loyalty to their trust and to each other of the old trail hands.

 — Charles Goodnight


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2019

The American Cowboy was written for Harper’s Magazine by Jun Joseph Nimmo, Volume 73, Issue 438, November 1886. The article as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been edited.

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Also See:

The Cattle Kings

The Cattle Trails

Cattle Trails of the Prairie

List of Trail Blazers, Riders, & Cowboys

Cowboys on the American Frontier

The Range of the American West

Some American Riders

Tales & Trails of the American West

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