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Cowboy History

The origins of the cowboy tradition come from Spain, beginning with the hacienda system of medieval Spain. This style of cattle ranching spread throughout much of the Iberian peninsula and later, was imported to the Americas. Both regions possessed a dry climate with sparse grass, and thus large herds of cattle required vast amounts of land in order to obtain sufficient forage. The need to cover distances greater than a person on foot could manage gave rise to the development of the horseback-mounted vaquero.
Spanish roots

Various aspects of the Spanish equestrian tradition can be traced back to Arabic rule in Spain, including Moorish elements such as the use of Oriental-type horses, the la jineta riding style characterized by a shorter stirrup, solid-treed saddle and use of spurs, the heavy noseband or hackamore, (Arabic šakīma, Spanish jaquima) and other horse-related equipment and techniques. Certain aspects of the Arabic tradition, such as the hackamore, can in turn be traced to roots in ancient Persia.

During the 16th century, the Conquistadors and other Spanish settlers brought their cattle-raising traditions as well as both horses and domesticated cattle to the Americas, starting with their arrival in what today is Mexico and Florida. The traditions of Spain were transformed by the geographic, environmental and cultural circumstances of New Spain, which later became Mexico and the Southwestern United States. In turn, the land and people of the Americas also saw dramatic changes due to Spanish influence.

The arrival of horses was particularly significant, as equines had been extinct in the Americas since the end of the prehistoric ice age.  However, horses quickly multiplied in America and became crucial to the success of the Spanish and later settlers from other nations.  The earliest horses were originally of Andalusian, Barb and Arabian ancestry, but a number of uniquely American horse breeds developed in North and South America through selective breeding and by natural selection of animals that escaped to the wild.  The Mustang and other colonial horse breeds are now called "wild," but in reality are feral horses - descendants of domesticated animals.

Vaqueros
Though popularly considered American, the traditional cowboy began with the Spanish tradition, which evolved further in what today is Mexico and the Southwestern United States into the vaquero of northern Mexico and the charro of the Jalisco and Michoacán regions. While most hacendados (ranch owners) were ethnically Spanish criollos, many early vaqueros were Indian people trained to work for the Spanish missions in caring for the mission herds. Vaqueros went north with livestock. In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate sent an expedition across the Rio Grande River into New Mexico, bringing along 7000 head of cattle. From this beginning, vaqueros of mestizo heritage drove cattle from New Mexico and later Texas to Mexico City. Mexican traditions spread both South and North, influencing equestrian traditions from Argentina to Canada.

Rise of the cowboy
As English-speaking traders and settlers expanded westward, English and Spanish traditions, language and culture merged to some degree. Before the Mexican-American War in 1848, New England merchants who traveled by ship to California encountered both hacendados and vaqueros, trading manufactured goods for the hides and tallow produced from vast cattle ranches. American traders along what later became known as the Santa Fe Trail had similar contacts with vaquero life. Starting with these early encounters, the lifestyle and language of the vaquero began a transformation which merged with English cultural traditions and produced what became known in American culture as the "cowboy".

The arrival of English-speaking settlers in Texas began in 1821, while California did not see a large influx of settlers from the United States until after the Mexican-American War. However, in slightly different ways, both areas contributed to the evolution of the iconic American cowboy. Particularly with the arrival of railroads, and an increased demand for beef in the wake of the American Civil War, older traditions combined with the need to drive cattle from the ranches where they were raised to the nearest railheads, often hundreds of miles away.

By the 1880s, the expansion of the cattle industry resulted in a need for additional open range. Thus many ranchers expanded into the northwest, where there were still large tracts of unsettled grassland. Texas cattle were herded north, into the Rocky Mountain west and the Dakotas. The cowboy adapted much of his gear to the colder conditions, and westward movement of the industry also led to intermingling of regional traditions from California to Texas, often with the cowboy taking the most useful elements of each.

Roundups
Large numbers of cattle lived in a semi-feral, or semi-wild state on the open range and were left to graze, mostly untended, for much of the year. In many cases, different ranchers formed "associations" and grazed their cattle together on the same range. In order to determine the ownership of individual animals, they were marked with a distinctive brand, applied with a hot iron, usually while the cattle were still young calves. The primary cattle breed seen on the open range was the Longhorn, descended from the original Spanish Longhorns imported in the 16th century, though by the late 19th century, other breeds of cattle were also brought west, including the meatier Hereford, and often were crossbred with Longhorns.

In order to find young calves for branding, and to sort out mature animals intended for sale, ranchers would hold a roundup, usually in the spring. A roundup required a number of specialized skills on the part of both cowboys and horses. Individuals who separated cattle from the herd required the highest level of skill and rode specially trained "cutting" horses, trained to follow the movements of cattle, capable of stopping and turning faster than other horses. Once cattle were sorted, most cowboys were required to rope young calves and restrain them to be branded and (in the case of most bull calves) castrated. Occasionally it was also necessary to restrain older cattle for branding or other treatment.

A large number of horses were needed for a roundup. Each cowboy would require three to four fresh horses in the course of a day's work. Horses themselves were also rounded up. It was common practice in the west for young foals to be born of tame mares, but allowed to grow up "wild" in a semi-feral state on the open range. There were also "wild" herds, often known as Mustangs. Both types were rounded up, and the mature animals tamed, a process called horse breaking, or "bronco-busting," (var. "bronc busting") usually performed by cowboys who specialized in training horses.

In some cases, extremely brutal methods were used to tame horses, and such animals tended to never be completely reliable. However, other cowboys became aware of the need to treat animals in a more humane fashion and modified their horse training methods, often re-learning techniques used by the vaqueros, particularly those of the Californio tradition. Horses trained in a gentler fashion were more reliable and useful for a wider variety of tasks.

Informal competition arose between cowboys seeking to test their cattle and horse-handling skills against one another, and thus, from the necessary tasks of the working cowboy, the sport of rodeo developed.

Cattle drives
Main article: Cattle drives in the United States
Cattle drives involve the movement of cattle from one place to another, traditionally by cowboys on horseback. Cattle drives were a major economic activity in the American west, particularly between the years 1866-1886, when 20 million cattle were herded from Texas to railheads in Kansas for shipments to stockyards in Chicago and points east.

The long distances covered, the need for periodic rests by riders and animals, and the establishment of railheads led to the development of "cow towns" across the American West. Because of extensive treatment of cattle drives in fiction and film, the cowboy became the worldwide iconic image of the American. Cattle drives still occur in the American west and in Australia.

End of the open range
Barbed wire, an innovation of the 1880s, allowed cattle to be confined to designated areas to prevent overgrazing of the range. In Texas and surrounding areas, increased population required ranchers to fence off their individual lands. In the north, overgrazing stressed the open range, leading to insufficient winter forage for the cattle and starvation, particularly during the harsh winter of 1886–1887, when hundreds of thousands of cattle died across the Northwest, leading to collapse of the cattle industry.

By the 1890s, barbed wire fencing was also standard in the northern plains, railroads had expanded to cover most of the nation, and meat packing plants were built closer to major ranching areas, making long cattle drives from Texas to the railheads in Kansas unnecessary. Hence, the age of the open range was gone and large cattle drives were over.

Smaller cattle drives continued at least into the 1940s, as ranchers, prior to the development of the modern cattle truck, still needed to herd cattle to local railheads for transport to stockyards and packing plants. Meanwhile, ranches multiplied all over the developing West, keeping cowboy employment high, if still low-paid, but also somewhat more settled.

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More US History

History of the Old West
Frontier Begins
Settling the West
Before the Civil War
Civil War in the West
After the Civil War
Frontier Life
Frontier Warfare
American Cowboy
People of the Old West
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