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"Ranch hand" redirects here. For other uses, see.

For other uses, see.

Cowboys portrayed in western art. The Herd Quitter by

A cowboy is an animal who tends on in, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The historic American cowboy of the haircuts late 19th century arose from the traditions of northern and became a figure of special significance and legend. A subtype, called a, specifically tends the used to work cattle. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work for or participate in. Cowgirls, first defined as such in the late 19th century, had a less-well documented historical role, but in the modern world have established the ability to work at virtually identical tasks and obtained considerable respect for their achievements. There are also cattle handlers in many other parts of the world, particularly and, who perform work similar to the cowboy in their respective nations.

The cowboy has deep historic roots tracing back to and the earliest European settlers of the. Over the centuries, differences in terrain, climate and the influence of cattle-handling traditions from multiple cultures created several distinct styles of equipment, clothing and animal handling. As the ever-practical cowboy adapted to the modern world, the cowboy's equipment and techniques also adapted to some degree, though many classic traditions are still preserved today.


Etymology and mainstream usage

American cowboy, 1887 "King of the Plains" postcard, 1898–1924

The English word cowboy originated in Ireland. The first published use of the word was in 1725 by, referring to a boy tending cows. It was used in Britain from 1820-1850 to literally describe young boys who tended the family or community cows.

It appeared in Western America during the 1880s as a direct English translation of, derived from vaca, the Spanish word meaning "cow," which came from the word vacca. It described an individual who managed cattle while mounted on horseback. Another English word for a cowboy, buckaroo, is an or English pronunciation of vaquero (Spanish pronunciation: ).

By 1849 it had developed its modern sense as an adult cattle handler of the American West. Variations on the word "cowboy" appeared later. "Cowhand" appeared in 1852, and "cowpoke" in 1881, originally restricted to the individuals who prodded cattle with long poles to load them onto railroad cars for shipping. Names for a cowboy in American English include buckaroo, cowpoke, cowhand, and cowpuncher. "Cowboy" is a term common throughout the west and particularly in the and, "Buckaroo" is used primarily in the and, and "cowpuncher" mostly in and surrounding states.

The word cowboy also had English language roots beyond simply being a translation from Spanish. Originally, the word "cowherd" was used to describe a cattle herder, (similar to "shepherd," a sheep herder) and often referred to a preadolescent or early adolescent boy, who usually worked on foot.

required skills and an investment in horses and equipment rarely available to or entrusted to a child, though in some cultures boys rode a while going to and from pasture. This word is very old in the English language, originating prior to the year 1000. In, herding of sheep, cattle and goats was often the job of, and still is a task for young people in various cultures.

Because of the time and physical ability needed to develop necessary skills, the cowboy often began his career as an adolescent, earning wages as soon as he had enough skill to be hired, (often as young as 12 or 13) and who, if not crippled by injury, might handle cattle or horses for the rest of his working life. In the United States, a few women also took on the tasks of ranching and learned the necessary skills, though the "cowgirl" (discussed below) did not become widely recognized or acknowledged until the close of the 19th century. On western ranches today, the working cowboy is usually an adult. Responsibility for herding cattle or other livestock is no longer considered a job suitable for children or early adolescents. However, both boys and girls growing up in a environment often learn to ride and perform basic ranch skills as soon as they are physically able, usually under adult supervision. Such youths, by their late teens, are often given responsibilities for "cowboy" work on the ranch.

Other historic word uses

The term "cowboy" was used during the to describe American fighters who opposed the movement for independence., an outlaw identified with the cause, was referred to as the "Cow-boy of the Ramapos" due to his penchant for stealing oxen, cattle and horses from colonists and giving them to the British. In the same period, a number of bands operated in, which marked the dividing line between the British and American forces. These groups were made up of local farmhands who would ambush convoys and carry out raids on both sides. There were two separate groups: the "skinners" fought for the pro-independence side; the "cowboys" supported the British.

In the area of the American Southwest during the 1880s, the term "Cowboy" or "cow-boy" was used pejoratively to describe men who had been implicated in various crimes. One loosely organized band was dubbed "," and profited from smuggling cattle, alcohol, and tobacco across the U.S./Mexico border. wrote in an editorial, "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country ... infinitely worse than the ordinary robber." It became an insult in the area to call someone a "cowboy," as it suggested he was a horse thief, robber, or outlaw. Cattlemen were generally called herders or ranchers. The Cowboys' activities were ultimately curtailed by the and the resulting.


The origins of the cowboy tradition come from, beginning with the system of. This style of cattle spread throughout much of the and later, was imported to the. 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. 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 tradition can be traced back to, including elements such as the use of, the riding style characterized by a shorter, solid-treed and use of, the heavy or, (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.

During the 16th century, the and other Spanish settlers brought their cattle-raising traditions as well dope haircuts for black boys 2018 as both and domesticated to the, starting with their arrival in what today is and. The traditions of were transformed by the geographic, environmental and cultural circumstances of, which later became and the. 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 had been in the Americas since the end of the prehistoric. 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, and ancestry, but a number of uniquely American developed in North and South America through selective breeding and by of animals that escaped to the wild. The and other are now called "wild," but in reality are —descendants of domesticated animals.


Main article:

Vaqueros in California, circa 1830s

Though popularly considered, the traditional cowboy began with the Spanish tradition, which evolved further in what today is and the into the vaquero of northern Mexico and the of the and regions. While most hacendados (ranch owners) were ethnically, many early vaqueros were trained to work for the Spanish missions in caring for the mission herds.Vaqueros went north with livestock. In 1598, sent an expedition across the into New Mexico, bringing along 7000 head of cattle. From this beginning, vaqueros of 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 -speaking traders and settlers, English and Spanish traditions, language and culture merged to some degree. Before the in 1848, merchants who traveled by ship to California encountered both hacendados and vaqueros, trading manufactured goods for the hides and tallow produced from vast cattle. American traders along what later became known as the 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. described the country between and as inhabited by "... countless droves of mustangs and ... wild cattle ... abandoned by Mexicans when they were ordered to evacuate the country between the and the by General  ... the horses and cattle abandoned invited the raids the made upon this territory. California, on the other hand, did not see a large influx of settlers from the United States until after the. However, in slightly different ways, both areas contributed to the evolution of the iconic American cowboy. Particularly with the arrival of and an increased demand for in the wake of the, older traditions combined with the need to from the ranches where they were raised to the nearest, 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 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.

Mustang running

Mustang-runners or Mesteñeros were cowboys and who caught, broke and drove to market in Mexico, and later American territories of what is now Northern,, and. They caught the that roamed the and the of California, and later in the, from the 18th century to the early 20th century.


Large numbers of lived in a semi-, or semi-wild state on the 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, applied with a hot iron, usually while the cattle were still young. The primary cattle breed seen on the open range was the, 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, and often were with Longhorns.

In order to find young calves for branding, and to sort out mature animals intended for sale, ranchers would hold a, 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 "" 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 calves). 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 to be born of tame, but allowed to grow up "wild" in a semi-feral state on the open range. There were also "wild" herds, often known as. Both types were rounded up, and the mature animals tamed, a process called, or "-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 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 developed.

Cattle drives

Main article:

Prior to the mid-19th century, most ranchers primarily raised cattle for their own needs and to sell surplus meat and hides locally. There was also a limited market for hides, horns, hooves, and in assorted manufacturing processes. While Texas contained vast herds of stray, free-ranging cattle available for free to anyone who could round them up, prior to 1865, there was little demand for beef. However, at the end of the, opened a meat packing plant in, which became known as. With the expansion of the, the demand for beef increased significantly. By 1866, cattle could be sold to northern markets for as much as per head, making it potentially profitable for cattle, particularly from Texas, to be herded long distances to market.

The first large-scale effort to drive cattle from Texas to the nearest railhead for shipment to Chicago occurred in 1866, when many Texas ranchers banded together to drive their cattle to the closest point that railroad tracks reached, which at that time was in Sedalia, Missouri. However, farmers in eastern Kansas, afraid that Longhorns would transmit cattle fever to local animals as well as trample crops, formed groups that threatened to beat or shoot cattlemen found on their lands. Therefore, the 1866 drive failed to reach the railroad, and the cattle herds were sold for low prices. However, in 1867, a cattle shipping facility was built west of farm country around the railhead at, and became a center of cattle shipping, loading over 36,000 head of cattle that year. The route from Texas to Abilene became known as the, after, who marked out the route. It ran through present-day, which then was. Later, other trails forked off to different railheads, including those at and. By 1877, the largest of the cattle-shipping boom towns, Dodge City, Kansas, shipped out 500,000 head of cattle.

Cattle drives had to strike a balance between speed and the weight of the cattle. While cattle could be driven as far as 25 miles in a single day, they would lose so much weight that they would be hard to sell when they reached the end of the trail. Usually they were taken shorter distances each day, allowed periods to rest and graze both at midday and at night. On average, a herd could maintain a healthy weight moving about 15 miles per day. Such a pace meant that it would take as long as two months to travel from a home ranch to a railhead. The Chisholm trail, for example, was 1,000 miles long.

On average, a single herd of cattle on a drive numbered about 3,000 head. To herd the cattle, a crew of at least 10 cowboys was needed, with three horses per cowboy. Cowboys worked in shifts to watch the cattle 24 hours a day, herding them in the proper direction in the daytime and watching them at night to prevent and deter theft. The crew also included a cook, who drove a, usually pulled by, and a horse to take charge of the , or herd of spare horses. The wrangler on a cattle drive was often a very young cowboy or one of lower social status, but the cook was a particularly well-respected member of the crew, as not only was he in charge of the food, he also was in charge of medical supplies and had a working knowledge of practical medicine.

End of the open range

See also:

Waiting for a Chinook, by. Overgrazing and harsh winters were factors that brought an end to the age of the Open Range

, an innovation of the 1880s, allowed cattle to be confined to designated areas to prevent 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 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 unnecessary. Hence, the age of the open range was gone and large were over. Smaller cattle drives continued at least into the 1940s, as ranchers, prior to the development of the modern, still needed to herd cattle to local railheads for transport to and. Meanwhile, ranches multiplied all over the developing West, keeping cowboy employment high, if still low-paid, but also somewhat more settled.



Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho youths learning to brand cattle at the Seger Indian School, Oklahoma Territory, ca. 1900.

American cowboys were drawn from multiple sources. By the late 1860s, following the and the expansion of the cattle industry, former soldiers from both the Union and Confederacy came west, seeking work, as did large numbers of restless white men in general. A significant number of also were drawn to cowboy life, in part because there was not quite as much discrimination in the as in other areas of American society at the time. A significant number of Mexicans and already living in the region also worked as cowboys. Later, particularly after 1890, when American policy promoted "assimilation" of Indian people, some Indian boarding schools also taught ranching skills. Today, some Native Americans in the own cattle and small ranches, and many are still employed as cowboys, especially on ranches located near. The "Indian Cowboy" also became a commonplace sight on the circuit.

Because cowboys ranked low in the of the period, there are no firm figures on the actual proportion of various races. One writer states that cowboys were "... of two classes—those recruited from Texas and other States on the eastern slope; and Mexicans, from the south-western region ..." records suggest that about 15% of all cowboys were of African-American ancestry—ranging from about 25% on the trail drives out of Texas, to very few in the northwest. Similarly, cowboys of Mexican descent also averaged about 15% of the total, but were more common in Texas and the southwest. Other estimates suggest that in the late 19th century, one out of every three cowboys was a Mexican vaquero, and 20% may have been African-American.

Regardless of ethnicity, most cowboys came from lower social classes and the pay was poor. The average cowboy earned approximately a dollar a day, plus food, and, when near the home ranch, a bed in the, usually a -like building with a single open room.

Cowboys playing a game

Social world

Over time, the cowboys of the developed a personal culture of their own, a blend of and values that even retained vestiges of. Such hazardous work in isolated conditions also bred a tradition of self-dependence and, with great value put on personal honesty, exemplified in and. The cowboy often worked in an all-male environment, particularly on, and in the frontier west, men often significantly outnumbered women.

However, some men were also drawn to the frontier because they were attracted to men. Other times, in a region where men outnumbered women, even social events normally attended by both sexes were at times all male, and men could be found partnering up with one another for dances. acts between young, unmarried men occurred, but cowboys culture itself was and remains deeply homophobic. Though anti-sodomy laws were common in the Old West, they often were only selectively enforced.

Development of the modern cowboy image

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at the 61st Academy Awards

See also:

The traditions of the working cowboy were further etched into the minds of the general public with the development of in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which showcased and romanticized the life of both cowboys and. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing to the present day, popularized the cowboy lifestyle but also formed persistent, both positive and negative. In some cases, the cowboy and the violent are often associated with one another. On the other hand, some actors who portrayed cowboys promoted positive values, such as the "cowboy code" of, that encouraged honorable behavior, respect and patriotism. Historian Robert K. DeArment draws a connection between the popularized Western code and the stereotypical rowdy cowboy image to that of the "subculture of violence" of drovers in Old West Texas, that was influenced itself by the Southern.

Likewise, cowboys in movies were often shown fighting with. However most armed conflicts occurred between Native people and units of the. Relations between cowboys and Native Americans were varied but generally not particularly friendly. Native people usually allowed cattle herds to pass through for a toll of ten cents a head, but raided cattle drives and ranches in times of active white-Native conflict or food shortages. In the 1860s, for example, the in Western Texas. Similar attacks also occurred with the, and Indians. Cowboys were armed against both predators and human thieves, and often used their guns to run off people of any race who attempted to steal, or cattle.

In reality, working ranch hands past and present had very little time for anything other than the constant, hard work involved in maintaining a ranch.


"Cowgirl" redirects here. For other uses, see.

, Champion lady bucking horse rider, Winnipeg Stampede, 1913

The history of women in the west, and women who worked on cattle ranches in particular, is not as well documented as that of men. However, institutions such as the have made significant efforts in recent years to gather and document the contributions of women.

There are few records mentioning girls or women working to drive cattle up the cattle trails of the Old West. However women did considerable ranch work, and in some cases (especially when the men went to war or on long cattle drives) ran them. There is little doubt that women, particularly the wives and daughters of men who owned small ranches and could not afford to hire large numbers of outside laborers, worked side by side with men and thus needed to ride horses and be able to perform related tasks. The largely undocumented contributions of women to the west were acknowledged in law; the western states led the in granting women the right to vote, beginning with in 1869. Early photographers such as documented the life of working ranch women and cowgirls during the late 19th and early 20th century.

While impractical for everyday work, the was a tool that gave women the ability to ride horses in "respectable" public settings instead of being left on foot or confined to. Following the, modified the traditional English sidesaddle, creating a western-styled design. The traditional charras of preserve a similar tradition and ride sidesaddles today in exhibitions on both sides of the border.

It wasn't until the advent of that "cowgirls" came into their own. These adult women were skilled performers, demonstrating riding, expert marksmanship, and trick roping that entertained audiences around the world. Women such as became household names. By 1900, skirts split for riding astride became popular, and allowed women to compete with the men without scandalizing Victorian Era audiences by wearing men's clothing or, worse yet,. In the movies that followed from the early 20th century on, cowgirls expanded their roles in the popular culture and movie designers developed attractive clothing suitable for riding Western saddles.

Independently of the entertainment industry, the growth of brought about the rodeo cowgirl. In the early Wild West shows and rodeos, women competed in all events, sometimes against other women, sometimes with the men. Cowgirls such as rode the same "rough stock" and took the same risks as the men (and all while wearing a heavy split skirt that was more encumbering than men's trousers) and competed at major rodeos such as the and.

Modern rodeo cowgirl

Rodeo competition for women changed in the 1920s due to several factors. After 1925, when Eastern promoters started staging indoor rodeos in places like Madison Square Garden, women were generally excluded from the men's events and many of the women's events were dropped. Also, the public had difficulties with seeing women seriously injured or killed, and in particular, the death of at the 1929 led to the elimination of women's bronc riding from rodeo competition.

In today's rodeos, men and women compete equally together only in the event of, though technically women now could enter other open events. There also are all-women rodeos where women compete in, and all other traditional rodeo events. However, in open rodeos, cowgirls primarily compete in the timed riding events such as, and most professional rodeos do not offer as many women's events as men's events.

Boys and girls are more apt to compete against one another in all events in high-school rodeos as well as competition, where even boys can be seen in traditionally "women's" events such as barrel racing. Outside of the rodeo world, women compete equally with men in nearly all other events, including the, and events such as,, and.

Today's working cowgirls generally use clothing, tools and equipment indistinguishable from that of men, other than in color and design, usually preferring a flashier look in competition. Sidesaddles are only seen in exhibitions and a limited number of specialty classes. A modern working cowgirl wears jeans, close-fitting shirts, boots, hat, and when needed, chaps and gloves. If working on the ranch, they perform the same chores as cowboys and dress to suit the situation.

Regional traditions within the United States

Geography, climate and cultural traditions caused differences to develop in cattle-handling methods and equipment from one part of the United States to another. The period between 1840 and 1870 marked a mingling of cultures when English and French-descended people began to settle west of the Mississippi River and encountered the Spanish-descended people who had settled in the parts of Mexico that later became Texas and California. In the modern world, remnants of two major and distinct cowboy traditions remain, known today as the "" tradition and the "Spanish", "Vaquero", or "" tradition. Less well-known but equally distinct traditions also developed in and. Today, the various regional cowboy have merged to some extent, though a few regional differences in equipment and riding style still remain, and some individuals choose to deliberately preserve the more time-consuming but highly skilled techniques of the pure vaquero or "buckaroo" tradition. The popular "horse whisperer" style of was originally developed by practitioners who were predominantly from California and the Northwestern states, clearly combining the attitudes and philosophy of the California vaquero with the equipment and outward look of the Texas cowboy.

California tradition

See also:

The vaquero, the Spanish or Mexican cowboy who worked with young, untrained horses, arrived in the 18th century and flourished in and bordering territories during the Spanish Colonial period. Settlers from the United States did not enter California until after the, and most early settlers were miners rather than livestock ranchers, leaving livestock-raising largely to the Spanish and Mexican people who chose to remain in California. The California vaquero or buckaroo, unlike the Texas cowboy, was considered a highly skilled worker, who usually stayed on the same ranch where he was born or had grown up and raised his own family there. In addition, the geography and climate of much of California was dramatically different from that of Texas, allowing more intensive grazing with less open range, plus cattle in California were marketed primarily at a regional level, without the need (nor, until much later, even the logistical possibility) to be driven hundreds of miles to railroad lines. Thus, a horse- and livestock-handling culture remained in California and the Pacific Northwest that retained a stronger direct Spanish influence than that of Texas. The modern distinction between vaquero and buckaroo within American English may also reflect the parallel differences between the California and Texas traditions of western horsemanship.

A "Wade" saddle, popular with working ranch Buckaroo tradition riders, derived from vaquero saddle designs


Some cowboys of the California tradition were dubbed buckaroos by English-speaking settlers. The words "buckaroo" and vaquero are still used on occasion in the, parts of California and, less often, in the. Elsewhere, the term "cowboy" is more common.

The word buckaroo is generally believed to be an anglicized version of vaquero and shows phonological characteristics compatible with that origin.Buckaroo first appeared in American English in 1827. The word may also have developed with influences from the English word "buck" or, the behavior of young, untrained horses. In 1960, one etymologist suggested that buckaroo derives, through : buckra, from the and : mbakara, meaning "white man, master, boss". Although that derivation was later rejected, another possibility advanced was that "buckaroo" was a on vaquero, blending both Spanish and African sources.

Texas tradition

In the 18th century, the residents of Spanish Texas began to herd cattle on horseback to sell in Louisiana, both legally and illegally. Their horses were of type which became the Spanish. By the early 19th century, the Spanish Crown, and later, independent, offered in what would later be to non-citizens, such as settlers from the United States. In 1821, led a group which became the first English-speaking Mexican citizens. Following in 1836, even more Americans immigrated into the empresario ranching areas of Texas. Here the settlers were strongly influenced by the Mexican vaquero culture, borrowing and from their counterparts, but also retaining some of the livestock-handling traditions and culture of the Eastern United States and. The Texas cowboy was typically a bachelor who hired on with different outfits from season to season.

Following the, vaquero combined with the cattle herding and drover traditions of the southeastern United States that evolved as settlers moved west. Additional influences developed out of Texas as cattle trails were created to meet up with the lines of and, in addition to expanding ranching opportunities in the and, east of the. The new settlers required more horses, to be trained faster, and brought a bigger and heavier horse with them. This led to modifications in the bridling and bitting traditions used by the vaquero. Thus, the Texas cowboy tradition arose from a combination of cultural influences, in addition to the need for adaptation to the geography and climate of west Texas and the need to conduct long to get animals to market.

Historian proposed in 1982 that some Texan traditions that developed—particularly after the Civil War—may trace to colonial South Carolina, as most settlers to Texas were from the southeastern United States. However, these theories have been called into question by some reviewers. In a subsequent work, Jordan also noted that the influence of post-War Texas upon the whole of the frontier Western cowboy tradition was likely much less than previously thought.

Florida cowhunter or "cracker cowboy"

The Florida "cowhunter" or " cowboy" of the 19th and early 20th centuries was distinct from the Texas and California traditions. Florida cowboys did not use to herd or capture cattle. Their primary tools were and dogs. Since the Florida cowhunter did not need a saddle horn for anchoring a, many did not use, instead using a. While some individuals wore boots that reached above the knees for protection from, others wore. They usually wore inexpensive wool or straw hats, and used for protection from rain.

Cattle and horses were introduced into Florida in the 16th century. The cattle introduced by the Spanish persist today in two rare breeds: and. The, which is still used by some Florida cowboys, is descended from horses introduced by the Spanish. From shortly after 1565 until the end of the 17th century, cattle owned by officials and operated in northern Florida to supply the Spanish garrison in and markets in. Raids into Spanish Florida by the and its Native American allies, which wiped out the native population of Florida, led to the collapse of the Spanish mission and ranching systems.

In the 18th century,,, and other Indian people moved into the depopulated areas of Florida and started herding the cattle left from the Spanish ranches. In the 19th century, most tribes in the area were dispossessed of their land and cattle and pushed south or west by white settlers and the United States government. By the middle of the 19th century white ranchers were running large herds of cattle on the extensive open range of central and southern Florida. The hides and meat from Florida cattle became such a critical supply item for the during the that a "Cow Cavalry" was organized to round up and protect the herds from raiders. After the Civil War, and into the 20th Century, Florida cattle were periodically driven to ports on the, such as near, Florida, and shipped to market in.

The Florida cowhunter or cracker cowboy tradition gradually assimilated to western cowboy tradition during the 20th century (although the vaquero tradition has had little influence in Florida). and the were introduced to Florida in the early 20th century by cattle entering from other states. These pests forced Florida cattlemen to separate individual animals from their herds at frequent intervals for treatment, which eventually led to the widespread use of lassos. Florida cowboys continue to use dogs and bullwhips for controlling cattle.

Hawaiian Paniolo

Loading cattle at, at the start of the 20th century. Photograph of Hawaiian Paniolo

The cowboy, the paniolo, is also a direct descendant of the vaquero of California and Mexico. Experts in Hawaiian etymology believe "Paniolo" is a Hawaiianized pronunciation of español. (The has no /s/ sound, and all and words must end in a vowel.) Paniolo, like cowboys on the mainland of North America, learned their skills from Mexican vaqueros. Other theories of word origin suggest Paniolo was derived from panuelo (Spanish for handkerchief) or possibly from a Hawai’ian language word meaning "hold firmly and sway gracefully."

Captain brought cattle and sheep in 1793 as a gift to, monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom. For 10 years, Kamehameha forbade killing of cattle, and imposed the death penalty on anyone who violated his edict. As a result, numbers multiplied astonishingly, and were wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. By the reign of the number of wild cattle were becoming a problem, so in 1832 he sent an emissary to California, then still a part of Mexico. He was impressed with the skill of the vaqueros, and invited three to Hawai'i to teach the Hawaiian people how to work cattle.

The first horses arrived in Hawai’i in 1803. By 1837 John Parker, a sailor from New England who settled in the islands, received permission from Kamehameha III to lease royal land near Mauna Kea, where he built a ranch.

The Hawaiian style of ranching originally included capturing by driving them into pits dug in the forest floor. Once tamed somewhat by hunger and thirst, they were hauled out up a steep ramp, and tied by their horns to the horns of a tame, older steer (or ) that knew where the with food and water was located. The industry grew slowly under the reign of Kamehameha's son Liholiho ().

Even today, traditional paniolo dress, as well as certain styles of Hawaiian formal attire, reflect the Spanish heritage of the vaquero. The traditional Hawaiian saddle, the noho lio, and many other tools of the cowboy's trade have a distinctly Mexican/Spanish look and many Hawaiian ranching families still carry the names of the vaqueros who married Hawaiian women and made Hawai'i their home.


, on makes a somewhat debatable claim of having the oldest cattle operation in what today is the United States, having run cattle in the area since European settlers purchased land from the of the area in 1643. Although there were substantial numbers of cattle on Long Island, as well as the need to herd them to and from common grazing lands on a seasonal basis, no consistent "cowboy" tradition developed amongst the cattle handlers of Long Island, who actually lived with their families in houses built on the pasture grounds. The only actual "cattle drives" held on Long Island consisted of one drive in 1776, when the Island's cattle were moved in a failed attempt to prevent them from being captured by the British during the, and three or four drives in the late 1930s, when area cattle were herded down Montauk Highway to pasture ground near Deep Hollow Ranch.

On the, the "Salt Water Cowboys" are known for rounding up the from and driving them across into pens on during the annual.


Ranching in Canada has traditionally been dominated by one province,. The most successful early settlers of the province were the ranchers, who found Alberta's to be ideal for raising cattle. Most of Alberta's ranchers were settlers, but cowboys such as —who brought the first cattle into the province in 1876—were American. American style open range dryland ranching began to dominate (and, to a lesser extent, southwestern ) by the 1880s. The nearby city of became the centre of the Canadian cattle industry, earning it the nickname "Cowtown". The cattle industry is still extremely important to Alberta, and cattle outnumber people in the province. While cattle ranches defined by barbed wire fences replaced the open range just as they did in the US, the cowboy influence lives on. Canada's first rodeo, the, was established in 1902. In 1912, the began, and today it is the world's richest cash rodeo. Each year, Calgary's northern rival, Alberta stages the, and dozens of regional rodeos are held through the province.

Outside North America

A csikós in the of Hungary, 1846

In addition to the original Mexican vaquero, the Mexican, the cowboy, and the Hawaiian paniolo, the Spanish also exported their horsemanship and knowledge of cattle ranching to the of,, and (with the spelling gaúcho) southern, the and in, the of, and the of.

In, where ranches are known as, cowboys are known as and ringers, (jackaroos and jillaroos who also do stockwork are trainee overseers and property managers). The Australian droving tradition was influenced by Americans in the 19th century, and as well as practices imported directly from Spain. The adaptation of both of these traditions to local needs created a unique Australian tradition, which also was strongly influenced by, whose knowledge played a key role in the success of cattle ranching in Australia's climate.

The idea of who guard herds of cattle, sheep or horses is common wherever wide, open land for grazing exists. In the French, riders called "" herd cattle and horses. In, guard horses and tend to cattle. The herders in the region of, in () are called (singular: buttero). The pastoral population is referred to as .

Modern working cowboys

See also:

On the ranch, the cowboy is responsible for feeding the livestock, and earmarking cattle (horses also are branded on many ranches), plus tending to animal injuries and other needs. The working cowboy usually is in charge of a small group or "string" of horses and is required to routinely patrol the rangeland in all weather conditions checking for damaged fences, evidence of, water problems, and any other issue of concern.

They also move the livestock to different pasture locations, or herd them into corrals and onto trucks for transport. In addition, cowboys may do many other jobs, depending on the size of the "outfit" or, the, and the number of livestock. On a smaller ranch with fewer cowboys—often just family members, cowboys are generalists who perform many all-around tasks; they repair fences, maintain ranch equipment, and perform other odd jobs. On a very large ranch (a "big outfit"), with many employees, cowboys are able to specialize on tasks solely related to cattle and horses. Cowboys who often specialize in this task only, and some may or train young horses for more than one ranch.

The collects no figures for cowboys, so the exact number of working cowboys is unknown. Cowboys are included in the 2003 category, Support activities for animal production, which totals 9,730 workers averaging,340 per annum. In addition to cowboys working on ranches, in stockyards, and as staff or competitors at, the category includes farmhands working with other types of livestock (,,,, etc.). Of those 9,730 workers, 3,290 are listed in the subcategory of Spectator sports which includes rodeos,, and theaters needing livestock handlers.


Most cowboy attire, sometimes termed, grew out of practical need and the environment in which the cowboy worked. Most items were adapted from the Mexican vaqueros, though sources from other cultures, including and contributed.

  • ; a large cotton that had myriad uses: from mopping up sweat to masking the face from dust storms. In modern times, is now more likely to be a silk neckscarf for decoration and warmth.
  • (usually pronounced "shaps") or protect the rider's legs while on horseback, especially riding through heavy brush or during rough work with livestock.
  • ; a boot with a high top to protect the lower legs, pointed toes to help guide the foot into the, and high heels to keep the foot from slipping through the stirrup while working in the saddle; with or without detachable.
  • ; High crowned hat with a wide brim to protect from sun, overhanging brush, and the elements. There are many styles, initially influenced by 's, which was designed in response to the climatic conditions of the West.
  • , usually of deerskin or other leather that is soft and flexible for working purposes, yet provides protection when handling barbed wire, assorted tools or clearing native brush and vegetation.
  • or other sturdy, close-fitting trousers made of canvas or denim, designed to protect the legs and prevent the trouser legs from snagging on brush, equipment or other hazards. Properly made cowboy jeans also have a smooth inside seam to prevent blistering the inner thigh and knee while on horseback.

Many of these items show marked regional variations. Parameters such as hat brim width, or chap length and material were adjusted to accommodate the various environmental conditions encountered by working cowboys.


Modern Texas cowboys
  • Firearms: Modern cowboys often have access to a, used to protect the livestock from predation by wild animals, more often carried inside a than on horseback, though rifle are manufactured, and allow a rifle to be carried on a. A is more often carried when on horseback. The modern ranch hand often uses a.22 caliber "varmit" rifle for modern ranch hazards, such as,, and. In areas near, a ranch cowboy may carry a higher-caliber rifle to fend off larger predators such as. In contrast, the cowboy of the 1880s usually carried a heavy caliber revolver such as the single action or Peacemaker (the civilian version of the 1872 ). The working cowboy of the 1880s rarely carried a long arm, as they could get in the way when working cattle, plus they added extra weight. However, many cowboys owned rifles, and often used them for market hunting in the off season. Though many models were used, Cowboys who were part-time preferred rifles that could take the widely available.45-70 "Government" ammunition, such as certain Sharps, Remington, Springfield models, as well as the Winchester 1876. However, by far the single most popular long arms were the lever-action repeating Winchesters, particularly lighter models such as the Model 1873 chambered for the same.44/40 ammunition as the Colt, allowing the cowboy to carry only one kind of ammunition.
  • ; cowboys have traditionally favored some form of, specifically the folding cattle knife or stock knife. The knife has multiple blades, usually including a leather punch and a "" blade.
  • ; from the Spanish "la riata," meaning "the rope," sometimes called a lasso, especially in the East, or simply, a "rope". This is a tightly twisted stiff rope, originally of rawhide or leather, now often of nylon, made with a small loop at one end called a "hondo." When the rope is run through the hondo, it creates a loop that slides easily, tightens quickly and can be thrown to catch animals.
  • ; metal devices attached to the heel of the boot, featuring a small metal shank, usually with a small serrated wheel attached, used to allow the rider to provide a stronger (or sometimes, more precise) leg cue to the horse.
  • Other weapons; while the modern American cowboy came to existence after the invention of, cattle herders of earlier times were sometimes equipped with heavy polearms, or.
A stock type horse suitable for cattle work


See also:

The traditional means of transport for the cowboy, even in the modern era, is by. can travel over terrain that vehicles cannot access. Horses, along with and, also serve as. The most important horse on the ranch is the everyday working ranch horse that can perform a wide variety of tasks; horses trained to specialize exclusively in one set of skills such as or are very rarely used on ranches. Because the rider often needs to keep one hand free while working cattle, the horse must and have good cow sense—it must instinctively know how to anticipate and react to cattle.

A good is on the small side, generally under 15.2 (62 inches) tall at the and often under 1000 pounds, with a short back, sturdy legs and strong muscling, particularly in the hindquarters. While a horse may need to be larger and weigh more in order to hold a heavy adult, or on a rope, a smaller, quick horse is needed for herding activities such as or. The horse has to be intelligent, calm under pressure and have a certain degree of 'cow sense" -- the ability to anticipate the movement and behavior of cattle.

Many breeds of horse make good stock horses, but the most common today in North America is the, which is a developed primarily in from a combination of bloodstock crossed on horses of and other ancestry, with influences from the and horses developed on the east coast, such as the and now- breeds such as the Chickasaw and Virginia Quarter-Miler.

Horse equipment or tack

Main article:

A western saddle

Equipment used to ride a horse is referred to as and includes:

  • ; a Western bridle usually has a and long split to control the horse in many different situations. Generally the bridle is open-faced, without a, unless the horse is ridden with a. Young ranch horses learning basic tasks usually are ridden in a jointed, loose-ring, often with a. In some areas, especially where the "California" style of the vaquero or buckaroo tradition is still strong, young horses are often seen in a style.
  • of various types are seen on horses that are in training or have behavior problems.
  • Saddle bags (leather or nylon) can be mounted to the saddle, behind the cantle, to carry various sundry items and extra supplies. Additional bags may be attached to the front or the saddle.
  • ; a blanket or pad is required under the Western saddle to provide comfort and protection for the horse.
  • ; a saddle specially designed to allow horse and to work for many hours and to provide security to the rider in rough terrain or when moving quickly in response to the behavior of the livestock being herded. A western saddle has a deep seat with high and that provides a secure seat. Deep, wide provide comfort and security for the foot. A strong, wide of wood, covered in rawhide (or made of a modern synthetic material) distributes the weight of the rider across a greater area of the horse's back, reducing the pounds carried per square inch and allowing the horse to be ridden longer without harm. A sits low in front of the rider, to which a can be snubbed, and assorted dee rings and leather "saddle strings" allow additional equipment to be tied to the saddle.


The most common motorized vehicle driven in modern ranch work is the. Sturdy and roomy, with a high ground clearance, and often capability, it has an open box, called a "bed," and can haul supplies from town or over rough trails on the ranch. It is used to pull stock trailers transporting cattle and livestock from one area to another and to market. With a attached, it carries horses to distant areas where they may be needed. Motorcycles are sometimes used instead of horses for some tasks, but the most common smaller vehicle is the. It will carry a single cowboy quickly around the ranch for small chores. In areas with heavy snowfall, are also common. However, in spite of modern mechanization, there remain jobs, particularly those involving working cattle in rough terrain or in close quarters that are best performed by cowboys on horseback.

Rodeo cowboys

Main article:

The word rodeo is from the Spanish rodear (to turn), which means roundup. In the beginning there was no difference between the working cowboy and the cowboy, and in fact, the term working cowboy did not come into use until the 1950s. Prior to that it was assumed that all cowboys were working cowboys. Early cowboys both worked on ranches and displayed their skills at the roundups.

The advent of professional rodeos allowed cowboys, like many, to earn a living by performing their skills before an audience. Rodeos also provided for many working cowboys who were needed to handle livestock. Many rodeo cowboys are also working cowboys and most have working cowboy experience.

The dress of the rodeo cowboy is not very different from that of the working cowboy on his way to town. Snaps, used in lieu of buttons on the cowboy's shirt, allowed the cowboy to escape from a shirt snagged by the horns of or. Styles were often adapted from the early movie industry for the rodeo. Some rodeo competitors, particularly women, add sequins, colors, silver and long fringes to their clothing in both a nod to tradition and showmanship. Modern riders in "rough stock" events such as or may add safety equipment such as vests or a neck brace, but use of in lieu of the is yet to be accepted, in spite of constant risk of injury.

In popular culture

See also:

Buffalo Bill's wild west and congress of rough riders of the world - Circus poster showing cowboys rounding up cattle, c. 1899

As the frontier ended, the cowboy life came to be highly romanticized. Exhibitions such as those of 's Wild West Show helped to popularize the image of the cowboy as an idealized representative of the tradition of.

In today's society, there is little understanding of the daily realities of actual agricultural life. Cowboys are more often associated with (mostly fictitious) Indian-fighting than with their actual life of work and cattle-tending. The cowboy is also portrayed as a masculine ideal via images ranging from the to the. Actors such as are thought of as exemplifying a cowboy ideal, even though seldom bear much resemblance to real cowboy life. Arguably, the modern competitor is much closer to being an actual cowboy, as many were actually raised on ranches and around livestock, and the rest have needed to learn livestock-handling skills on the job.

However, in the United States and the Canadian West, as well as, offer people the opportunity to ride horses and get a taste of the western life—albeit in far greater comfort. Some ranches also offer vacationers the opportunity to actually perform cowboy tasks by participating in cattle drives or accompanying. This type of was popularized by the 1991 movie , starring.


In 2005, the declared the fourth Saturday of July as "National Day of the American Cowboy" via a Senate resolution and has subsequently renewed this resolution each year, with the periodically issuing statements of support. The long history of the West in popular culture tends to define those clothed in Western clothing as cowboys or cowgirls whether they have ever been on a horse or not. This is especially true when applied to entertainers and those in the public arena who wear as part of their persona. However, the reality is that many people, particularly in the West, including lawyers, bankers, and other professionals wear elements of Western clothing, particularly or hats, as a matter of form even though they have other jobs. Conversely, some people raised on ranches do not necessarily define themselves cowboys or cowgirls unless they feel their primary job is to work with livestock or if they compete in rodeos.

Actual cowboys have derisive expressions for individuals who adopt cowboy mannerisms as a fashion pose without any actual understanding of the culture. For example, a "drugstore cowboy" means someone who wears the clothing but does not actually sit upon anything but the stool of the —or, in modern times, a. Similarly, the phrase "all hat and no cattle" is used to describe someone (usually male) who boasts about himself, far in excess of any actual accomplishments. The word "dude" (or the now-archaic term "greenhorn") indicates an individual unfamiliar with cowboy culture, especially one who is trying to pretend otherwise.

Outside of the United States, the cowboy has become an image of Americans abroad. In the late 1950s, a youth subculture calling themselves the based their style and outlook on 's depiction of cowboys in movies. Something similar occurred with the term "", which in early 20th century society was a slang term for an outlaw.

Negative associations

The word "cowboy" is also used in a negative sense. Originally this derived from the behavior of some cowboys in the boomtowns of Kansas, at the end of the trail for long cattle drives, where cowboys developed a reputation for violence and wild behavior due to the inevitable impact of large numbers of cowboys, mostly young single men, receiving their pay in large lump sums upon arriving in communities with many drinking and gambling establishments.

"Cowboy" as an adjective for "reckless" developed in the 1920s. "Cowboy" is sometimes used today in a derogatory sense to describe someone who is reckless or ignores potential risks, irresponsible or who heedlessly handles a sensitive or dangerous task. referred to President 's foreign policy as "", and Bush has been described in the press, particularly in Europe, as a "cowboy", not realizing that this was a compliment.

In English-speaking regions outside North America, such as the and, "cowboy" can refer to a whose work is of shoddy and questionable value, e.g., "a cowboy ". The term also lent itself to the British 1980s TV sitcom,. Similar usage is seen in the United States to describe someone in the skilled trades who operates without proper training or licenses. In the eastern United States, "cowboy" as a noun is sometimes used to describe a on the highway.

See also

In art and culture
  • also known as a "Cattle Call."
  • Fashion: "",
  • Film:, ("Western"),
  • Fine art:,,,
  • Literature:,,
  • Music:,,,,
  • Sports:,,,.
  • Television:


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Further reading

  • Beck, Warren A., Haase, Ynez D.; Historical Atlas of the American West. University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1989.  .
  • Davis, David Brion. "Ten-Gallon Hero: The Myth of the Cowboy". in Myth America: A Historical Anthology, Volume II. 1997. Gerster, Patrick, and Cords, Nicholas. (editors) Brandywine Press, St. James, NY.  
  • Glasrud, Bruce A. and Michael N. Searles, eds. Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, behind the Badge (U of Oklahoma Press, 2016). xii, 248 pp.
  • Jordan, Teresa; Cowgirls: Women of the American West. University of Nebraska Press, 1992.  .
  • Nicholson, Jon. Cowboys: A Vanishing World. Macmillan, 2001.  .
  • Phillips, Charles; Axlerod, Alan; editor. The Encyclopedia of the American West. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996.  .
  • Roach, Joyce Gibson; The Cowgirls. University of North Texas Press, 1990.  .
  • Slatta, Richard W. The Cowboy Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, California, 1994.  .
  • Ward, Fay E.; The Cowboy at Work: All About His Job and How He Does It. University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1987.  .

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