- Historic Sites
The Cowboy And The Critter
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
This is not to say that the cowboy was bred to this “cow culture” like a coyote to brush country. Charlie Russell’s yarn about the Eastern girl who asked her mother, “Do cowboys eat grass?” pushes Darwin too far. Few original cowboys were born to the range. In the mid-nineteenth century, America was still predominantly agrarian, and forerunners of the breed were familiar with cows and horses long before they wandered westward. Veterans of the Confederate cavalry who seeped into Texas in time to exploit the ripening cattle trade were already sufficiently toughened to life in the saddle to acquire readily the skills of Mexican vaqueros. They learned even more from their bouts with the critters that haunted the thornbush and brandished horns that could span nine feet. Recruits to the burgeoning craft were boys who had been reared on Midwestern farms, in New England towns, or even in cities and villages of the Old World. Their basic character traits were already formed, and the cow country only appealed to the same impulses that led venturesome adolescents to run away to sea or to join the circus. Once a “shorthorn” made his decision to throw in with a cow outfit, however, the vocation initiated an inexorable process of natural selection, weeding out those whose appetite for cowboying was quickly sated. Frank Harris lasted one drive and concluded the English edition of On the Trail by stating bluntly, “I had enough of cattle driving.…” Weeks of staring between a horse’s twitching ears at the excrement caked on the backsides of calves faltering in the drags could snap a raw hand’s mainspring. Jean Daniels used to claim that all it took to make a cowhand “was someone who could live without sleep, without grub, without water, and enjoyed taking his bath reg’Iar in alkali dust.” If tedium was broken, it was when a hand dabbed his rope on a thousand-pound critter for the first time and rapidly began figuring odds on whether he’d be jerked to the mending shack or the grave. A recruit who survived four seasons and was willing to sign on for another roundup had the makings of a cowboy. Even if he decided to “saddle the breeze,” the intricacy and intensity of the relationship formed between man, animal, and the elements—the totally consuming nature of participation in the work of “the outfit”—was an experience unlikely to fade from memory.
The spurious lessons Harris claimed to have picked up from his year working with cows were only moral embroidery for the American version of his Reminiscences . Such Schoolbook virtues, if learned at all, could be acquired from any number of exacting occupations. The provocative question is “What peculiar breed did cowpunching produce—and why?” Not much sociological expertise is required to recognize that life on the briny deep, under the big top, or at home on the range would attract, repel, and temper individuals in different ways.
Aboard ship, marine discipline prevails. An able-bodied seaman whose response to authority resembled that of a cowboy would spend his life in the brig. Likewise, ambulatory carnivals catering constantly to the whims of the crowd demanded routines and attitudes which a cowboy would have found unbearable. Some similarity between the behavior of sailors on shore leave and cowboys loose on the town might be attested, but the comparison would be superficial. Drunken barroom brawls involving cowhands are products of banal literary imaginations. They despised fistic encounters and contemptuously labeled them “dogfights.” The cowboy was almost fastidious about the care of his hands. He used them for roping, hog tying, earmarking and cutting, for braiding reatas, and for managing his horse. Many top hands wore gloves—except those like Jean Daniels who argued that growing new skin was cheaper. If a dispute had to go beyond an “augurin’ match,” the cowhand preferred a gun-not because he was eager to throw lead, but because it eliminated bodily contact and minimized physical inequalities. Unlike clumsy, prolonged pummeling with fists, a gun was dignified, its decisions quick and unequivocal. Besides, it wasn’t often necessary to use it. Its visible presence alone had a sobering effect. Courtesy has gone out of fashion because discourtesy no longer incurs risk.