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The Era Of The Cowboy Began After The Civil War (+12 Fun Facts)


National Day of the Cowboy is observed annually on the fourth Saturday in July.

The era of the cowboy began after the Civil War in the heart of Texas.  Cattle were herded long before this time, but in Texas, they grew wild and unchecked.  As the country expanded, the demand for beef in the northern territories and states increased. With nearly 5 million head of cattle, cowboys moved the herds on long drives to where the profits were.

The draw of riches and adventure mixed with tales of violence and a backdrop of the Great Plains gave way to the mythological image of the cowboy.

The life of a cowboy, and cowgirl, required a particular ability to live in a frontier world.  To do so requires respect, loyalty and a willingness to work hard.

The cowboys of the Old West had an unwritten code that they lived by. The code included such rules as being courteous, always saying “howdy”, don’t wave at a man on a horse (you should nod), never ride another man’s horse without his permission, always help someone in need, and never put on another man’s hat.

  • Many cowboys had been Civil War soldiers, from both the North and the South, and many others—perhaps up to a quarter of all cowboys—were freed ex-slaves. Some cowboys were immigrants from Europe, and others were Mexicans and American Indians.
  • 8 to 12 cowboys could move 3,000 head of cattle along the cattle drives. They might travel 15 miles in a day.
  • Cowboys often wore their clothes for weeks without changing.
  • At night, once the cattle were bedded down and quiet, two men on guard might slowly circle around and sing to calm them. They worried about the danger of stampede from thunder and lightning or other unexpected noises, and singing calmed jittery cows.
  • In 1867, the first cattle drive from Texas up the Chisholm Trail arrived at the rail yards of Abilene, Kansas.
  • In 1874, Joseph Glidden received a patent for his invention of barbed wire, an inexpensive, durable and effective fencing material which opened the plains to more efficient agriculture and ranching.
  • In 1877, Congress passed the Desert Land Act which permitted settlers to purchase up to 640 acres of public land at 25-cents an acre in areas where the arid climate required large-scale farming.  They were required to properly irrigate the land they purchased.
  • The most important possession of any cowboy was his horse and saddle. The saddles were often custom made and, next to his horse, was probably the most valuable item a cowboy owned. Horses were so important that horse stealing was considered a hanging offense!
  • Other names for cowboys include cowpunchers, cowpokes, buckaroos, and cowhands.
  • A new person to the Old West was called a tenderfoot, pilgrim, or greenhorn.
  • The harmonica was a popular musical instrument to cowboys because it is so small and easy to carry.
  • The average cowboy in the Old West made between $25 and $40 a month.


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The Wild West