Cowboys.The name "Cowboys" was first applied to a band of Tories which was organized in Westchester county, N. Y., at the time of the American Revolution for the purpose of harassing the Whigs and colonists who were fighting for freedom from British oppression, their specialty being that of driving off or stealing cattle. In later days the term came into use to designate the men who had charge of the herds of cattle on the large ranges in the western part of the United States. The cowboy of modern times has been eulogized in song and story, and numerous dramas have been presented on the American stage, in which he has figured as a hero or a villain, according to the idea of the playwright. At the time of the Spanish-American war a large number of cowboys enlisted in the volunteer cavalry of the United States, under the name of "Rough Riders," and were active in the campaign against Santiago, Cuba. Opinions differ as to the character and merits of the western cowboy. William D. Street, in an address before the Kansas Historical Society on Dec. 6, 1904, said:
"The cowboy, who stood the brunt of the battle and acted as a buffer between civilization and barbarism, was here in all his pristine glory. They, as a class, have been much abused. But few toughs were to be found among the genuine cowboys of the West. They were generally a genteel set of men, in many instances well educated, always generous, some possessing excellent business qualifications. There was, however, a class who hung out at the shipping points, who did not belong to the cowboys, but lived off of them. They generally created most of the disturbances, shot up the towns, did the fighting and killing. This class were the gamblers and saloon keepers; most of them, it is true, 'came up the trail,' and when they went broke turned to the range to raise a stake as cowboys. This disreputable class caused the rows, and the cowboy was given the credit (or discredit) for the trouble, when in reality he usually had little or no part in the disturbance."
J. T. Botkin, another Kansas man, now employed in the secretary of state's office, in the Topeka Capital of Nov. 21, 1910, has this to say of the cowboys: "I do not see things as the romancers do. . . . I have lived with the cowboys and been one of them; have worked with them in the branding pen, on the round-up and the trail for weary weeks at a time; have lived with them in camp; have slept with them in all kinds of weather with only my saddle blanket for a bed, my saddle for a pillow, and the blue sky for a covering. I have sat on the back of a broncho during the silent watches of the night, humming softly to the herd and watching the course of the stars that I might know when to call the next 'relief.' I have been with them when we shipped the beef to Kansas City, and have seen and known them under almost every condition and ought to, and I believe I do, know something about their habits and character.
"The real cowboy, the fellow about whom the songs, the plays and the stories have been written, and on whom so much gush has been wasted, was a very ordinary fellow. He was the best practical rider in the world. He possessed about the average intelligence, but he was usually illiterate and coarse. He was not overly cleanly about his person. He lacked energy and was without ambition. His language was profane and of the style of the braggart. He delighted to hear himself called 'Texas Jack,' 'Cimarron Dave,' 'Arizona,' or some other, to him, high sounding name. His habits were very bad and when he struck town he sought the companionship of the evil and filled his skin with red liquor. He rode through the streets, shot holes in the atmosphere and tried to rope a dog. He did this to impress the people with the idea that he was a 'Bad man from Bitter creek.' Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it was all bluff and bluster . . . . The country of 'magnificent distances' seemed to dwarf rather than to broaden him. He had no part nor interest in the greater affairs of life and neither his occupation nor environment tended to develop him. To be able to ride a horse, read the brands and rope a steer when necessary was all that was required of him, and he naturally drifted into shiftless and lazy habits.
"Compared to other characters of the border, he was not 'quick with the gun.' Ask any old timer of Dodge City, Baxter Springs, Hays or Abilene and he will tell you that but few gun fights between the gamblers and cowboys were won by the latter. He was an easy victim and his money was a gift to the gambler."
Such are the views of two Kansas men regarding the cowboy. And while these views seem to be contradictory, both may be right. It depends upon the point of view. Among the cowboys, as in all other occupations, there were doubtless men above the general average and others who fell below. In the former class would be found the men described by Mr. Street, and in the latter the "ordinary fellow" mentioned by Mr. Botkin. With the settlement of the West came the passing of the cowboy. Those above the average readily adapted themselves to changed conditions and entered other occupations. Some became ranch owners, others small tradesmen, etc. Those below the lineor at least many of themdrifted still lower down in their habits and associations until they dropped from view below the social horizon.
One trait of the cowboy is worthy of more than passing notice. He was generally loyal to his employer and to his comrades on the ranch or range. The interests of the "boss" were carefully guarded, and when the boys belonging to an "outfit" went to town together, if one of them got into trouble the others could usually be depended on to help him out of it, even at the expense of personal risk. But the cowboy with his fanciful costume and jingling spurs has gone, never to return. Just as the railroad put the old stage coach and the pony express out of business, so the homesteader and the husbandman have relegated the cowboy to the institutions of the past.Pages 464-466 from volume I of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed May 2002 by Carolyn Ward.
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