10 Common Misconceptions About Cowboys

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They’re the guys with the thousand yard stare. The one with six-shooters in their holsters, a broad-brim hat on their heads and enough jagged iron in their guts to break down even the toughest steak. They are the cowboys, and everyone knows they’re the coolest, calmest, most-heroic folk in America history.

Or are they? What if we were to tell you that the cowboys you think you know are nothing like the real ones? That your mental image of cowboys could do with slightly less stoicism and gunfights… and more camels, examples of poor personal hygiene, and venereal diseases. Here are 10 little-known, crazy facts about the men who really tamed America’s wild west.

10. Most Cowboys Didn’t Carry Guns

gun

The gun-totin’ cowboy is the only cowboy most of us can picture. He’s Clint Eastwood on the way to a shootout. John Wayne blowing away bad guys. Yet take your Blu-Ray player back to the 19th century and show a genuine cowboy these films and he’d likely look at you askance. Why? Because real cowboys only rarely carried weapons.

Sure, you might need them when you were out on a cattle drive or whatever. But when you got to town? Check that baby at the door. Most towns in the wild west enacted strict gun control, just to make sure the sort of shootouts we see in movies didn’t happen on a daily basis. Even the infamous Tombstone didn’t let its cowboys walk round armed. The Gunfight at the OK Carrol only came about because Doc and Earp were trying to enforce gun laws.

The city wasn’t alone. Dodge City, Wichita, and others all stopped their visitors from packing heat. So how did cowboys solve problems without their pistols? We’re glad you asked…

9. They Almost Never Got in Fights

It’s said that “the true story of the American West is one of cooperation, not conflict.” Although 90 percent of westerns involve people getting shot, a barroom brawl, a violent posse riding into town, or (more likely) all three, the truth of the frontier was that acting tough was a good way to wind up dead. If you wanted to survive, you basically had to get on with your neighbors.

This meant no high noon showdowns, no thuggery, and no murders. Even in the roughest, toughest cattle towns, the murder rate was generally lower than that of most modern American cities. Bank robberies, too, were rare. In 2005, the University of Dayton calculated that there were more bank robberies in modern Dayton in a single year than there were across the entire Old West in a typical decade.

There were exceptions, of course. In the immediate post-Civil War period violence sporadically flared up, and Native American tribes often experienced the brutal side of the frontier. But these were the exceptions. Even notorious outlaws were less violent than their reputation suggests. Billy the Kid, for example, spent way more time rustling cattle than he ever did robbing banks or shooting people.

8. Many Were Ravaged by Venereal Diseases

old west

If your mental image of a cowboy is John Wayne acting all moral and clean-cut, you might not want to read this entry. The reality of cowboy life was dirty from beginning to end. Cowpokes often went days on end without bathing. They were smelly. Often covered in grime and stale sweat. But dirtiest of all was what was happening inside their bodies. Y’see, it’s now thought that many citizens of the frontier were crawling with venereal diseases.

Depending on where you were in the Old West, between 50 to 90 percent of the local prostitutes were likely carrying STDs. And since many cowboys liked to, ahem, avail themselves of these ladies’ talents, that meant a whole bunch of cowboys were riding around with a growing bacterial menagerie between their legs.

Although precise figures are hard to come by today, we know that new recruits to the US Army between 1876 and 1896 were frequently diseased, suggesting many of the general population were, too. Some have even suggested that crazy behavior by guys such as the Wild Bill Hickok might have been due to syphilis, making them act all eccentric.

7. Plenty Didn’t Do Any Riding Whatsoever

cowboys

Close your eyes. Picture a cowboy. Got him? Right: What animal did he appear with?

Despite the name, almost none of you said ‘cow’. For a good reason. Cowboys in modern mythos are almost completely inseparable from their horses. The image of them riding across the high plains on a long cattle drive is one charged with romance and the spirit of adventure. For many cowboys, that was exactly what life was like.

But not for all of them. For a significant minority, their job description involved absolutely no riding whatsoever.

This was especially true at the end of the era, from about 1885 onwards. A dry summer and a terrible winter had convinced many ranchers to keep their cattle close to home. For a huge chunk of cowboys, that meant the romance of the plain was suddenly replaced with menial labor like mending fences and checking penned cows for disease. If they got to ride anything at all, it would likely be a haymow. Unsurprisingly, most hated such work.

6. Some That Did Ride Rode Camels

camel

Here’s a classic western scene. The sun stands at high noon, baking the lifeless city streets. A tumbleweed blows through the dust. A shadow appears on the horizon. It’s the cowboy. He emerges out of the heat haze, skin like cracked leather… and proceeds to ride into town on the back of his Arabian camel. Wait, what?

It’s true. In certain parts of the Old West, horses were as rare as they are in big cities today. Instead, ranchers had their cowboys ride on the backs of camels that had been imported in the 1850s, and accidentally released into the wild at the height of the Civil War.

Because of the harsh conditions on the frontier, it had been theorized camels would cope much better than horses with the heat. The US Government agreed. At great cost it imported hundreds of camels to Camp Verde, only for war to break out. When the Confederates seized the camp they released the camels. For the next few decades, enterprising ranchers occasionally caught a few, broke them in and gave them to their cowboys to work with.

5. ‘Brokeback’ Encounters Were Surprisingly Common

brokeback

Remember 2005? That was the year Brokeback Mountain hit cinemas and Heath Ledger proved he didn’t have to be in clown makeup to provide a magnetic performance. The movie was also controversial among some who thought it was grafting our modern notions of sexuality onto a historic setting (in this case, the 1960s).

Interestingly, this is the one criticism that can easily be refuted. According to historian and author Patricia Nell Warren, gay encounters were way more common in the Old West than we ever realized.

A lot of this is thanks to the conditions cowboys had to endure. Long stretches of time away from women, surrounded by other men, led to occasional ‘one-off’ trysts simply as a way of relieving sexual tension. Within that mix, you had a handful of genuinely gay cowboys, who’d often fled out West as a way of achieving anonymity. Because manpower was scarce, it was impractical for landowners to refuse to hire them due to their sexuality.

As social historians John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman noted in their book Intimate Matters, there are even surviving love poems written from cowboys to one another. It might have been frowned upon by the rest of society, but on the Frontier, homosexuality was relatively open.

4. Black Cowboys Were Also Surprisingly Common

black cowboys

Quick: how many westerns can you name that feature black cowboys? Most of us can probably only get Django Unchained and Blazing Saddles. As a result, you might think African-American cowpokes were a rarity on the frontier. You’d be wrong. By some estimates, as many as one in four cowboys were black.

It makes sense when you think about it. Cowpunching, as it was often called, was a dirty, difficult, badly-paid, working class job. In the post-Civil War era, those were exactly the sort of jobs newly-emancipated slaves might be expected to do. And as we mentioned above, the Old West was one area where employers couldn’t afford to turn a good pair of hands away, no matter what the color of their skin was.

That’s not to say everything on the frontier was racial harmony. Way into the 20th century, black cowboys were expected to do the hardest, toughest jobs of all. They were the ones breaking in wild horses, doing all the cooking on wagon drives, and holding the cattle down at branding time. On the other hand, black cowboys often had a degree of autonomy and responsibility they would have lacked in other jobs. Perhaps that’s why so many ex-slaves chose to head out West.

3. Outlaws Were Shameless Self-Promoters

billy the kid

When you hear that robbers today are live-Tweeting their own break-ins, it’s tempting to assume we’ve hit rock bottom as a culture. Such nonsense would never have happened in the stoic Old West, right? Kinda. Although photographs of Pat Garrett playing on his smartphone have yet to surface, outlaws of the cowboy era were just as narcissistic as today’s criminals. When conducting major crimes, they frequently handed out press releases.

Jesse James was notorious for this. When holding up a train, he’d pass witnesses a carefully-written note, boasting about his own exploits. He wasn’t the only one. Billy the Kid deliberately inflated his kill-count from 8 to 21, and boasted about his violent temper. In fact, the Kid almost never got involved with shooting, robbing or hold ups. The main reason the law went after him was because he kept rustling cattle.

On the other side, the good guys were equally image-conscious. Wild Bill’s nickname actually referred to his gigantic nose, similar in size to a duck’s bill. It was only by effort he made out it referred to his ‘wild’ and dangerous nature, thereby terrifying local criminals.

2. The Rest of the Country Considered Them Suspicious and Dirty

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The cowboy is enshrined in legend as the epitome of American values. While other eras and professions have their draws, it’s impossible to think of a historic figure today more beloved by the entire nation. Which just goes to show how times change. In the early days of the Frontier, cowpunchers were regarded as ill-educated vagrants at best, and dangerous carriers of disease at worst.

Around the Deep South, cowboys were considered trespassers who used public land for their own gain. The North generally considered them illiterate (they usually were). Even along the Great Plains, there was much resentment. Cattle drives routinely trampled the crops of farmers and Native Americans, and it was the cowpunchers themselves who got the blame. Many people even feared they would spread dreaded ‘Texas Fever’ throughout the land. It’s safe to say that, during the golden age of the cowboy, most of America regarded them as a smelly nuisance.

It wasn’t really until the early 20th century that pulp novelists and early Hollywood began to transform these tough, dirty, uneducated men into folk heroes. Fast forward to today and that’s the image that remains.

1. Modern Germans Love Them

german flag

Of all the countries in the world, which do you think has fallen for the cowboy myth the hardest (aside from the good ol’ US-of-A, that is)? Nope, it’s not Canada. Not Australia. Not even Great Britain. The country most obsessed with the cowboy today? Germany.

For some reason, Germans go nuts over cowboy-related stuff. Hundreds of clubs exist across this mountainous European nation, where people go on weekends to dress as cowboys and pretend they’re living in 19th century Texas. It’s estimated that several tens of thousands of Germans do this every single week, with many, many thousands more holding a passing interest in such exploits.

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Nor is this a completely modern thing. Back in the 1930s, the Nazis venerated cowboys almost as much as they did genocide. Hitler himself was known to be a huge fan of westerns, often reading cowboy books between bouts of conquest and megalomania. For some reason, this very un-German tradition has taken deep root in a country far more ordered and rule-abiding than the Old West ever was. Which just goes to show, we guess, that you never can tell what the future has in store.


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3 Comments

  1. Sorry to break the author’s bubble, but he has no idea how many carried guns, started fights, had homosexual encounters, etc. You can assume that many of them carried diseases because personal hygiene lacked at the time as well as other things on the list, but there is no reliable written history from this period. Like the author stated, most cowboys were illiterate therefore couldn’t document their travels, which I only agree with because most frontier people were. This list is mostly guesswork.

    • When i was reading this list I was thinking the Exact same thing. No way Most of these accounts are accurate. Very bad Journalism by the author.

  2. noone important on

    There’s nothing surprising about German interest in the Wild West. Ever heard of May and his Winnetou stories?
    Heck, the Germans have probably made mor western movies than the Americans and Italians combined. Most of them filmed in Yugoslavia…

    The cowboy stereotype popularised by western genre was simple and powerfull. It did fit a totalitarian propaganda well, that;’s why hitler liked it, that’s why Stalin became John Wayne’s great fan (according to Khruschev he saw the pro-American message in his films so powerfull, that he ordered Wayne’s assasination)

    Also, in the GDR the horse e-enthusiasts could not refer to their military cavalry history, as it would be seen as nostalgic toward s Nazi times or the Prussian imperialism, so cowboys were seen as less-risky symbols.

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