JF Ptak Science Books Post 1700 [Continuing a series on notes made while reading Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, part 5.]
The word “cowboy” (“cow-boy”, “cow boy”) was little seen in the U.S. in the decades before the great surge in cattle drives—prior to the 1870s. The word most commonly associated with America’s greatest folk heroes actually got its beginning in Ireland, and was commonly used in Britain from 1820-1850 where its meaning was quite literal, applying to the young boys tending the cows owned by a family or community. An earlier use by Jonathan Swift in 1725 also refers to nothing more than a boy tending cows.
[Source: Cowboy and a herd of cattle in Cherry County, Nebraska. Photograph by the great Solomon D. Butcher., 1889. Nebraska State Historical Society.]
The word “cowboy” is first seen in the U.S. in the New Orleans Picayune, not referring to a man, but to a race horse instead. The word—referring to humans—breaks into printed use in the U.S. at about the same time the great drives were ending. Perhaps the first mention in print of the human cowboy comes hyphenated in Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times magazine in 1866. By 1877, only 11 years later, the great national character, Texas Jack (a scout brought along by Buffalo Bill Cody to his Wild West shows whose real name was John Burwell Omohundro, Jr.), laments the passing of the long drive and the cowboy in the same journal:
“The cow-boy…how often spoken of, how falsely imagined, how greatly despised, how little understood!"
The cowboy wasn’t always seen as an idealized American hero. Negative associations of the word got an early start in the U.S. with the British during the Revolutionary War when some of the marauding Americans stole cows and other property from the Redcoats. “Cowboy” is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a contemptuous appellation applied to some of the Tory partisans of Westchester County, NY,” from 1785.
As Ramon Adams insists in his book, Western Words, no one would admit to being a cowboy until “a bunch of wild-riding, reckless Texans under the leadership of Ewen Cameron…spent their time chasing longhorns and Mexicans soon after Texas became a Republic.” Even as late as 1881 the lucky Chester A. Arthur, then a U.S. president, spoke sneeringly of the cowboy when he denounced a band of desperadoes as “cowboys.”
The author of the history of the great Spur Ranch scoured voluminous records covering 35 years of the half-million acre business, yet didn’t find a single use of the word “cowboy” in the ranch’s records.
An Englishman on a Texas cattle drive reported sarcastically in Cornhill Magazine (1886) about the “somewhat primitive code of honor” of the Texas cowboys, and decried their pride, honesty, hard work, indifference to pain, and courage—all of which would have sounded like praise to the cowboys, not criticisms. Clifford Westermeier, in his classic Trailing the Cowboy, His Life and Lore as Told by Frontier Journalists, describes the virtues of the cowboy in virtually the same language, but he did mean it as praise, not folly.
Probably the first cowboy “hero” appeared on February 1, 1887, in Buck Taylor, King of the Cowboys, written by Prentiss Ingraham in Beadle’s Half-Dime Library, some 50 years after the Dictionary of American History reports that the word was in general spoken use in Texas. There were only six adventures of Buck Taylor, including several whose titles belie the portrait of the “good” cowboy of the time: The Wild Steer Riders; or, the Red Revolver Rangers, a Story of Lawless Lives, Love, and Adventure in the Lone Star State (1889); and Buck Taylor, the Saddle King; or, the Lasso Rangers’ League, a Romance of Heroes in Buckskin, (1891). The detailed titles were written in the style of the time; McMurtry himself paid homage to them in his Anything for Bill, one of whose main characters is a novelist of the sort mentioned above.
In 1887 the game “Cowboys and Indians” was first mentioned in a book, late in the Indian “Wars.” By then, the cowboys were disappearing and the only remaining Indian resistance left was the Ghost Shirt Rebellion of 1891.
Certainly the cowboy owes a huge debt to the vacquero who had been in business south of the U.S. for some two centuries before Texans got interested in cattle. Other words of Spanish origin adopted by the cowboy and played into English include: “cinch” from cincha; “wrangler” from caballerango; “lariat” from la reata; “cayuse” from caballo; and “chaps” from chapasejos.
Cowboys have also been called buckaroo, cowpoke, cowpunch, wrangler, hand (as in top hand or cowhand), leather pounder, saddle stiff, saddle warmer, and waddy, among others.
“Whoever the last true cowboy in America turns out to be, he’s likely to be an Indian”—William Least Heat Moon (from Blue Highways, 1983).
A brief history of the word “cowboy”
Medieval Ireland: references to boys tending cattle
1785: Revolutionary War derogatory references to Torries (English)
1821: “The cowboy…whose sun-burnt skin and checks puff’d out with fat…,” and “the cowboy seeks the sedge, Ramping in the wooded hedge.” (from Clare, Village Minstral, English)
1824: “Finding the cowboy, with a shirt about him…and treating him to a handsome drubbing…”(from W. Scott, St. Ronan’s, English)
1874: In J. McCoy’s famous Historical Sketches of the Cattle Trade, “drovers consider that the cattle do injury to themselves by running around in a circle, which is termed in cow-boy parlance, ‘milling’” (American).
1879: “The herder, or ‘cow-boy’, dominates the town” (from Scribner’s Magazine, American).
1881: G.W. Romspert writes in the Western Echo that the “average cow-boy saddle weighs forty pounds” (American).
1882: The Century Magazine writes, perhaps incorrectly, that “in place of the cow-boy we find the buffalo-hunter (American).
1885: “As firm a seat…as any cowboy that ever put a leg over a cayuse…(from Century Magazine, American)
1889: In Farmer’s Americanisms, “cowboy vernacular to heel is to lariat or secure an animal by the hind leg…” (American).
And lastly, “cow”-prefixed words erupted in the twenty years after “cow-boy” appeared familiarly in the United States. Between 1880 and 1900 more than 100 words with “cow- something” were added to the American vocabulary. Some of these prosaic words included: cow-cabbage, cow-cap, cow carrier, cow-catcher, cow-clover, cow-cock, cow-cocky, cow-crackers, cow-creamer, cowcucumber, cow dung bob, cow-feeder, cow-gang, cow-girl, cow-glass, cow-hand, cow-heart, cow-herb, cowhide, cow-itch, cow juice, cow keeper, cow lady,cow mumble, cow pad, cow-pea, cow-pilot, cow quakes, cow rattle, cowscape, cow weed, and of course cow sucker.