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The American Cowboy Symbol Of America Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2655 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Cowboy is the iconic symbol of the American West, and was one of the key elements in taming the Western frontier of the United States. The cowboy was originally known for taking care of the cattle, branding them, feeding them, and driving them across the plains from places of winter feeding to the stockyards for sale and slaughter. During the initial time period of the cowboy there did not exist good means for transporting the cattle, and without the cowboy the job would never have been completed. However, the cowboy did a lot more than just baby-sit the cattle while they were grazing on the open range. The cowboy was a life style and a culture of the American West, as much as Broadway is part of New York and the movies are part of Hollywood, the cowboy is part of the American West (PBS ).

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The most influential and significant group of cowboys of the time was the Rough Riders, in which President Roosevelt lead to the battle of Las Guasimas. The Rough Riders were the first United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment that was organized by Theodore Roosevelt and others (The Rough Riders ).The group was created after Spain declared war on the United States on April 24 1898. Since Theodore did not have any military familiarity, he appointed Leonard Wood as commander of the group. The rough riders were made up of 1,250 men, from all around the United States and who were mainly cowboys, Indians, and others from throughout the American frontier (The Rough Riders ). People have always been fascinated with the American cowboy, and during the heyday of settlers moving West, the cowboy was personified by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. “The show itself consisted of a series of ‘historical’ scenes interspersed with feats of showmanship, sharp shooting, racing, or rodeo style events. Native Americans figured prominently in many of the scenes, often shown attacking white settlers in historical situations with Buffalo Bill or one of his colleagues riding in and saving the day (Reddin 418 ). The fascination of the American cowboy and the wild west even continued into Disneyland with the creation of “Frontierland” when the park opened in 1955. This section of the park allows visitors the opportunity to experience the west as it was when Americas were just beginning to travel west. Mickey Mouse has often been portrayed as a cowboy, with a large hat, cowboy boots and chaps whereby portraying the “classic” cowboy look. The iconic American cowboy attracted attention beyond the boundaries of America, as royalty and aristocrats found the cowboy both entertaining and inspiring( Whittington ) .

The American cowboy initially got their beginning on the plains of Texas in the late 19th century, where ranchers had a plentiful supply of cattle, yet no place to sell them. There was a large need for beef on the East coast yet without railroads the cowboy was the only means for herding them up state. As time and technology moved forward with railroad transportation affording the means to move cattle efficiently to other parts of the county, you would suspect that the cowboy would have been replaced. Although railroads did provide the needed transportation across great stretches of the American West, it did little to eliminate the cowboy. The need to keep watch over herds on the open plain was as important now as it had ever been. With the bringing of rail transportation to the American West, it also brought opportunity for those non-scrupulous individuals. The ability for thieves to rustle unattended cattle off the open plains and then quickly sell and ship them was now even a bigger problem. The cowboy was the guardian of the herd. Even today, in the wake of technological advances the American cowboy is still being used on ranches and farms throughout America. The cowboy used a technique to label the cattle known as branding. “Brands are used as an identifying mark to easily identify one Ranchers or Farmers livestock from another. Brands are designed to provide ownership of the Brand holder” (Cowboy Brands ). Around the 1880’s were there was nothing but free land as far as the eye can see, ranchers livestock could inadvertently mix together, and when it was time to take the cattle to the market the cowboy could easily separate the groups( Cowboy Brands ). The occurrence of cattle rustling and raiding is a common problem for ranchers and beef producers throughout the United States.

The cowboys like many other professions desired to prove their individual skills and abilities. The venue for this contest of cowboys was dubbed the rodeo. The rodeo was based on the required working skills of the cowboy depending on the terrain and climate of the American West. The skills that the cowboy uses date back to the Spanish traditions of the vaquero. Today, the rodeo is a sporting event that includes the horse and cattle matched to events that test the individual skills and ability of the cowboy. The professional rodeo events of today include roping events, tie-down events, steer wrestling, bareback and saddle ridding events and barrel racing. Today, the “bucking horse and rider” is the official federal and state trademark of the State of Wyoming.

Cowboy music was created on the open plains and was considered as folk music rather than the country music that we think of today. The cowboy would create songs accompanied by rudimentary musical instruments telling their story of being a cowboy. The first “western song”, Blue Juniata was published in 1844, over one hundred years later the Sons of the Pioneers recorded it. Cowboys and radio programming that has become known as westerns could be found on the radio dial long before the invention of television. Families could gather by the radio and listen to classic radio programs such as the Lone Ranger series which ran from 1933 to 1955. “The songs of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers put the Western in Country and Western Music. Much of this music was written for and brought to the American public through the cowboy films of the 30’s and 40’s and was widely popular.”

Film makers built upon the image of the American cowboy with early box office hits such as the Great Train Robbery in 1903. Actors such as John Wayne and James Garner portrayed iconic figures of the American West. With the introduction of television, Hollywood now had a new means to bring the cowboy into everyone’s home on a weekly basis. Blockbuster hits such as Gunsmoke and the Big Valley brought the cowboys and the American West into living rooms throughout America.

The cowboy found themselves on the pages of American literature with great writings and authors such as Zane Grey, Roalie More and Ray Foster. The lives and adventures of cowboys has been brought to the pages for everyone to enjoy. The writings of cowboys started building the drama and excitement of the lives of a cowboy. The excitement of brining a herd across the open plains of the American West were conveyed to the reader. The various obstacles and battles that the cowboy encountered were all part of the sensational life of a cowboy.

Cowboys literature does not just stop with stories, cowboys have made a name for themselves in poetry. After a long day on the trails, the American cowboy would gather around the camp fire and entertain each other, with stories from their day on the trail or even tell tall tales passed down from one cowboy to another. American cowboy poetry and songs were not only used to entertain the cowboys but also the help calm and sooth nervous cattle. ” Singing songs like, Old Dan Tucker, Nearer My God To Thee, In the Sweet By and By or The Texas Lullaby, soothed jittery cows, which helped reduce the likelihood of stampede” (Cowboy Songs). Today, cowboys may not have to worry about cattle stampedes, but cowboys music and poetry is still composed and celebrated to this day.

Cowboy artisan includes oil paintings depicting the cowboy in the many facets of their daily lives. In addition to paintings, cowboy sculptures have become popular center pieces, and in some cases cowboys themselves have become accomplished artist. Art has not been limited to only the canvas of a painting or the clay of a sculpture but has also transcended into items that reflect the culture and style of the cowboy. Southwest art and design is just such a decorating theme that brings the “old west” and “cowboy style” into the everyday home living environment. Within this design style it would not be uncommon for an old saddle to be poised in the corner of a home, or a set of branding irons crossed on the wall. Horseshoes have been shaped and formed into various creations beyond the traditional good luck symbol above a doorway. With the invention of the camera and film, many cowboy photographs have found their way into modern design. The annual Southwest Arts festival is only one of many events that bring the artists and those that appreciate the particular style and culture of the American cowboy together.

The Cowboy Hall of fame has been rebranded as the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and is located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This museum serves as the sentinel for cowboy history and culture. One of the favorite annual events at the museum is the chuck wagon gathering where authentic chuck wagon crews prepare the favorite foods of the cowboy. Meals such as biscuits and stew, beans and cobblers are among the menu items. Without these invaluable crews preparing meals for those tending to the herd, it is imaginable that many would not have lasted. Many cooks on the chuck wagon were cowboys themselves, many unable to perform the cowboy duties because of an injury or simply too old.

Cowboys would be nothing if they did not have the right equipment, the clothing that adorns the cowboy helps to identify this great American icon. The cowboy wears boots that are tapered at the toe and allow for the easy insertion and removal into and from the stirrups of a saddle, today we know these boots as cowboy boots. The pants are tailored to accommodate the boots and fit comfortably while seated all day long in a saddle, today these pants are referred to as boot cut. The cowboy shirt was typically long sleeve in order to protect the cowboys arms from scratches brought on from low branches as well as the harsh sun beating down. Finally, the cowboy hat was the iconic finish providing an individual signature of taste and style while also providing shade from the intense sunlight.

Cowboy uses a variety of tools in order ranging from anything resembling firearms, lariats, spurs to horses and burros. The cowboys lariat comes from the Spanish word ‘ la riata’ meaning rope. It was a tightly twisted stiff rope, made from rawhide or leather. The lariat was used to catch and hold animals. Another usefully tool the cowboys had at their disposal was the spurs. The spurs is made from metal which attaches to the heel of the boot. The spur is touched to the backside of the horse and by the pressure and direction the cowboy apply the spur , the cowboy can maneuver horse around.(Cowboy History)

A relationship between the “real” cowboy that tamed the wild west and the iconic image exists in the sense that the “real” cowboy built the foundation for what has become the iconic image of today. The American cowboy is symbolized by the glamorization of the real working cowboys. Those individuals that worked all day long in the hot sun protecting the herd and at the end of the day sat next to an open fire and finally sleeping under the stars. The harsh environment has been sensationalized by Hollywood portraying the long days herding cattle as adventurous and exciting. The campfire as a time when everyone would get together and talk about the day and finally concluding with a perfect starry night. The “real” cowboy used a rope in order to pull out cattle or wrangle them to the ground all in the name of herding cattle. The wild west shows, used a rope in their acts to amaze the audience with sensational tricks beyond that typically used by the “real” cowboy. However, the glamorization of the cowboy has continued to keep this American icon alive and thriving even in a time when technology is dominating our daily lives. Americans look at this iconic symbol as a time when life appears simple without the complication of our daily lives, yet the lives of the “real” cowboy was anything but simple. Hollywood has kept this iconic image alive and thriving.

Today, anyone can experience what it is like to be a cowboy. The cowboy adventure is open to anyone willing to forgo a traditional vacation with running water, electricity and the comforts of home. Instead of spending a week on a luxurious island or a trip to the remote reaches of the world, the vacationer can plant themselves in a saddle, work harder than they probably ever had all in the name of experiencing what it is like to be a cowboy. The world is still full of functioning ranches where the needs of a cowboy has outlasted technology and innovation. These ranches offer the vacationer the chance to experience the sensation of bringing a herd in, sleeping under the stars and eating the food of an American cowboy.

Work Cited

“Cowboy Brands – Ranch Symbols – Registered and Used by The THOMAS Ranch.” Thomas Ranch – A Real Working Cattle Ranch – Since 1902. Web. 04 June 2011..

“Cowboy History.” True Cowboy – The Last Cowboy Stronghold. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2011. “Cowboy Songs and Cowboy Poetry | Cowboys, Native American, American History, Wild West, American Indians | Thewildwest.org.” Home | Cowboys, Native American, American History, Wild West, American Indians | Thewildwest.org. Web. 05 June 2011. .

“Cowboy Music | Roughstock’s History of Country Music | Roughstock.com.” Country Music Songs, Video, Lyrics & News | Roughstock.com. Roughstock Staff, 21 Jan. 2009. Web. 04 June 2011. .

“PBS – THE WEST – Cowboys.”PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2011 Reddin, Paul. “Wild West Shows.” Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America. Ed. Gary S. Cross. Vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 418-421. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 May 2011. Document URL


“The Rough Riders and Colonel Roosevelt by The Theodore Roosevelt Association.” About Theodore Roosevelt: President and more, from The Theodore Roosevelt Association.. N.p., 11 July 1998. Web. 29 May 2011. Whittington, Christine. “Wild West Show.” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 8. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 475-477. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 May 2011. Document URL



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