Encyclopedia Article


The name given to an individual who tends to and manages livestock on ranches in North America, and sometimes transports them from one place to another. The American cowboy is a descendant from the colonial Spanish vaquero, who performed a similar function in the northern provinces of New Spain. Although cowboys gained notoriety in the "wild west" of the nineteenth century, there are still modern day cowboys, who manage large numbers of livestock on ranches or compete in rodeos.

The figure of the cowboy became very popular in the first half of the twentieth century, due in large part to the prevalence of the Western genre in pulp fiction as well as in cinema. The Western usually portrayed the cowboy as a tough, rough, unwilling and unexpected hero, an outsider who protected women and fought for justice, albeit sometimes in unjust ways. In these fictional portrayals, the cowboy tended to prevail over Native Americans, Mexicans, and other dark-skinned characters in an implicit re-imagining of the colonizing mythos perpetuated by the U.S.'s belief in its Manifest Destiny to push ever further West toward a receding frontier. "Cowboys" did, in fact, along with the American government, kill many Native Americans, making their portrayal as "heroic" loners controversial. Moreover, the persistent representation of the "dying Indian," defeated at the hands of the iconic cowboy,within the Western genre dimishes the significance of the resistance efforts of numerous indigenous peoples across the continent as they attempted to protect their people and their traditional homelands.

Photo Credit: 

"Unidentified cowboy on bucking horse," Tex Austin Collection, Palace of the Governors Photo Archive, New Mexico History Museum (200061).

Published Works: 
Term Type: