Romanticizing Cowboys

In the 1880s, “America was no more impressed by a cowboy than by a railroad employee or a shopkeeper,” according to Lynn Jacobs. That will come as a surprise to almost everyone I know, because cowboys are the embodiment of our regional heritage and culture. But that all comes from Teddy Roosevelt’s deep-seated insecurity about his own masculinity. 

“Before Roosevelt, no one wrote about cowboys with anything but disdain. They were migrant workers, seasonally employed, badly paid, ill-treated, ‘the very picture of malnutrition,’ living outdoors in miserable conditions, herding big, dumb, easily spooked, dangerous animals across inhospitable land. The cowboy came in all colors, white, black, Hispanic, Indian, but mostly he was ‘a sad spectacle,’ Lynn Jacobs wrote in Waste of the West, a history of public lands ranching. ‘He was scraggly, dirty man with tattered, ill-fitting clothes and an unmistakable smell. His poor sanitary habits, inadequate diet, alcoholic tendencies, and excessive time in the saddle made him weak and sickly. . . . When not doing mundane ranching chores, he spent his time drinking and smoking, playing cards, and generally doing little one could call exciting, heroic, romantic.'”

Updated May 21, 2020 to add link.

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