Cowboys and Outlaws Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The American cowboy played a relatively short-lived but important role in the creation of the West and in its perseverance in modern times. Texas cowboys are perhaps the best known, partly because of the importance of Texas as a source for cattle, but there were cowboys throughout the West. Their work consisted of branding, grazing, rounding up, and driving cattle along established trails in order to bring them to market and satisfy the demand for beef in the East. The cowboy became known for his courage, fairness, and folk philosophy, and also, to a lesser extent, for having included in his number persons of Hispanic and African American heritage. Above all, cowboy culture was a culture of manliness. Yet, in the domestic life of cattlemen, women played a key role, too.

The American cowboy played a relatively short-lived but important role in the creation of the West and in its perseverance in modern times. Texas cowboys are perhaps the best known, partly because of the importance of Texas as a source for cattle, but there were cowboys throughout the West. Their work consisted of branding, grazing, rounding up, and driving cattle along established trails in order to bring them to market and satisfy the demand for beef in the East. The cowboy became known for his courage, fairness, and folk philosophy, and also, to a lesser extent, for having included in his number persons of Hispanic and African American heritage. Above all, cowboy culture was a culture of manliness. Yet, in the domestic life of cattlemen, women played a key role, too.

Similarly representative of the American West is the outlaw or renegade. Given the lack of formal legal institutions in the frontier region, communities were left to devise systems of their own to handle crime and public safety. For every dozen or more outlaws in an area, there were, at best, one community-designated lawman and a few earnest deputies who were charged with maintaining law and order. The matchup between outlaw and sheriff/deputy became the stuff of legend, endlessly recounted in tall tales, dime novels, and folk songs throughout the region—and beyond. The theme eventually made its way into motion pictures and television series. Today, of course, a more critical perspective is used to separate fact from fiction, history from folklore.

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