What is a cowboy?

Ask the Marshall – Cowboy

What is a cowboy?

Billy Murphy
Las Cruces, New Mexico

A cowboy is generally considered to be someone who tends cattle herds on North American ranches—usually from horseback. Historically, cowboys were regarded as independent, self-reliant, resourceful, proud, fearless and sometimes reckless.

The word “cowboy” in the United States dates to the Revolutionary War, when British Tories used cowbells to lure Patriot herdsmen into the woods for ambush. “Cowboy” became synonymous with “rustler” during the 1880s due to the outlaw cowboys running around Arizona’s Cochise County.

The best descriptions I’ve heard of cowboys is a composite of sayings I have gathered over the years: “Noisy fellers with bow legs and brass stomachs that work from the hurricane deck of a half-broke cow horse. They live in and love the outdoors; hate fences and respect rivers; throw one of ’em into a river, and he’ll naturally float upstream. The only way to get rid of one is to cut off his head and bury it someplace where he can’t find it.”

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official state historian and the vice president of the Wild West History Association.  His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen.

If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu

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