A Look Back At The Origins of American Stockmanship

Town and Country

Cattle drovers of the mid 19th century came from a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds.

Published on: January 3, 2014

Some time off over the holiday week was just what I needed to catch up with friends and family. Although I didn't have the chance to travel the West like I would have if it were a warmer time of year and I weren't snowbound on the home place, I did familiarize myself better with the West, albeit vicariously, through the eyes of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian narrator, known only as the kid.

I'll spare readers the details of McCarthy's work. Anyone who has read any of his books knows they have their fair share of violence and archaic language. While having to look up a new word nearly every other sentence, one thing that stood out was the hospitality and diversity of the cattle drovers encountered in the violence-saturated 1840s Texas. The cattlemen the kid encounters were heading to Louisiana, possibly part of the Opelousas Trail to New Orleans – the destination of many cattle drives before the rail heads were established in Missouri and Kansas.

Diverse origins of the American cattleman

In both the kid's account, and U.S. history, these groups of early cattlemen showed a surprising amount of ethnic diversity for the time. The traditional cowboy's roots in Spanish vaqueros are common knowledge – despite it being considered an American tradition. According to the Texas State Historical Society, the vaqueros of the southwest had a lot in common with and served as a heavy influence on Anglo cowboys, since Spanish ranches were already in place when Anglos settled in southwestern states like Texas. They passed stockmanship skills along to Texas cowboys, which were mixed with Anglo techniques and spread to the Great Plains.

The origins of U.S. cattlemen expanded during the 1800s, including both former Union and Confederate soldiers from the Civil War, African-American freedmen, in addition to American Indians and Mexicans already working as cowboys, according to John W. Malone's An Album of the American Cowboy. According to Malone, the west was a place where discrimination wasn't quite as common as the rest of the United States, although most cowboys were among the lowest members of the social ladder. Despite this diverse reality, it's not something you'll see in most Western genre films, with a few exceptions.