The American Cowboy

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The American Cowboy

The cowboys of the frontier have long captured the imagination of the American public. Americans, faced with the reality of an increasingly industrialized society, love the image of a man living out in the wilderness fending for himself against the dangers of the unknown. By the year 1900 there were few renegade Indians left in the country and the vast expanse of open land to the west of the Mississippi was rapidly filling with settlers. Cowboys represented a major part of the frontier spirit and Americans were eager to keep the romanticism of the west alive. Throughout the 20th century, western-themed movies and books have been extremely popular. The cowboys of the west, while realistically a minor part of United States history, have developed into an integral part of American culture. Their popularity is a result of the independent nature they represent and the disappearing wilderness they inhabited.

In the late 1800's the American frontier expanded due to increases in population and great opportunities in the west. Immigrants from all across the world poured into the United States seeking a new life. Many of them found their way to the frontier, working mostly as farmers. The Homestead Act also encouraged settlers to move to the west. The Act stated that, "any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States…shall, from and after the first of January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter-section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands." (?????) The land was extremely cheap, provided the farmer agreed to live on the land for five years improve it and pay a small fee. Those willing to brave the frontier were therefore given the opportunity to start a new life.

Settlers risked, among other things, constant pressure from renegade Indians. The Indians of the United States had been abused for hundreds of years and their populations had shrunk to minimal proportions. The majority of the Indians were forced onto reservations by both the American Army and the decline of the buffalo, but a small percentage resisted the American Government caused trouble on the frontier. On March 3, 1871 Congress passed a bill banning treaties with Indians. Although the United States Government showed no hesitation in breaking Indian treaties, they represented the only form of power the Indians had left. All decisions regarding Indians were then made by congressional acts and executive orders. Indians fighting on the frontier were, however, fighting a losing battle. Those Indians who chose to resist the government were constantly pursued and in need of food. In 1889, the Wounded Knee Massacre resulted in the deaths of almost 400 Indians performing a peaceful dance ritual. After 1890, Indian resistance was minimal. American Indians were not given the right to vote until 1924. Indians are portrayed in western movies and literature as brutal savages and are almost always the antagonist. In reality both the settlers and Indians were to blame for the atrocities on the frontier. The Indians were left with few options other than to submit to the government or to scrape by any means possible.

To protect the settlers, the United States had to move a significant number of troops to the frontier. These soldiers, as well as Indians in reservations, had no reliable source of food considering the large number of mouths they had to feed. Ranchers in Texas saw the opportunities created by these new markets and raced to meet demands. To watch over the thousands of cattle the ranchers moved across the country they hired men to watch over the herds, these men were known as cowboys. The life of a cowboy was tough, the pay was terrible and there was never a guarantee of work. In 1859, Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight drove the first herd of cattle into the state of Colorado. They are considered the first cowboys and the...
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