Rewriting History: How the Cowboy Came to Be White


One of the reasons I wanted to make Ferr a Black-presenting character in The Bull by His Horns was to address the cultural myth that all cowboys were white. Over time, the history of people of color working as cowboys in America’s Wild West has been lost, erased. It was replaced with the myth of a white cowboy.

Bill Pickett, a Black cowboy, in cowboy gear.

Why and how did this happen? At the root, we know exactly why it occurred: racism. Ultimately, Ferr isn’t a Black character. (He’s an alien.) I still think it’s worth a turn through the history of the cowboy to see just how the annals have been rewritten in service of white patriarchy.

So, let’s get started.

Cowboy Lingo Evolves in the Southwest, with Latinx People

What we know as “cowboy culture” largely migrated from Spain, with the Spanish conquistadors. Known as vaqueros in the New World, they were tied to the southern portions of the country—particularly Andalusia.

If you’ve studied Spanish or medieval history, then you know this province was al-Andalus, home of the Moors. The Moors were Arabian and African Muslims who migrated from North Africa into Spain. They most likely brought with them a culture of herding, and the climate of al-Andalus was well-suited to raising cattle.

This 1875 painting shows vaqueros in California herding cattle. One of the men in the foreground is a person of color.
California was once under Spanish rule, which is why James Walker could paint Californian vaqueros.

They brought this with them when they came to the Americas. The southwestern reaches of what we today know as the United States has a similar climate—desert-like, mountains, big open expanses. That makes it perfect for cattle ranching.

(We might also note here that the plains were home to herd animals like buffalo, which Indigenous peoples followed. This will be important in a minute.)

We can see this history reflected in the language used to describe various implements associated with cowboys. “Lasso” and “lariat” both have Spanish origins; chaps is short for chaperro, a word that’s connected to chaperral, which is what chaps protect cowboys from.

Roaming the Range

It’s important to note how cattle ranching was typically practiced. Herds were left to wander large expanses of open range, and cowboys typically followed the herds. (Today, there’s very little in the way of truly open range, unlike the late 1800s.) In the 19th century, they were also responsible for herding the cattle to market.

Cowboys were often out on the range, guiding herds to better grazing, helping them ford rivers, and so on. They’d also protect the herd from predation by wild animals, like wolves.

Given the movement of these large herds, you needed at least a few people to follow them around.

Indigenous peoples who were forced from their land on the Great Plains may have found a place in cattle ranching. Their ancestral knowledge of following the great, roaming herds of buffalo would have proved invaluable. Local Indigenous peoples would also have more knowledge of the land, including the best spots for grazing, local weather patterns, and so on.

Indigenous and Black Presence in the West

Indigenous peoples from the plains may have ended up in the Spanish American territories as the United States expanded. As American civilization rolled west, so too did Indigenous peoples—pushed out of their lands by white colonizers.

It’s doubtless that Black people also entered the picture here. Enslaved Black people were brought to Spanish America and British North America alike.

Escaped slaves from the US often tried to make their way out of American territory, into Spanish holdings or Mexico. In fact, that was part of the reason the US even brought Florida in as a state. The US government was concerned about Spanish authorities not “doing anything” about runaway slaves, who were viewed as a threat.

Mexico declared independence from Spain and outlawed slavery, freeing the last slaves before 1830. New Spain also pushed for abolition. Spain itself was later.

The Economics of Ranching

Nat Love, pictured here with a rifle and cowboy gear, went West when slavery ended.
After slavery ended, Nat Love sought his fortunes in the West, becoming one of its most famous Black heroes.

One of the jobs that awaited these newly freed persons was likely ranching.
That held true when the United States admitted several new states to the Union in the mid-19th century. There was a good deal of argument about whether these states would be slave-states or free-states. In the meantime, flight from existing slave-states to newly created free-states was almost inevitable. People may have freed themselves by purchasing freedom, been freed by decree of a master, or simply running away.

Even after the Civil War, we see this pattern continuing. Newly free Black people may have left states like Alabama and Georgia to seek their fortunes further west. They may have been drawn there by the promise of land, or by the hope of social conditions somewhat different from the former slave states. (These states often created working conditions that were little better than slavery, with systems aimed at upholding the status quo.)

Why Cowboys?

There are a few reasons Black people and Indigenous folks may have become cowboys. The first is that it’s back-breaking, lonely work. Cowboys work long hours and are often far from home. They work in all types of weather. Their living often takes them quite far from the “creature comforts” of home and civilization. This would have been even more true in the 1800s and early 1900s. So, then as now, fewer white people would have wanted to take up the job.

We might also imagine that being a cowboy paid perhaps slightly better than some of the other jobs available. It’s considered more “skilled” labor than some other types of agricultural work. In colonial Mexico, caballeros and vaqueros had relatively high social standing.

There may have been a sense of opportunity that didn’t exist with other types of agricultural work. And certainly, some people may have seen it as offering them more “freedom,” even if the work was unforgiving. Some Indigenous people who took up cowboy jobs, for example, may have felt it offered them a lifestyle that more closely echoed their ancestral lifeways.

Of course, there’s also an element of control here too. The ranch owners were almost invariably whites. People of color may have been willing to work for lower wages, especially given the nature of the work. And sending cowboys off into the wilderness in small groups was a way to keep people of color from congregating in urban areas or “being idle.”

That, in turn, reduced their potential to be any kind of “threat” to social order. Divide and conquer, right?

Given that, it’s likely that wealthy white ranchers saw plenty of advantages in employing non-whites as cowboys.

So, Where Did We Get the Idea Cowboys Were Mostly White Guys?

The American West has become romanticized and mythologized in the American psyche, and with it, the myth of the cowboy. As “civilization” continued its westward push, more white settlers came into contact with the ranchers. They then wrote cowboy novels for the educated masses living “safe” lives in the east.

The romantic myth of the noble cowboy shares similar roots with other “explorers.”

There was likely some drive to get people take up land and “fill up” the empty expanses of America. There was also suggestion that going west would give opportunity to young people who were finding the east too crowded. The best farmland was all taken up, and people, looking for a better life, traveled west to seek their fortunes.

The Cowboy as Civilizer

Romanticized tales about cowboys and explorers, pioneers and homesteaders fulfill the same purpose. They’re all meant to convince people of the noble cause and grand opportunity that awaited them.

The cowboy, as he moves into literature and the social consciousness, thus becomes a noble figure. He is both wild—an adventurer, a knight willing to brave the elements and risk life and limb—and he is a kind of “civilizer.”

He tames the wild beast and herds the half-feral cows that roam the American range. And so too does he tame the wild land itself—America’s last frontier.

Behind the cowboy come stage coaches and railways, damsels in distress and postal services and other markers of civilization. The cowboy tames much more than a bucking bronco or a bull. He tames the American West, making it habitable for “gentle people”—particularly fragile white women.

A Medieval Knight for the Modern Age

Thus the cowboy becomes a modern form of the medieval knight. He is masculine and daring, yet he is principled and chivalrous. This is where our myth of the cowboy comes from. He’s a rugged man who is always willing to stand on principle to protect what’s right, who has a way with both women and the beasts he tames.

So of course the cowboy must become white. In the white imagination, civilization is associated with white people. Women uphold civilization, but men tame nature and bring it to heel. To do that, they must be a little wild. But the love of a “good girl” will always bring them back. The cowboy, much like the medieval knight, is chivalrous.

We also know that the medieval knight was coopted by eugenicists and white supremacists. In much the same way, the cowboy was turned into a figure of white masculinity, white civilization, and, of course, white supremacy.

A medieval suit of armor.
There’s a chance the guy in this suit of armor isn’t white either. (Mike/ Pexels.com)

In coopting the cowboy this way, the reality that most cowboys were actually Black, Latinx, or Indigenous is erased. The cowboy, like the medieval knight, becomes a whitewashed legend, designed to support the myth of white supremacy.

That’s not to say there weren’t white cowboys or there weren’t mixed groups that felt strong bonds with each other. Much like soldiers, cowboys who “served” together maybe felt some affinity and loyalty for one another.

Always a Sidekick, Never a Hero

The cowboy myth is the bigger problem here, since it seeks to reduce Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people to bit players. In doing so, it supports the idea that white people are always the heroes or leaders. Non-white people are merely support crews. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people weren’t sidekicks. Rather, they would have been members of the team or even “heroes” in their own right. In some cases, white people may have been missing from the field operations almost entirely.

Of course, the sidekick issue shows up if the narrative even deigns to mention them. A good deal of cowboy novels present an all-white world. Indigenous peoples exist “outside” civilization, often as raiding bands. Black people disappear from the landscape almost entirely. There’s often a myth there were no Black people in these places.

None of that is true–in fact, it’s debatable that “the west” was ever all that wild. Before colonizers showed up, many Indigenous peoples lived there (and many still do). Black populations didn’t spring up overnight with abolition in the US. Many Black people have much longer roots in “the Wild West” than the myth of the white cowboy wants to give credit for.

Dismantling the Myth?

So again, we find history being coopted and romanticized to support a particular narrative–one that upholds a white supremacist view of “how the west was won.”

The book cover for The Bull by His Horns.
Obligatory book cover post.

It romanticizes the colonization of the west. It sanitizes it for a white audience, purposefully erasing or recasting people of color whose presence might otherwise undermine the story.

So, although Ferr isn’t a Black character, this is what I had in mind when I took on the “cowboy trope” in The Bull by His Horns. And maybe, somewhere in here, there’s still something to be said for turning the myth upside down and inside out. After all, in this book, it’s the white man who has to be tamed by the cowboy’s hand.

About the author


By Cherry

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