No, Hollywood didn’t create the mythical cowboy. Cowboys did exist and they still do, but the definition is off. Hollywood uses the term ‘cowboy’ to describe any character from the Old West, whether that’s explorers, gunfighters, gamblers, or settlers; lawmen or outlaws. But in reality, the vocation of ‘cowboy’ is someone who works with cows, and Hollywood doesn’t depict a lot of them. It depicts a lot of people in cowboy hats instead.
In the 1880s, most of the cowboys from the Old West were just kids from old Texas. They had no chance for adventure, or even a meagre fortune, other than to go north with a herd of cattle. They were dirt-poor farmers. They would ride the cow boss’s horses and do his work. Then in the fall, when they got to Dodge, Kansas, they’d buy their first pair of cowboy boots.
There are a few solid yet fictional portrayals of cowboys in the Old West that had some measure of popularity, such as John Wayne’s Red River (1948), which was a cattle drive movie. The best portrayal of cowboys in the Old West was the 1989 TV series Lonesome Dove. The show was based on a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Larry McMurtry about two cattle drivers who took their livestock from Texas to Montana. It’s an epic story with lots of twists and turns, but it was based on real western events regarding a couple of guys called Charlie Goodnight and Oliver Loving who were retired Texas Rangers. McMurtry combined different stories and embellishes them – for example, Goodnight didn’t actually get as far as Montana – but it was all very plausible. You can tell the McMurtry got stories from a lot of historical books, plus tales from the old trail drives.
To some degree the violence did go on. A lot of the scenes you see in old westerns are pretty close, but those famous duels were rare. If you were to watch [TV show] Gunsmoke, Matt Dillon has a duel about once an episode where he shoots down somebody. Only a handful of those events actually happened, but there was a lot of violence in the West, no doubt about that. Gunfights did take place.
The OK Corral really did happen too. Prostitution was rampant – cowboys coming up the trail at the age of 19, 20 would get to town and that was certainly on their list of things to do. And bounty hunting went on too. The most famous were the US Marshals out of Judge Isaac Parker’s court in Fort Smith, Arkansas. All the outlaws would hide in Native American territory in Oklahoma so the US Marshals would go in to round them up. For the ones that wouldn’t come back willingly, the marshals received a bounty.
It was a very brief time, maybe 20 to 25 years of American history. But it’s supported a film history that has lasted for longer than 50 years.
Monument Valley: the actual West was a bit more varied than this.
One of my personal peeves is about how Hollywood portrays the Old West in its filming locations. [Director] John Ford’s movies were all based in events that happened all over the West, from the plains to Texas to the mountains. But his one location for filming was Monument Valley. People who don’t understand geography well – or who learned all their geography from Westerns – think Texas looks like Utah.
Mosey on over to American Cowboy magazine here.