Traditionally, a cowboy is a cattle herder taking care of large herds usually on horseback. The word ‘cowboy’ seems to be a direct translation of the Spanish ‘vaquero’ meaning ‘a horse-riding livestock herder.’ An American English word for cowboy is ‘buckaroo’ which might have been derived from the Arabic ‘buqra’ meaning ‘cow.’ The historic American cowboy arose from the Spanish vaquero tradition. The sparse growth of grass required long and wide stretches to be traversed for grazing; therefore, horse riding was more a need than a luxury. In the 19th century, the cowboy became a figure of special significance on account of rounding up the wild horses of the Mustang breed. The use of the barbed wire fence in the 1880s helped to control herds in specified areas. The cowboy is an American icon. Time magazine referred to George Bush’s foreign policy as ‘Cowboy Diplomacy,’ and Bush has been described as a ‘cowboy’ in Europe. President Theodore Roosevelt also had cowboy traits. In 2005, the United States Senate declared the fourth Saturday of July as the National Day of the American Cowboy.
1. Billy the Kid
Popularly known as Billy the Kid, William Henry McCarty, Jr., was also variously known as William H. Bonney, William MacCarty, Henry Antrim, and Kid Antrim. He was born to Patrick Henry McCarty and Catherine McCarty on November 23, 1859 and died of a gunshot in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, U.S. on July 14, 1881 at the young age of 21. He was a famous figure during the Lincoln County war. Billy the Kid was popularly known as Bonney during the peak years. He was 5’9’ tall and one of the best gunmen of his time. He was fair complexioned with blue eyes and liked to dress neatly. He was a legendary figure, and it was said that he killed 21 men during the 21 years of his life, but the factual figures range from 4 to 9. Lew Wallace, the governor of Mexico, placed a price on his head. The
Las Vegas Gazette and the New York Sun wrote about his activities.
2. Kit Carson
Christopher Houston ‘Kit’ Carson was born to Rebecca Robinson and Lindsey Carson in Madison County on December 24, 1809 and died in Fort Lyon, Colorado, U.S. on May 23, 1868 at the age of 58. He is remembered as an American frontiersman, trapper, and a farmer. He started working at a saddle maker’s shop in the settlement of Franklin, Missouri at the age of 14. At the age of 16 he joined a large merchant caravan heading towards Santa Fe. He was assigned the typical cowboy job of tending the horses, mules, and oxen. One of his elder brother’s colleagues, Mathew Kinkead, taught him the skills of a trapper. Carson started learning languages and became fluent in: Spanish, Navajo, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute. The Fremont Expedition reports sealed Carson’s image as a public hero. Charles Averill wrote a Carson action novel titled, Kit Carson; The Prince of Gold Hunters. Carson was brevetted to the rank of General, and he is probably the only person who could not read or write and was promoted to such a high rank in the U.S. Army as a result of his deeds.
4. Buffalo Bill
William Fredrick Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill, was born to Canadian parents Isaac and Mary Cody in Le Claire, Iowa on February 26, 1846. He died of kidney failure in Denver, Colorado, U.S. on January 10, 1917 at the age of 70. He is remembered as an icon of the American Old West and became famous as a bison hunter and cowboy showman. The U.S. Army employed him as a scout for Indians, and he also hunted and killed bison to supply the Army with rations. Buffalo Bill was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action during his services to the U.S. Army as a scout.
5. Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok, popularly known as Wild Bill Hickok, was born in Troy Grove, Illinois, U.S. on May 27, 1837 and died in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, U.S. on August 2, 1876. He is a folk hero of the American Old West. His cowboy skills as a gunfighter and scout earned him fame. He came to the West as a stagecoach driver and became a lawman in Kansas and Nebraska. During the American Civil War, he fought for the Union Army. He was honored with a star on the Texas Trail of Fame. He was involved in many well-known shootouts. He was a professional gambler. He was shot and killed while playing poker in the Number Ten Saloon, Deadwood, in the Dakota territory.
6. John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Harden was born to James ‘Gip’ Hardin and Mary Elizabeth Dixson in Bonham, Texas, U.S. on May 26, 1853 and died in El Paso, Texas, U.S. on August 19, 1895 at the age of 42. He was an American outlaw, gunfighter, and a controversial folk hero of the Old West. He was not at ease with the law enforcing authorities who had been mostly trying to find him from his hideouts. He was captured in 1878, and the newspapers of the time attributed 27 killings to him. In August, 1895, John Selman, Sr. shot and killed him in the Acme Saloon, El Paso, Texas.
7. Frank ‘Pistol Pete’ Eaton
Frank Boardman Eaton, known as Pistol Pete Eaton, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, U.S. on October 26, 1860 and died in Perkins, Oklahoma, U.S. on April 8, 1958 at the age of 97. Eaton was a cowboy, scout, Indian fighter, and Deputy U.S. Marshal for Judge Isaac C. Parker who was reputed as the ‘hanging Judge.’ When Eaton was eight years old, his father was shot and killed by six of his old colleagues. His father’s friend Mose said to him, ‘My boy, may an old man’s curse rest upon you if you do not try to avenge your father.’ He taught him to handle a gun. In appreciation of Eaton’s outstanding performance in several competitions, the commanding officer of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma gave him a marksmanship badge. He killed five of his father’s murderers while the sixth was killed by someone else. Frank Eaton was posthumously honored on March 15, 1997 by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
8. John King Fisher
John King Fisher was born to Jobe Fisher and Lucinda Warren Fisher in Collin County, Texas in the year 1854 and died during an encounter when he was shot 13 times on March 11, 1884. His father was a cattleman. King Fisher was handsome and mercurial, but he was popular among girls. He was arrested for a horse theft and sentenced to two years imprisonment but was released the same year in consideration of his age. After his release, he started working as a cowboy and soon formed a band of outlaws. He was very fast with his gun and had been arrested many times. Although he was known as a troublemaker, yet he was liked in his area.
9. Pat Garrett
Pat Garrett was born in Chamber’s County, Alabama on June 5, 1850 and died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, U.S. on February 29, 1908 at the age of 57. Leaving his home in 1869, he found work as a cowboy in Dallas County, Texas. In 1878 he killed a hunter colleague in defense when he charged Pat with a hatchet on a disagreement over buffalo hides. He was sheriff of Lincoln County and is best known for killing Billy the Kid who had allegedly murdered 21 men. On December 19, 1890 Pat Garrett killed a member of Billy the Kid’s gang, and Billy himself was arrested a few days afterwards, but he escaped by killing a guard. Garrett kept a constant watch over his movements and ultimately shot and killed him in his hideout.
10. Charles Goodnight
Charles Goodnight was born in Macoupin County, Illinois, U.S. on March 5, 1836 and died on December 12, 1929 at the age of 93. He was a cattle rancher and, according to J. Frank Dobie the historian, he ‘Approached the greatness more nearly than any other cowman of the history.’ In 1846 he moved to Texas and became a cowboy and joined the militia in fighting against Comanche raiders. Goodnight is also known for having preserved a herd of native bison which survives even today. He developed a new breed which he called ‘Cattalo’ by crossbreeding buffalo with native cattle. Charles Goodnight’s statue has been fixed outside the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum at the West Texas A&M University campus.
A cowboy is an embodiment of agility, skill, and fearlessness. Unlike guerilla warfare, the cowboy likes to meet the challenge face-to-face. Quite a few of them were dexterous enough to toss a coin in the air and take out their pistol and shoot at it before it fell on the ground. Adversity in early childhood has usually been behind the making of some great cowboys who were invariably blessed with the virtue of courage not so easily achievable through formal training.