Special thanks to Gregory Hinton of the Out West exhibit and the Autry Museum of the American West for help in researching this series.
Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review. Support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/btnewberg. Research, writing, editing, and production by B. T. Newberg. Logo Design by Rachel Westhoff. Animation by Maxeem Konrardy. Additional credits, references, and more at www.historyofsexpod.com.
The cowboy – what figure could more perfectly encapsulate the American sense of what a man should really be?
Except that it doesn’t.
Actual historical cowboys, as opposed to those on the silver screen, were nothing like the image we have of them today, the rugged individualist Marlborough Man-type tough guy that saves the day, gets the girl, and ultimately rides off into the sunset alone. That man is a myth.
The myth of the manly cowboy is summed up by historian Laura Woodworth-Ney in describing the 1953 Western film Shane, from which we just heard an audio clip. She summarizes the film:
“A lone cowboy rides into the setting sun, leaving behind a white woman grateful for his aid, but sorry to see him go.” (Woodworth-Ney, p. 1)
The same words could sum up pretty much any number of John Wayne Westerns or Louis L’Amour novels which have shaped so much of the American sense of manliness.
The thing is, if you were to read that description to an actual 19th-century cowboy, they wouldn’t recognize themselves in it. The real cowboy – or cowhand, cowpoke, or cowpuncher, as he or sometimes she was called – would say it’s horse feathers.
The idea that the cowboy was a loner, always riding off into the setting sun, and that he was a heartthrob, leaving behind some women longing with desire, is just total bosh.
First, cowboys were not loners. As we’ll see today, they were closer to communalists, riding together, working together, drinking together, and even bunking together.
Second, cowboys were not heartthrobs. As we’ll also see, they were low-status chumps on the totem pole of 19th-century masculinity, who struggled to turn a “proper” lady’s glance. And we’ll see how they rebelled against that system, and found companionship and sometimes fulfilment in their own way.
What were cowboys really like? And what was their experience of masculinity?
That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
I’d like to thank our patron Stuart Hall for making this episode possible.
I’d also like to thank Gregory Hinton and the Autry Museum for special help in the preparation of this episode.
Today begins our series on the Wild West. This is going to be a multi-parter. I’m not sure quite how many parts it’ll be, but we’re going to dive deep, and look at the West from multiple perspectives: male and female; straight and queer; White, Black, and Native American; and more.
And by the way, folks, this is going to be the last series on this show, at least for a while. I’ve been struggling to keep up, and well, something’s gotta give. So we might have to take a break after this. But I’ll say this much: this is episode 58, and that’s way farther than I ever thought we’d get with this podcast! Thank you so much to you, the listener, thank you to my patrons, and everyone who’s written in. You are really what has kept me going through all these episodes. So, thank you. And now, let’s make this a series to remember. Let’s talk cowboys!
We’ve been hornswaggled, boys, but by the end of this episode, we’ll get to the truth, sound as a goose.
That’s real cowboy lingo, by the way, so far as historians can tell anyway.
(Hornswaggle: to bamboozle or deceive someone). (Sound as a goose: staunch, reliable, true).
Earlier we also heard “horse feathers”, meaning silliness, and “bosh”, nonsense. I’ve got tons of authentic frontier slang waiting for you here, and I’ll call it out when I use it.
Today, we’re talking about the historical figure that lies at the heart of American masculinity. Ever since Frederick Jackson Turner proposed in 1893 that American democracy was born on the frontier and indelibly shaped by it, the cowboy has been associated with what is most truly American. Consequently, the cowboy also lies at the heart of American masculinity, the notion of what a “real man” is like.
Of course, many (myself included) may have complicated feelings about that, and depending on your race, ethnicity, gender, and other factors, those feelings may be quite complex indeed. Nevertheless, it remains crucial to the way we American men define ourselves as freedom-loving rugged individualists who should all be able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps if only we are “man enough” to try, right?
Yet there is a disconnect between that cowboy mythos that informs our masculinity, and the actual historical cowboy who experienced manhood in a very different way. Today, we’re going to see that specifically in the image of the cowboy as a loner heartthrob.
But first, let’s get some basic context. What exactly is a cowboy anyway?
What Is a Cowboy?
Well, in the movies, “cowboy” is a pretty loose description for pretty much any kind of Wild West action hero.
In contrast, the historical figure was specifically an animal handler who worked with cattle, mainly from horseback, driving herds over open range or across family ranches, and who may have performed other ranch-related jobs as well.
Sometimes the cowboy wasn’t a boy at all, but rather a cowgirl, but I’m going to stick with the term cowboy because it was such a highly-gendered masculine profession that women who entered it, as we’ll see later in this episode, were actually viewed almost as quasi-men.
For example, Texas cowboy C. L. Sonnichsen writes that a few ranch women liked “to get out and work stock once in a while just for the fun of it,” but hastens to add that these “tomboys” were exceptional, and adds: “The neighbors of Bob Tisdale… speak with… respect of his daughter Mike, who helps on roundups and takes her part with the best of the male workers. A girl like her is the exception in cattle country, however.” It is notable that the girl is given the male moniker “Mike.” It’s almost as if working in that highly-gendered space requires her to be seen as a boy. This pattern is reinforced by the story of Amy and Elsie Cooksley, two women who rode herd after emigrating to the West from England in 1914 (after the heyday of the cowboy proper, but still relevant). Amy writes:
“We were holding herd one time while half the man had their dinner. We saw a lady and her daughter drive up to the wagon for dinner. … Our relief came out and told us we could go eat. One of the fellers said, ‘No way! I’m not going in there and eat with those women. I don’t mind Amy and Elsie and the rest of the boys. But I’m not going in with those women'” (Garceau, p 152).
Here, the two cowgirls are clearly marked as part of “the rest of the boys” and excluded from “those women.” The male space of cattle work, as Garceau notes, seems to have rubbed off on them, to such a point that they are no longer seen as women, but rather as quasi-men.
So, I want to acknowledge right at the outset that cowboys were not always male, but that it was such a male-gendered space that the word “cowboy” actually calls out that extreme gender-codedness. Nevertheless, if you want a more neutral term, cowhand, cowpoke, or cowpuncher were also popular at the time.
Now cowboy-like figures have existed in many parts of the world, including Argentina and Australia, not to mention Canada and Mexico, but since we are talking about American masculinity today, we’re going to focus mainly on the American West – that is to say, the frontier territories of these United States.
Turner’s thesis that American democracy was born on the frontier turns on the image of the open wilderness, vast and empty, free for the taking of anyone “man enough” to make something of it. Of course, this land was anything but free. These were the traditional homelands of the Dakota, the Navajo, the Cheyenne, the Ute, the Zuni, and so many other tribes. But the Native population had been decimated by centuries of disease and violence at the hands of advancing White settlers. Historian Russell Thornton estimates that by the opening of the 19th century, the Native population had been reduced to a mere 600,000 persons, and further fell to as little as 250,000 by the close of the century. So, the wilderness wasn’t empty but rather emptied by White settlers. Nevertheless, the image of the empty wilderness free for the taking continues to inform the American ideal of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, making something of yourself just as the frontier folk made something of the land.
And that frontier process goes all the way back to the earliest days of the colonies, but the cowboy profession didn’t really emerge until about the mid-19th century or so. Before that, much of the skills of the profession were developed by the northern Mexican vaquero, building on a tradition going all the way back the Iberian peninsula in Spain. These skills were picked up by settlers in the American West and applied to the emerging cattle industry in Texas and elsewhere.
The heyday of the American cowboy is mainly associated with the time span from the end of the American Civil War in 1865 to the official closing of the frontier by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1890, with a twilight extending all the way into the 1920s or so.
It is worth noting that this time span, covering the latter 19th century, was the same as the Victorian period, and this is key to understanding the masculinity of the historical cowboy. It’s easy for us to forget that Buffalo Bill and Charles Dickens inhabited one and the same world, but actual cowboys didn’t forget, because in Dickens’ world, they were low-status chumps. The ideal Victorian man was refined, genteel, and married – none of which described the typical cowboy. Marriage in particular was a point of masculine resentment. In the Victorian era, marriage was a marker of status; it meant you had made it to full manhood, and were establishing yourself as a householder and member of the community. But the cowboy had little chance at marriage. With little financial means with which to attract a wife and few “proper” ladies around on the frontier to attract anyway, he felt emasculated under this regime. He was stuck between hay and grass. (between hay and grass: neither a man nor a boy).
Nobody how old he got, he was not quite grown up, almost like a guy who still lives in his parents’ basement or something. That’s the kind of questionable masculinity cowboys faced in their own day. And as we’ll see, they ended up rebelling against this and forming their own alternative culture, almost a counterculture, that fulfilled their needs and created their own masculinity.
So, that is the broad context of what cowboys were actually like on the 19th-century American frontier. Okay, now we can zoom in on our two particular features of the cowboy as depicted in cinema, namely the cowboy as loner, and the cowboy as heartthrob. We’ll take them one at a time, and we’ll see how they stack up against actual historical cowboys.
The Cowboy as Loner
First, the cowboy as loner. This is highlighted in the very first phrase of Woodworth-Ney’s description of the movie Shane:
“A lone cowboy…”
That phrase right there already speaks volumes. “A lone cowboy” is all you really need to say to conjure the very root of American masculinity: rugged individualism. A loner, a man who don’t need no help from nobody, who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and succeeds all on his own, whose individual freedom is unquestionable. Don’t tread on me. That’s what a man is supposed to be.
Well, maybe but… it ain’t what a cowboy was, I’ll tell you that much. On the contrary, they were anything but loners. The land may have been harsh and unforgiving, but that’s precisely why cowboys were not loners. You had to rely on others to survive. And when there were so few others to rely on, you got real close to each other. Out on the range, cowboys did everything together. They drove herd together. They ate around the campfire together. They kept each other company. They told stories to each other. They went into town together, and drank together.
As historian Dee Garceau puts it: “Unlike John Wayne and his mythic forebears, cowboys were not stoic individualists. Rather, the record is poignant with their need for human companionship” (p. 154).
Cowboys did everything together. They even bunked together. That’s right, bunked together. Garceau tells us:
“Bunkies were necessary to survive cold nights on the range, where one slept in tents or under an open sky. The physical warmth of one’s sleeping partner could make the difference between freezing and survival, between sleeplessness and comfort. As range cowboy Andy Adams described it, ‘the men usually bunked in pairs.’ Since cowboys took turns riding night guard, it made sense for those on the same shift to sleep together. As Adams explained, this ‘was much better than splitting bedfellows and having them annoy each other by going out and returning from guard separately.'” (Garceau, p. 154)
The stories cowboys told about bunkies could be both humorous and poignant. Garceau quotes several. For example, Andy Adams wrote that his bunkie Paul Priest: “could use the poorest judgement in selecting a bed ground for our blankets,” but added that he “always talked and told stories to me until I fell asleep.” Another cowboy, Con Price of the Dakota Territory, related a story of one cowboy’s bunkie who “had a habit of taking a chew of tobacco in the middle of the night. As this fellow told it, ‘He would spit straight up and it would fall on my face when I was asleep.'” Finally, Con Price tells of his own bunkie, a 55-year-old cowboy they called “Grandpa”: “Between the two of us we didn’t have bedding enough to pad a crutch. … Grandpa was very cranky and was always giving me the devil for pulling the covers off of him. He would lay and moan all night, and every time I would roll over, he would holler and cuss me.” But when it came time for Grandpa to leave, Price says “He came around to bid me goodbye and apologized for being so cranky. He said, ‘You know, I have been sick and froze ever since I been with this outfit, but I am going to miss you when I go home'” (Garceau, p. 155). So there could be annoyance but also genuine affection and friendship between bunkies. As Garceau describes them, bunkies “were family – the cowboy’s alternative family, adapted to the trail drive” (p. 155).
So, there you go. Cowboys were not individualists, they lived closely with others, relied on them, and could be quite affectionate toward them.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I’m thinking it too: how often did these bunkie relationships go beyond “family”, beyond “friendship” into something more? Are we talking about a Brokeback Mountain situation here? Well, that’s difficult to suss out.
I tried really hard to find reports or diaries or anything showing same-sex love among cowboys, and there’s just not a whole lot out there. Perhaps it’s because the population was sparse and literacy was low, so it just doesn’t show up in the record. That’s just a guess. If you widen the scope a little beyond the heyday of cowboys proper, things do start to show up. Historian William Benneson has a book called Beyond Male-Male Intimacy which catalogs same-sex love between men across several centuries of the American frontier. And the Autry Museum ran an exhibit called “Out West”, curated by Gregory Hinton, which focused on alternative sexualities on the frontier. The exhibit displayed a pair of wooden chairs carved in a buffalo theme, and the history behind these chairs is revealing. They were commissioned by the Scotsman William Drummond Stuart, who traveled the American West extensively in the 1830s. There he met a French Canadian by the name of Antoine Clement, who became his lover. The chairs commemorated his time in America and no doubt his time with Clement (Ng). So yeah, some bunkies might have been friends with benefits.
But other than a few isolated incidents like that, the record is surprisingly silent. As Garceau points out, homoeroticism in actual cowboy writings is rare. Garceau believes that reading sexuality into stories of bunkies is revisionist, applying a 21st-century lens to quite commonplace 19th-century straight male behavior. But the opposite might also be true at the same time. Historian William Benemann believes it is also off the mark to explain away all such behavior as mere heterosexual chumminess; some of it may well have been sexual (p. x). As for me, for what it’s worth, I suspect most bunkies were probably just platonic friends, but it would be silly to think that none of them were lovers. There were men who loved other men in every place and time, and the American frontier was no exception. The question is just how many and which ones.
Also, we have to remember that almost no one on the frontier had ever heard of the concept of “homosexuality.” That was just starting to be formulated in Germany and England in the late 19th century, whereas the American frontier still solidly adhered to the old-style notion that same-sex love was an act, not an orientation. If you messed around with your bunkie, it didn’t necessarily cause you to rethink who you were. It was considered sodomy and went against the dictates of the church, but it was not a matter of identity. So, to wonder about homosexual cowboys back in the day is to put the question in a different way than the cowboys themselves would have put it. Those who dallied with other men would have framed things not as “We’re gay cowboys” but rather as “well, some nights get lonely out there on the range.”
But to put the question of sexuality aside for the moment, the practice of bunkies shows vividly how much cowboys relied on each other, both for survival and for companionship. They were not the classic rugged individualist who don’t need no help from nobody. On the contrary, they were practically communalists, because they had to be. Surviving on your own in a place like that was no walk in the park. You had to rely on each other, and that’s what they did.
Yet the manly cowboy of cinema, and of American masculinity, remains obstinately individualistic. It’s depicted as if survival in the wilderness demands such self-reliance, when in fact it demanded the opposite: communal reliance on one other.
That’s not the only way in which cowboys needed others, though, and this brings me to the second part of our analysis of the silver-screen wrangler: the cowboy as heartthrob. What was the cowboy’s relationship to women actually like? And if, as we’ve heard, he was the low man on the Victorian totem pole who struggled to turn a “proper” lady’s glance, how did he find companionship and fulfilment?
We’re going to find out in a second, but first, we’ll take a short break, and we’ll be back after this.
[podcast ad: California True Crime]
Alright, we’re back.
Now, let’s get to the second part of our comparison: the cowboy as heartthrob.
The Cowboy as Heartthrob
On the big screen, the cowboy is almost always charged with sexual mystery, always the object of erotic longing by some supporting female character. The film Shane boils with tension as the cowboy Shane arrives at a family ranch and there is obvious chemistry between him and the wife, leading the viewer to wonder whether he and her husband will come to blows.
It’s fantastic cinema, but it’s total burro milk. (burro milk: nonsense)
This setup is common in Westerns, and the message to American male youth is clear: embody this cowboy ideal, and women will want you.
But this was not at all the experience of the typical 19th-century cowboy. On the contrary, actual cowboys struggled to turn the heads of “proper” ladies. If they cut a rusty (cut a rusty: to court a lady) they were likely to get the mitten (get the mitten: be rejected).
We can see this summed up quite pointedly in the words of cowboy Bruce Siberts, who rode herd from the 1890s through the 1920s, in other words from the tail end of the cowboy era and into the decades when cowboys became romanticized: “‘I had a liking for the girls, but when I went into town with my rough clothes on, they wouldn’t pay any attention to me…. Owen Wister hadn’t yet written his book The Viriginian so we cowhands did not know we were so strong and glamorous as we were after people read that book” (Garceau, p. 152).
There you have it. As Siberts so wryly points out, the sexually-charged cowboy is pure romanticism. Before the publication of The Virginian, hailed as the first true fictional western novel, which paved the way for Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and so many others, girls wouldn’t give a second glance to real cowboys.
As we’ve seen, they were low men on the totem pole of Victorian masculinity. They had poor prospects for marriage, and there was something almost shameful about being an adult male and unmarried. It suggested you lacked the means to establish a household, and it also meant you lacked the “civilizing” influence of a domestic female in your life (that’s how they saw it: men tamed the wilderness, but women tamed the men). So, you wanted to marry and establish yourself in order to be recognized as fully adult. But for the cowboy, that often just wasn’t in the cards.
In addition to the stigma of being unmarried, the cowboy also took a hit from his line of work. Cattle handling was relatively low-pay and transitory work. Consequently, he was seen as something like a migrant worker. Cowboys were seen as rough, unsettled vagabonds with little in the way of fortune or marital prospects. As Garceau describes them, cowboys were “transient workers, skilled but cash-poor. … In the late Victorian mind, cowboys were drifters, morally suspect and socially crude” (p. 153-154).
So, far from being the object of every woman’s longing, the real cowboy was frankly kind of a chump. Cowboys were not hotties. The idea that he would ride through town and all the women would have to air out their drawers afterward is just downright laughable. That wasn’t at all how it was. The real cowboy struggled to turn a woman’s glance, and felt himself less of a man because of it.
Yet, that doesn’t mean he had no relationships with women. He did have plenty, just not the kind that fit the ideal of marriage to a “proper” Victorian-style lady. The cinematic image of the cowboy stumbling into a brothel and having a hog-killin’ good time (hog-killing good time: a real good time) is not that far off the mark. Many of the women on the frontier at the time, especially in the early days, were often prostitutes. There’s plenty of pay-to-play sex going on. Yet even that was not quite how you see in the movies. Truth be told, quite often the relationship between cowboys and prostitutes was complex, tender, and often tried to replicate the Victorian ideal of marriage if only as a fantasy.
A surprising amount of cowboys and prostitutes actually formed lasting relationships, what Garceau calls “fictive marriages.” These would last “longer than one night, shorter than a lifetime” (p. 154), and they would reproduce the trappings of traditional marriage.
As cowboy Teddy Blue Abbott put it: “We all had our favorites after we got acquainted. … We’d go into town and marry a girl for a week, take her to breakfast and dinner and supper, be with her all the time” (Garceau, p. 159). The fact that Abbott uses that word “marry”, and enumerates activities completely superfluous to sex, highlights the longing cowboys had for more than mere erotic pleasure. Many longed for lasting companionship. Far from indulgent one-night wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’s, cowboys and prostitutes frequently found themselves bound up in relationships that could be tender, even loving. As Garceau notes, some were in fact soft down on each other (soft down on: be in love) and did in fact jump the broom (jump the broom: get married). Many actually fell in love and legally wed, thumbing Victorian snobbery about “proper” ladies and gents in favor of a bond that fit their lived realities. They didn’t care if it was according to Hoyle (according to Hoyle: correct, by the book).
And you know, when you think about it, it kinda makes sense that cowboys and prostitutes would “get” each other, because they shared more in common than you might think on first glance. Now that we know real cowboys were seen as low-status drifters in their day, it makes sense why they found in prostitutes a kindred spirit. Garceau writes: “Sharing outsider status as socially marginal figures, range cowboys and prostitutes developed a subculture of mutual aid and friendship” (p. 159). In other words, they recognized in each other a common hardship, the opprobrium of society, and together gave a rebellious middle finger to the whole Victorian system.
Another thing they shared in common was a nomadic lifestyle. Cowboys, particularly in the early years when herds would be driven miles and miles across open country, drifted from town to town along the drive. And so too would prostitutes. Frequently, they would keep up with the drive, working in establishments for short stints along the way before moving on to the next town. They went where the work was, and so were able to maintain longer-term relationships with their clients than otherwise might be expected. So cowboys and prostitutes were alike in their nomadic lifestyle as well.
This commonality was apparently strong enough to overcome the tendency to see sex workers as less-than-persons, as related by Teddy Blue Abbott: “In Miles City that summer , I found a lot of new friends and some old ones. There was girls there that I had seen at a lot of different places along the trail. … I used to talk to those girls, and they would tell me a lot of stuff, …. and they were human, too” (Garceau, p. 159). That last phrase “and they were human, too” suggests growth and maturation achieved through the cowboy lifestyle. Victorian culture relegated sex workers to the lowest rungs of the social ladder (though not quite so low as women who used contraception – see our episode “Victorian Secret: Vice in the Victorian Era” for more on that!). So, it came as a shock to Teddy Blue Abbott to discover that the prostitutes he encountered on the trail had feelings, struggles, and aspirations just like anyone else. They were human too.
The bond between cowboys and prostitutes went further still, into the realm of economic mutual support. Far beyond the standard quid pro quo of sex work, they would sometimes extend credit to each other. For example, Teddy Blue Abbott relates:
“In the spring, when a fellow was hired he would go to his girl and say: ‘I’ve got a job, but my bed’s in soak.’ Or his saddle or his six-shooter or his horse. And she would lend him the money to get it back and he would pay her at the end of the month.” (Garceau, p. 159)
And this credit went the other way as well. “There was a girl called Eddie, that I took on after my pal Lily Davis left… she [Eddie] had just landed in Lincoln and didn’t have any good clothes… I had money, and I staked her an outfit. She paid it all back eventually” (Garceau, p. 159).
So, it turns out cowboys and prostitutes served almost like banks for each other, lending credit when they were down to the blanket (down to the blanket: broke, out of money).
This shows yet again that cowboys were hardly fine catches for a “proper” Victorian lady, but they nevertheless found companionship among those in similar straights. Cowboys were not the sex icons of Western movies, much less the hunks of bodice ripper romances, but they were men with needs, both sexual and emotional, and they often found fulfilment in the arms of those most like them: prostitutes.
So, the cowboy had a special affinity for sex workers, not just because he could have a hog-killin’ good time with them, but also because they had more in common than you might think.
But I don’t want to give the impression that cowboys only consorted with prostitutes. As the frontier years wore on, more and more women moved West, including what society considered “proper” ladies, and cowboys did sometimes marry. When they did, that was their ticket to rising social status within the mores of the day.
However, in the early years when that was more difficult, and in the later years to some extent too, cowboys really began to throw off the shackles of Victorian masculinity ideals, and form an alternative culture, almost a counterculture, that met their needs.
So, by way of conclusion, that’s the last thing I want to talk about today: the cowboy’s alternative masculinity.
The Cowboy’s Alternative Masculinity
On the frontier, excluded from traditional masculinity, cowboys began to define themselves in contrast to that masculinity.
Whereas the Victorian man was meant to be controlled and temperate in his passions, cowboys were free and indulgent. They embraced the world of the rowdy-dow (rowdy-dow: trashy, vulgar).
Cowboy Teddy Blue Abbott, whom we’ve heard from before, describes his behavior with prostitutes: “I suppose those things… would shock a lot of respectable people. But we wasn’t respectable and we didn’t pretend to be, which was the only way we was different from some others” (Garceau, p. 160). You can hear the resentment and the accusation of hypocrisy in those words. Abbott acknowledged he and his fellows weren’t “respectable” men, and portrays them as in some ways better, or more honest at least – not feigning virtue but openly embracing vice.
At the same time, sex workers were not seen merely as an opportunity to indulge that vice, a mere means to an end – at least not by reflective souls like Abbott. As mentioned earlier, he wrote of them “they’re human too”, and he adds here a thoughtful reflection on the double standard of the day: “I’ve heard a lot about the double standard, and seen a lot of it too, and it didn’t make any sense for a man to get off so easy. If I’d have been a woman and done what I done, I’d have ended up in a sporting house.” (sporting house: a brothel). So, at the same time that Abbott acknowledges and embraces the sexual license that he and his mates enjoyed on the frontier, he also recognizes the complexity of the situation, and the plight of those with whom he dallied. Of course, not every cowboy may been so thoughtful, but here at least we have a hint of the nuance with which at least some on the frontier understood their world.
Cowboys rebelled in other ways, too. One way of particular note was on ignoring class distinctions in favor of merit by skill. Garceau writes: “they did not accept Victorian class hierarchy. In their own oral and written tradtion, cowboys repositioned themselves within a hierarchy of skill suited to range life. Out on the range, a man of wealth and breeding was only a ‘tenderfoot'” (Garceau, p. 154) (tenderfoot: a newcomer, a greenhorn)
In other words, cowboys turned the Victorian hierarchy of masculinities on its head. Whereas they had previously found themselves low on the totem pole, they flipped that around so they ended up on top and “proper” men took a turn on the bottom. They accomplished this by valuing skill, specifically the skills that aided survival out on the range. If you couldn’t hack it out there, you were what they called a “mail-order cowboy” or a “Monkey Ward cowboy.” You were “all hat and no cattle”, and they laughed you out of town.
(mail-order cowboy: a tenderfoot)
(Monkey Ward Cowboy: a tenderfoot)
(all hat and no cattle: a poser)
And that is a common trope in Western films and novels: the greenhorn Easterner who comes to town all pompous but proves himself a bumbling buffoon out on the range. I guess that’s one the movies actually got right. Good job, Hollywood. Score one for you.
Lastly, cowboys rejected the shame attached to the unmarried life. As Garceau says: “Neither did cowboys accept the shame implicit in Victorian moral judgments about unmarried transients. Instead, they developed alternative family structures and celebrated the freedoms of living outside the mainstream” (p. 154). And they did so in the ways already outlined: first, by developing social bonds with each other on the range, as bunkies for example, and second, by entering into fictive marriages with the sex workers with whom they found so much in common, thumbing their noses at stuffy Victorian ideals and embracing an alternative culture of the range that was all their own.
And yet, in the end, even Teddy Blue Abbott, whom we’ve heard from so much today, gave up this alternative lifestyle for traditional norms in the end. He got married to a “decent young girl” by the name of Mary and settled down. “And that in a way writes the end to… my life on the open range… I wasn’t a cowpuncher any more. I took a homestead, milked cows, and raised a garden… I quit drinking, threw my chewing tobacco away, quit what little gambling I ever done, and started to save money… It shows you what a good woman will do for a man” (Garceau, p. 164).
So, even Abbott repented his ways in the end, and yet the fact that he wrote about his youth with such gusto betrays a wistful nostalgia for those early years in which he took on the traditional Victorian man and cleaned his plow. (clean his plow: give a through whipping)
So there you go, that’s the myth of the manly cowboy, measured against the actual historical cowboy. Turns out, the image we get from Western movies and novels, which lies at the heart of American masculinity.
The truth of the matter is the historical cowboy was less of a rugged individualist loner and more of a communalist with a poignant need for companionship. He was less of a heartthrob and more of a low-status chump rebelling against a system in which the cards were stacked against him.
We’ve been given a romanticized image, but now we’ve got it nailed to the counter (nailed to the counter: proven a lie).
Now, that is not necessarily to say that there is no value in the cowboy mythos. A myth can still be a valuable guide, even if it’s not perfectly historical.
Nevertheless, we can say for certain that as a guide to history, it’s about as handy as hip pockets on a hog (handy as hip pockets on a hog = worthless, serving no purpose)
Well, folks, that’s all I’ve got for you today. I hope you learned something; I certainly did. We’ve got more episodes coming in this series, in which we’ll look more at women, Native Americans, and cross-dressers on the American frontier. I’m gonna try to get the next one out in a month, but honestly, I’ve been struggling and if it’s not on time, bear with me. It’s coming.
If you like what we’re doing on this show, you can support us by subscribing, rating, and reviewing on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcatcher. Or you can pledge on Patreon, where $5 a month gets you a portrait drawn in the time period and culture of your choosing. I will draw you as a rowdy wrangler having a hog-killin’ good time at the brothel, or a gentle buddy bedding down with your bunkie. Or whatever you want, I’ll make you look awesome, I promise. Just go to http://www.patreon.com/btnewberg. That’s patreon.com/btnewberg.
Alright folks, I’ll see you next time. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
Armitage, Susan. “Through Women’s Eyes: A New View of the West.” In: Armitage, Susan, and Jameson, Elizabeth, eds. The Women’s West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Armitage, Susan, and Jameson, Elizabeth, eds. The Women’s West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Basso, Matthew, et al. Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Benneman, William. Male-Male Intimacy in Early America. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Boag, Peter. Re-dressing America’s Frontier Past. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011.
Cleves, Rachel Hope. “What, Another Female Husband? The Pre-history of Same-sex Marriage in America.” Journal of American History, 2015, March.
Garcaeu, Dee. “Nomads, Bunkies, Cross-dressers, and Family Men: Cowboy Identity and the Gendering of Ranch Work.” In: Basso, Matthew, et al. Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Glasrud, Bruce A., and Searles, Michael N. Black Cowboys in the American West: One the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 2016.
Gutierrez Venable, Cecilia. “Havin’ a Good Time: Women Cowhands and Johanna July, a Black Seminole Vaquera.” In: Glasrud, Bruce A., and Searles, Michael N. Black Cowboys in the American West: One the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 2016.
Haywood, C. Robert. “No Less a Man: Blacks in Cow Town Dodge City, 1876-1886.” Western Historical Quartlery, 19(2), May, 1988: pp. 161-182.
Hunter, Marvin J., Ed. The Trail Drivers of Texas. Austion, 1985.
Iverson, Peter. When Indians Became Cowboys: Native Peoples and Cattle Ranching in the American West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
Jameson, Elizabeth. “Women as Workers, Women as Civilizers: True Womanhood in the American West.” In: Armitage, Susan, and Jameson, Elizabeth, eds. The Women’s West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Morgan, Lael. Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder, and the Wild Women of Montana’s Frontier. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011.
Murphy, Mary. “The Private Lives of Public Women: Prostitution in Butte, Montana, 1878-1917. In: Armitage, Susan, and Jameson, Elizabeth, eds. The Women’s West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Ng, David. “‘Out West’ at the Autry Examines the History of Homosexuals and Transgender People in the Old West.” LA Times. 2009, Dec. 15.
Packard, Chris. Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006/2005.
Patton, Tracy Owens and Schedlock, Sally M. “Let’s Go, Let’s Show, Let’s Rodeo: African Americans and the History of Rodeo.” The Journal of African American History, 96(4): pp. 503-521, 2011.
Porter, Kenneth. “African Americans in the Cattle Industry, 1860s-1880s.” Peoples of Color in the American West. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1994. (pp.158-167). Reprinted from the original: Porter, Kenneth. “Negro Labor in the Western Cattle Industry, 1866-1900.” Labor History, 10: pp. 346-364, 366-368, 370-374, 1969.
Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Wister, Owen. “The Evolution of the Cow-puncher.” Harpers. 1895, September.
Woodworth-Ney, Laura E. Women in the American West. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008.
Sources for Authentic Frontier Lingo
Western Slang & Phrases: A Writer’s Guide to the Old West
Podcast theme music mixed from “Gregorian Chant”, “Mystery Sax”, and “There It Is” by Kevin MacLeod.
Other audio from:
“Bert and Ernie, Cowboy Bunkies” skit mixed from “The Best of Ernie and Bert (1988) (60fps)” from John Doe, “Gentle Nighttime Forest Sounds” by Life Affairs, and “Sesame Street on Harmonica” by Anthony Benedict.
Other audio from:
“Shane (1953) Trailer #1” from MovieClips Classic Trailers
“Lonely Cowboy” by ZitronSound
All narration and voice acting by B. T. Newberg
Cowboy hat and mustache from Clipart Library
3 thoughts on “The Myth of the Manly Cowboy – Sex in the Wild West”
In your research for this episode did Theodore Roosevelt come up as legitimating the “manliness”of the cowboy? I ask because he was a New York aristocrat who had cattle interests in the west. However, unlike other aristocrats he actually went out to see his holdings and even worked amongst the men (despite being an atheistic). In fact his famed “rough rider” brigade was supposedly drawn from these western frontiersmen. He deliberately cultivated the image of a quasi-cowboy to further his political career, promoting an image of being an outdoorsman who loved to engage in various “rigorous” physical activities, embodying what he viewed as the spirit of the nation should be. To me it makes sense that when you have such a popular president who embraced that lifestyle it would go a long way in making the cowboy a legitimate figure in American culture and one whom American men should look up to.
Hi JSNLoss. Yes, he sure did. I would go so far as to say Roosevelt was one of the instrumental influences. Originally gaining a reputation as overly cultivated and educated, he waged an all-out propaganda campaign to change his image to exactly what you mention. That, along with many other influences, transformed the image of American manliness. Thanks for writing in.
By the way, Teddy Roosevelt makes his way into our upcoming episode on cross-dressers in the West, so you may want to check that one out. Thanks again for pointing that out!