One of the 4 themes in our current exhibit, Picturing the American West, highlights artworks that depict the long-standing narratives of Cowboys vs. American Indians. But as scholars have shown, the conflicts between “cowboys and Indians” are more myth than reality, and were often the product of imagination from dime store novels and popular “Westerns” of film and television.

An indigenous American man in a feathered war bonnet and shield and a cowboy wearing a white hat and bandana, ride galloping horses and aim at one another with pistols.

Attack on the Herd (Close Call) | Charles Schreyvogel | c. 1907 | Oil on canvas | 26.125 x 34.25 inches

Many who joined the cattle drives of the late 19th century were of African, Mexican, and Indigenous descent.  In fact, cowboy culture can trace its roots to many different cultures from all over the world. Michael Grauer – the McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture and Curator of Cowboy Collections & Western Art at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum – recently explored the origin stories of western horse cultures with Sid Richardson Museum audiences. In his presentation, Grauer demonstrated how the evolution of the American cowboy is a coalescence of traditions, clothing styles, and technologies from around the world.

Cowboy culture in the American West can be traced to the Spanish tradition of the vaquero.  These were the workers, not the ricos or the wealthy caballeros. What’s the difference between a vaquero and a caballero? A caballero was a gentleman on horseback and a vaquero was a worker on horseback who worked the cattle. The caballero owned the ranch where the vaquero worked, and was often known as a well-dressed man. “Born to the saddle, stylish in his trappings, fearless in his horsemanship, the caballero was one of the most dashing riders the world has ever seen.” – Jose Cisneros, 1984

A black leather saddle decorated with sterling silver on a wooden armature next to a matching vest and chaps.

Parade Saddle | Edward Bohlin | 1947 | Leather, sterling silver, stainless steel, mohair, wool fleece, and wood [Original saddle blanket not displayed]

In his research, Grauer discovered how the technique of riding horseback evolved overtime. The regions around China and India developed the one toe thong stirrup to help the rider stabilize on the horse. In Europe, the stirrup allowed for the evolution of a riding style called A la brida, which entailed riding deeply seated, keeping the leg outstretched, knees locked and the feet forward. From North Africa to Spain to North America, horsemen adopted a riding style called A la jineta, or “up in the air.” Inspired by the technique of Arab warriors, this riding style provided a more mobile way to move around the saddle and do more work from the back of the horse, such as herding animals.

A man rides a brown horse with a city in the background.

The Sentinel | Frederic Remington | 1889 | Oil on canvas | 34 x 49 inches

What we know best of cowboys is from the time of the trail drives after the Civil War, when cowboys would drive cattle from land owned by Tejano rancheros down in south Texas and travel up north. Who worked on those cattle drives? Scholars have identified that 1 in 5 cattle trail workers was a cowboy of color, either Hispanic or African American. At that time, most cowboys in south Texas were Hispanic, and along the Texas coast the majority of cowboys were Black. As the cattle drive traveled up the trails, Native Americans joined, so the crews were very much mixed.

Three cowboys on horseback rope a cow with horns.

When Cowboys Get in Trouble (The Mad Cow) | Charles M. Russell | 1899 | Oil on canvas | 24 x 36 inches

Working alongside vaqueros, Anglo cowboys learned and adopted their tools and techniques. Artist Frederic Remington was well aware of the vaquero and his influence on the Anglo cowboys. He once chided his friend and Western writer Owen Wister for tracing the genealogy of the Western cowboy to that of the knights of medieval Europe. In a letter to Wister, Remington corrected his friend, noting that the traditions of the cowboy were of Latin origin and evolved from Mexico and Texas.

Two men on horseback are roping a steer in an open landscape.

Roping the Renegade | Charles M. Russell | c. 1883 | Watercolor, pencil & gouache on paper | 12.5 x 16.625 inches

From the Middle East to West Africa, from North Africa to Spain, from Spain to Central America, the evolution of the American cowboy has been enriched with techniques and traditions from all over the world.

A cowboy with a lasso gallops on a horse towards the viewer.

The Cow Puncher | Frederic Remington | 1901 | Oil (black & white) on canvas | 28.875 x 19 inches

“A cowboy without a rope is like a man without arms,” (Albert “Lolo” Trevino, King Ranch vaquero)