The term cowboy was first used in Texas in the 1860s to describe the work of men controlling cattle on horseback. After the American Civil War there was a great demand for meat in the northern and eastern parts of the United States. It is estimated that at this time there were over 5 million Longhorns in Texas.

The task of the cowboy was to take part in cattle drives where cattle were driven from Texas to the railroad cowtowns of Abilene, Dodge City, Wichita and Newton. The cattle business eventually spread to Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.

As well as driving cattle to the cowtowns the cowboys were responsible for branding them with the owners's identifying mark on the hides of the animal. The cowboy wore chaps over his levis to protect his legs from the bush. He carried a lariat which he used to catch and secure the cattle. The rope would then be wrapped round the horn on his saddle.

Famous cowboys included Nat Love, Billy the Kid, Clay Allison, Dick Brewer and John Wesley Hardin. Cowboys were paid about ten dollars a week. After a long cattle drive they would often spend the money on drink, prostitutes and gambling in the railroad cowtowns.

Primary Sources

(1) D. W. Wilder, Annals of Kansas (1882)

The typical cowboy wears a white hat, with a gilt cord and tassel, high-top boots, leather pants, a woolen shirt, a coat, and no vest. On his heels he wears a pair of jingling Mexican spurs, as large around as a teacup. When he feels well (and he always does when full of what he calls "Kansas sheep-dip"), the average cowboy is a bad man to handle. Armed to the teeth, well mounted, and full of their favorite beverage, the cowboys will dash through the principal streets of a town, yelling like Comanches. This they call "cleaning out a town."

(2) Kansas State Record (5th August, 1871)

Before dark you will have an opportunity to notice that Abilene is divided by the railroad into two sections, very different in appearance. The north side is literary, religious and commercial, and possesses... Wilson's Chronicle, the churches, the banks, and several large stores of various description; the south side of the road is the Abilene of "story and song," and possesses the large hotels, the saloons, and the places where the "dealers in card board, bone and ivory" most do congregate. When you are on the north side of the track you are in Kansas, and hear sober and profitable conversation on the subject of the weather, the price of land and the crops; when you cross to the south side you are in Texas, and talk about cattle, varied by occasional remarks on "beeves" and "stock." Nine out of ten men you meet are directly or indirectly interested in the cattle trade; five at least out of every ten, are Texans. As at Newton, Texas names are prominent on the fronts of saloons and other "business houses," mingled with sign board allusions to the cattle business. A clothing dealer implores you to buy your "outfit" at the sign of the "Long Horns"; the leading gambling house is of course the "Alamo," and "Lone Stars" shine in every direction.

At night everything is "full up." The "Alamo" especially being a center of attraction. Here, in a well lighted room opening on the street, the "boys" gather in crowds round the tables, to play or to watch others; a bartender, with a countenance like a youthful divinity student, fabricates wonderful drinks, while the music of a piano and a violin from a raised recess, enlivens the scene, and "soothes the savage breasts" of those who retire torn and lacerated from an unfortunate combat with the "tiger." The games most affected are faro and monte, the latter being greatly patronized by the Mexicans of Abilene, who sit with perfectly unmoved countenances and play for hours at a stretch, for your Mexican loses with entire indifference two things somewhat valued by other men, viz: his money and his life.

It may be inferred from the foregoing that the Texan cattle driver is some what prone to "run free" as far as morals are concerned, but on the contrary, vice in one of its forms, is sternly driven forth from the city limits for the space of at least a quarter of a mile, where its 'local habitation" is courteously and modestly, but rather indefinitely designated as the "Beer Garden." Here all that class of females who "went through" the Prodigal Son, and eventually drove that young gentleman into the hog business, are compelled to reside. In the amusements we have referred to does the "jolly drover" while the night away in Abilene.

Day in Abilene is very different. The town seems quite deserted, the "herders" go out to their herd or disappear in some direction, and thus the town relapses into the ordinary appearance of towns in general. It is during the day, that, seated on the piazzas of the hotels, may be seen a class of men peculiar to Texas and possessing many marked traits of character. We allude to the stock raisers and owners, who count their acres by thousands and their cattle by tens of thousands.

(3) The Pueblo Chieftain (June, 1878)

The cowboy is apt to spend his money liberally when he gets paid off after his long drive from Texas, and the pimps, gamblers and prostitutes who spend the winter in Kansas City and other large towns, generally manage to get to the point where the boys are paid off so as to give them a good chance to invest their money in fun.

The people who own Dodge City and live there do not look with favor on the advent of these classes, and only tolerate them because they cannot well help themselves. They follow the annual cattle drive like vultures follow an army, and disappear at the end of the cattle driving and shipping season. It is this feature of the business that makes people averse to the Texas cattle business coming to their towns, and Dodge has already a strong element opposed to cattle coming there to be shipped.