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Origins of the Western Cowboy

From Africa To The American West
Origin Of The Cowboy.
Nov. 2005

After a recent query about the origin of the word, "Cowboy," I think it time I take a position about both the origin of the word as well as the origin and evolution of the American Cowboy and its relationship to the history of the Black Cowboy. The Western Cowboy lure has led to ethnic romanticisms that tend to err in fact. I wish to take three positions about the subject. My first position is that I believe the word "Cowboy" originates from the English language. My second position is that there is no such thing as a first ethnic Cowboy in the American West. The American West Cowboy is a product of a cultural synthesis. My third position is in order to understand the American West Cowboy one must understand the history of the cattle industry in the Americas, which I plan to touch on briefly.

Etymologists seem to agree that the word "Cowboy," has its origins in the English language. The English language was impacted by Rome and France at some time in their history, but etymologists trace the word Cow to its English/ Germanic rootstock, Middle English cou, Old English cu; Old High German kuo. The same source that I am using for this phase of the discussion claims that the word "Boy" originated in the 1200's, also English, and meant a male servant, not a male child. ( - 23k). The word "Cowboy" exists in medieval Ireland according to a PBS article (, which also mentions the tracking of the word to the American Revolution and referred to a Tory, or American colonist who supported the British Crown by stealing cattle from the colonial rebels. This is where we began with the evolution of the word into American English. As for the evolution of the word "Cowboy,' into the titles of U.S. slaves, there is every reason to believe that the word became the prevalent address for cattle industry laborers who were subjugated or deemed servants of English cattle owners. Writers mention "Slave Cowboys" in their studies of South Carolina and Appalachian cattle industries. They also mention slave cattle rustlers working under the direction of their masters. There is plenty of material which deals with the issue of non-servant class, free cattle laborers refusing to be called “Cowboy” during U.S. colonialism, but I do want to point out that not all underclass laborers in the colonial cattle industry were African-American slaves, some were Indian and some were White. In closing this phase of my first point, African-American slaves who worked with cattle inherited the title “Cowboy” from the English language, the word did not arise as a result of American slavery, the word was not created in Texas, Buckaroo is the transliterated word for Vaquero, not “Cowboy“, and finally, it is not a pidgin word from the numerous African languages that came to America. Africans from cattle cultures like the Fulani had there own words for people who worked with cows.

Diverse herding cultures existed on nearly every continent before Columbus brought the first European cattle to the Caribbean, and I have to leave the door open about that since the possibility of Nordic cattle being brought by the Vikings might exist earlier than Columbus. I also am including herding and hunting techniques of Native Americans and the Buffalo as a pre-American Cowboy cultural attribute. Both branding cattle and bullfighting finds its Spanish roots in Africa, but the issue is how this multi-cultural synthesis creates the American (U.S.) Cowboy. In the Colonial Americas, this synthesis begins well before the American West Frontier meets the Mexican North Frontier, it occurs during the colonial periods of both New Spain and the English Colonies. Cattle from New England went to Spain and the West Indies. The principal cattle markets of South Carolina by 1682 were the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Barbados. British troops and Creek Indians stole Spanish cattle from Florida in 1704 and added the stock to the South Carolina cattle industry. New Spain exported cattle to French New Orleans by 1750. California Mission cattle products were shipped around the horn of South America to New England before Mexican Independence in 1821. All these exchanges occurred before slave owning American settlers and Texas Hispanic citizens join in a revolt against Mexican government in Texas in 1835.

Texas seems to be the gradient factor between the Anglo-American colonial cattle culture and the Spanish -American colonial cattle culture, although Louisiana is equally important. It is reasonable to recognize Texas as a beginning for the American Western Cowboy, especially when we address the issue of the American slave cowboy, but other avenues of cultural exchange were activated after the Mexican Revolution, including Santa Fe Trail trade, Irish refugees arriving from the Potato Famine, Prussian refugees fleeing Otto von Bismark's consolidation of a German state and contact with Native American horse cultures.

Some things make the synthesized American West cowboy culturally unique from Old World or Colonial cattle herders; one is the use of tools. While Vaquero's preferred the reata and Americans preferred a gun, the American West Cowboy learned to use both. With this discussion of tools I will include an excerpt about a Black Cowboy named John Ware who ended up a Canadian Cowboy via the Carolinas, Texas and Idaho:

John Ware, Canada's Legendary Cowboy (1845-1905)

"...To keep these cattle going the right direction, it was important that the lead cattle head in the direction the cattlemen wanted them to go. It isn't quite like herding cats, but in a wide open land, it is not an easy task. One tactic was to fire a shot across the snoot of the lead cattle to make it turn. If that didn't work, the cowboy had to run in front of the cattle and force it to turn - a very dangerous and life threatening act if the steer didn't behave. But this was the sort of things that John Ware did during his drive north."

Another unique marker of the American West Cowboy was language and music. It was the time when Alpine yodeling met the African banjo and the Spanish guitar and the grandchild of the Italian violin, the fiddle. A time when Irish ballads met "The Yellow Rose Of Texas," a song that musicologist believe was written about an African-American woman and may have been written by an African-American soldier from Tennessee:
In Search of the "Yellow Rose of Texas"
by Mark Whitelaw

"...The folksong's lyrics [see Lyrics] tell of a black American (presumably a soldier) who left his sweetheart (a "yellow rose") and yearns to return to her side. "Yellow" was a term given to Americans of mixed race in those days - most commonly mulattos. And "Rose" was a popular feminine nineteenth century name; frequently used in songs and poems as a symbolic glorification of young womanhood. [Turner]"
( )
Finally, I 'll close this section with an excerpt regarding Cowboy Western music:
by Tom Faigin

"... First of all, these songs were group products or projects, not the work of one individual. The melodies were borrowed from older melodies and modified to fit the needs of the cowboys in their daily struggles. English and Scottish ballads, Irish reels, Negro spirituals, German art songs and sentimental popular songs of the day were all grist for the cowboy "song mill". "

My third position will start with the English colonies. Some colonists were known to base their wealth on their livestock, which often included slaves. New England Colonists traded cattle and other products of the earth to the West Indies, Spain and England in exchange for manufactured good and sugar products. South Carolina was known as the heart of the British-American cattle industry by 1682; their principal markets were the Bahamas, Jamaica and Barbados. South Jersey Colonists grazed cattle in salt marshes and sold to a domestic market in Philadelphia and New York. Some Colonists raised cattle just for leather, others for beef, milk products and tallow for candle making and soap. Taxes were sometimes collected in livestock, and governments constantly complained about livestock taxes being paid with lean animals. Early Colonists were not known as good agriculturalists, they were business people, pious people and government people. Recruitments were solicited back to Europe for people who knew agriculture, and they soon came, but in the mean time, Native Americans were employed either through slavery or cooperation to assist the colonist, and soon Africans with known skills, both free and enslaved, arrived to complete the Colonial cattle industry labor force. After the American Revolution, the cattle industry can be identified with such notables as George Washington, who owned Red Devon milking cattle and owned a plantation largely worked with slave labor, though Washington was reported to have purchased and traded things from his slaves.

The Colonial Spanish cattle industry was huge and directly tied to Spain and the Catholic Missions. The Spanish had diverse economics in the new world, mining, sugar and cattle and trade that reached the four corners of the earth. In the arid region of their Northern frontier, what we know now as California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, cattle grazing was sometimes the sole economic prospect until dams and irrigation techniques were developed. Spanish cattle leather often returned to the Spanish colonies as fine leatherworks such as chests, clothing and furniture. Spanish money was the earliest form of specie in the Americas, including the English Colonies, but leather hides had become a form of currency in some regions such as California, with some traders calling the hides, "California Dollars." The first original labor source for the Spanish Colonial cattle industry were Native Americans, and in many regions, such as the California Missions, it remained that way until the American (U.S.) cattle industry supplanted it. The Indian labor force was replaced by vaqueros of African and European descent as well as mixed race Mestizos after the advent of disease and repression nearly obliterated the indigenous population. As with the English colonial cattle labor force, the Spanish colonial cattle labor force were not of a class of wealth, their pay was meager and in the case of the Mission Indian Vaqueros, compensation was equal to the unpaid slaves of the English Colonies. In order to fairly demonstrate that neither the American Cowboy nor Mexican Vaquero enjoyed a glamorous economic status, I include the next excerpt regarding the Vaquero:
The Ranch in Mexico
by Joe S. Graham
"...Slowly, ranching haciendas began to replace the government as focal points of social, economic, and political life. As the hacendados (ranch owners) became more powerful, the system took a step backward toward the feudal system of Europe, since the hacendados basically ruled over everyone within the boundaries of the hacienda.
...Hacendados attempted to cut expenses by lowering wages for the vaqueros and enforcing a system of credit at the hacienda store, through which many vaqueros became "bonded" servants to the hacienda. Some vaqueros were even born into a life of debt incurred by their fathers, and many went through life never seeing their wages, which were simply credited to their store accounts."

Spanish American cattle were used by New Spain's government to support the American Revolution and they were also used to help found the Mormon Colony of Utah. The African participation in New Spain's Vaquero and Caballero labor class should always be mentioned when discussing New Spain and Mexico's historic cattle industry. There were regions and eras where they were not predominant, but they were significant to the development of the Spanish Vaquero.

The American Cattle industry in the West is also a product of a synthesis, but the idea of both land and labor exploitation stays true to the principles of capitalism. Westward expansion, and what to do with land taken from those unwilling to relinquish it, led to some of the rawest forms of society and capitalism: Spanish-American Dons with vast haciendas, Catholic Mission ranches and feudal slave run American plantations synthesis into the land of American cattle and railroad barons and foreign venture capitalists.

Brigadier General James S Brisbin, (former commander of the 6th U.S.C.T. Cavalry 1864-66) wrote a book in the 1880's titled "The Beef Bonanza, or, How to Get Rich on the Plains" The next excerpt discusses how books like Brisbin's help stimulate the American West cattle industry:
Chugwater Photos
From Wyoming Tales and Trails
"...In the 1870's, stockgrowers discovered that cattle could winter over on the northern plains. In the early 1880's speculative fever overtook the industry, fueled by books such as James Brisbin's 1881 book The Beef Bonanza, or, How to Get Rich on the Plains and J. S. Tait's brochure The Cattlefields of the Far West. Tait estimated that investors could earn profits as much as 33 to 66 percent. Indeed, some did earn large profits. Charles Goodnight made $600,000 in just ten years. His partner in the JA Ranch, John G. Adair of Ireland parlayed $360,000 to a value of $3,000,000.”

I wonder if any of those Black soldiers under Brisbin's charge followed his advice into the west and the cattle industry?

In the U.S. conquered West, American and European land barons jockeyed to dislodge Mexican landowner swith laws. They formed ranches with hundreds of thousands of acres and developed "company cattle and railroad towns" on their ranches, enforced company laws (Billy the Kid was one of those law enforcers) and hired from the existing Mexican Vaquero labor class as well as African-Americans with cattle handling experience from the English colonies, Native Americans, Irish, Germans, Swedish and Asian immigrants. Their markets switched from a predominantly foreign leather market to a predominantly domestic beef and by-products market, serving the masses of immigrants establishing towns in the West, miners, government beef for reservations and the military, and Eastern urban areas. As I did with the Vaquero, I will use an excerpt to demonstrate that the economics of the American Cowboy was anything but glamorous:
PBS - THE WEST - Cowboys
"...The cowboys' average age was 24. They were paid so badly, and worked so hard, that two-thirds of them made only one trail drive before finding something better to do. They owned their saddle, but not the horse they rode -- and they rode it day and night. "

Conclusion. Cattle and horse ownership has always been associated with wealth and prestige, even among the most ancient of our herding cultures. I remember a saying from a freed Slave narrative I read once which stated that a Negro wasn't really free until he owned a horse. With ideas of freedom and wealth associated with the ownership of horses and cattle, it should not be a surprise that the American West Cowboy has been romanticized. What is unique about this romanticism is that the owners are not the ones being glamorized but the lowly laborer. Slave cowboys were not glamourized, nothing in slave status was. Vaqueros of the Dons were not glamorized, they were also known as peons. American Cowboy‘s explain in their narratives how un-romantic their jobs were. Romanticism of the American Cowboy begins with dime store novels of cowboys meant to edify the working class, Wild West shows and rodeos like the “Millers 101 Ranch show” or “Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show," and finally Hollywood. Spanish cattle culture romanticism takes an entirely different route with Matadors and bear and bullfights and horse races to snatch a buried chicken by the head from the ground. What I believe may bother African-Americans about this topic is how this socialist twist to make the laborer the hero instead of the capitalist owner through romanticism involved “whitewashing,” the people of African descent out of the history, this was done as an artistic prerogative, not a factual standard. It would be the same as basing astronomy on Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” by the way; CNN has a 2004 article comparing a Hubble Telescope image to "Starry Night at ( It is also equally unfortunate that some Hispanic authors have decided to “Cocoanut” and minimize the role that people of African descent had in the evolution of the vaquero and caballero in Spanish America.

I'll include a final excerpt to address this issue:
"...By Guerrero's time the Black Indian skilled laborers included the vast majority in his profession of mule driving. They also included perhaps a majority of the cattle herding vaqueros, and included blacksmiths, shoemakers and other independent trades people."

My position is that the term “Cowboy” is an English term born of English culture and transferred to American English culture. In searching for the origin of the word "Cowboy," Occams Razor: "The simplest explanation is probably the right explanation," is appropriate for this issue. I also take the position that though regionalism may have provided a predominant ethnic culture of "cowboy," there is no such thing as a first American West Cowboy being defined as a specific race or culture. Considering the environmental impact that western herding practices had on the extinction and near extinction of plants and animals such as the Australian Thylacine and the California Grizzly, a Black history writer could have the motivation to minimize the role people of African descent had and simply say "the White man did it," but that wouldn't be the total truth.
There are others who agree with my synthesis theory and one writer who I feel reflects my sentiments about this issue is "Cowboy Bob," at (

Many of the statements in this article are credited to other diligent authors and researchers. If anyone needs source material, I will be happy to share it on request.

Thanks for reading Allen L. Lee

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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