Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Cowboys in early frontier fiction

Cowboy, 1898
The cowboy western originated with the dime novels of the nineteenth century. These were exaggerated tales of adventure in the Wild West. But when did cowboys first appear in mainstream popular fiction?

Vaqueros. In early examples, set in California, they appear as vaqueros, and remind us that the actual horsemen who herded cattle in the frontier West were itinerant agricultural laborers. In Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don (1885), a californio ranch owner has vaqueros among his employees. They figure into the plot as a herd of cattle are driven through a winter storm in the mountains above San Diego. 

A foil to the central character of Gertrude Atherton’s Los Cerritos (1890), Carlos Castro is the chief vaquero at a neighboring ranch. He is a burly giant of a man, so full of energy he is like a volcano waiting to erupt. His comrades adore him for his “enormous vitality” and his “rude magnetism.” Though a horse thief, he is always acquitted of any crime. He is opposed to americanos moving onto California rangeland, picks a fight with and grievously wounds one of them, and sets fire to his ranch.

Ranch hands. English-speaking cowboys make an early appearance in Charles King’s Dunraven Ranch (1890). They are employed on a mysterious ranch located near a cavalry outpost in Texas. Eager to solve the mystery, a young lieutenant pays a call with several troopers, who are of Irish descent. The visit develops into a donnybrook between the cavalrymen and the ranch hands, who are English.

Three ranch hands are minor characters in Marah Ellis Ryan’s Told in the Hills (1890), set in western Montana. Jim the youngest is an innocent, who gets excited when the cavalry arrives to set up camp near the ranch. Another, Andrews, is occasionally sent to the nearest settlement for the mail, but tends to stay overlong and come home drunk.

Cowboys are a “wild combustible element” in Arthur Paterson’s A Better Man (1890). They gather in numbers in the saloon of a New Mexico frontier settlement. Some are given to drunkenness and insulting women. The novel’s central character, a rancher, assembles a small army of them to ride all day and night to rescue an innocent man, who has been found guilty in a hurried trial and sentenced to be hanged.

Cowboys. Owen Wister may have popularized the cowboy, but in his early western stories written for Harper’s and collected in Red Men and White (1896), they are dubious characters. Two crop up in “A Pilgrim on the Gila.” The story’s narrator learns that one of them is avoiding a woman who is two months shy of claiming him as a common-law husband. Later, the two cowboys are among a dozen road agents who hold up an army paymaster and make off with the strongbox.

The Great K&A Train Robbery
The cowboys in Paul Leicester Ford’s The Great K&A Train Robbery (1897) talk in stereotypical lingo. Asked if he is carrying a weapon, one responds, “Do I chaw terbaccy?” Threatening another man, one calls him a “stinkin’ coyote” and tells him to stay put “or I’ll blow yer so full of lead that yer couldn’t float in Salt Lake.”

Colorful, yes, also ungovernable and potentially dangerous. They are frequenters of saloons, eager to accept a wild rumor as fact, and quick to rush a suspected wrongdoer to justice. Believing the young hero of the novel to be a train robber, they try to lynch him from a telegraph pole.

Cowboys of a similar stripe appear in two of Cy Warman’s Frontier Stories (1897). Given to gunplay and playful troublemaking, they can easily find themselves on the wrong side of the law. In one of them, several cowboys play a trick on a band of Indian cattle thieves. Finding the cremated remains of one of them, they leave a handwritten curse in the man’s skull that frightens the thieves away.

Warman’s “A Cowboy’s Funeral” starts out with some hijinks of a half-dozen cowboys, who have ridden 200 miles to a town in Utah to mail a letter. They get drunk and start firing their pistols until a bystander is accidentally shot and killed. They make a hasty retreat into the desert, but when the sheriff gives chase, one of them is shot dead.

When the cowboys put enough distance between themselves and the law, they stop and make camp. There they pass the bottle before eventually putting the dead man into a grave. One cowboy leads them in a version of “The Streets of Laredo,” which the narrator describes as “plaintive and pleading—a sort of mixture of negro minstrel and the old time Methodist revival song.”

Alfred Henry Lewis’ stories set in a fictional Arizona settlement, Wolfville, began as a series of newspaper sketches in 1890. In the first collection of them, Wolfville (1897), there are several who cowboy for a living. Their cattle do not much occupy them, except at spring roundup, when the men leave town to brand calves. One of these stories gives an account of Jaybird Bob, who gets shot dead for playing one too many practical jokes on a tenderfoot.

There is some mention of cowboys in Gwendolen Overton’s The Heritage of Unrest (1901). When they appear, they are likely to be “armed to the teeth” and a little dangerous. One of them takes exception to a minister in a top hat and shoots at the lemon sodas he orders in a saloon, the second time putting a bullet through the man’s wrist.

A nuisance to telegraphy, Overton notes, cowboys are given to testing their marksmanship by shooting the insulators on telegraph poles. Little more than a no-account drifter between occupations, the cowboy is regarded as “vagrant and unsettled.”

Cowboys as characters. One of the first full-fledged cowboy characters appears in Emma Ghent Curtis’ feminist novel The Fate of a Fool (1888). Set in Colorado, the story concerns a woman who is unhappily married.

The cowboy in the story, Frank Hutton, fits the stereotype: “I cuss and drink and gamble and swear and carouse,” he admits, but he is not proud of the fact. A frequenter of brothels from an early age, he has known poor health and fathered a child out of wedlock. Wanting to reform, at the age of 29, he marries the child’s mother and makes a home for both of them.

Marcus, one of Frank Norris’ characters in McTeague (1899), leaves San Francisco to become a cowboy in Southern California. There we find him “booted, sombreroed, and revolvered, passing his days in the saddle and the better part of his nights around the poker tables” in the saloons. Under the influence of western dime novels, he’s proud to have lost two fingers in a gunfight.

Cowboy heroes. The cowboy begins to take on the dimensions of a hero in Owen Wister’s Lin McLean (1897). Wister casts McLean as a hard-working, fun-loving “cowpuncher” on the Wyoming prairie, with maybe some bad habits and given to the excesses of youth. Impulsive and not good at considering consequences, he meets and marries a railroad restaurant waitress, or “biscuit shooter.” It’s a bad match, and he soon repents his decision. Then he is saved by the discovery that she’s already married to another man.

Spending a lonely Christmas in Denver, he meets a bootblack, Billy, who is a runaway from an abusive home. Concerned for the boy, he takes him along back to Wyoming. The arrival of a pretty girl from Kentucky has McLean considering marriage again. By novel’s end, the three of them are becoming a family.

In Ralph Connor’s The Sky Pilot (1899), a novel set in Canada, we find a small fraternity of men known as the Noble Seven, many of them remittance men. Among them is a top-hand cowboy, Bronco Bill. Physically, he is true to type. He moves with the “slow, careless indifference of a man sure of his position and sure of his ability to maintain it.”

When the cowboys start making suggestive comments about a young woman, he quickly scolds them for their disrespect. During a fund drive to raise money for a church, he cleverly maneuvers a miserly Scotsman into a wager that nets the church $700.

Emerson Mead
In Florence Finch Kelly’s With Hoops of Steel (1900), a young New Mexico rancher takes up a fight against big rancher trying to grab up all of the range for himself. A man of his word, Emerson Mead faces a murder trial rather than attempt to escape prosecution for a crime he didn’t commit. Brave and confident almost to a fault, he freely appears before a lynch mob to show that as an innocent man he has nothing to fear.

A mutual respect for other men like himself keeps him from yielding to the capitalist practices of moneyed interests who are taking over the cattle industry and willfully destroying a way of life. His respect for women also marks him as a man of some moral caliber.

The cowboy is cast as a romantic hero in Mary Etta Stickney’s Brown of Lost River (1900). Working on a ranch in Colorado, he is both handsome and an expert horseman. One rancher says of Brown, “he’s every inch a man.” His employer agrees, “The fellow is simply a perfect specimen of the human animal.”

When he falls in love with the pretty sister of the rancher’s owner, she is too class conscious to consider him as more than a friend. But against her will, she gradually gives in to feelings of attraction. It helps that he has a Harvard education.

Wrapping up. The year 1902 saw the publication of Wister’s The Virginian, a hugely successful bestseller. That same year saw Frances McElrath’s The Rustler, in which a top-hand cowboy and ranch foreman becomes a cattle thief and kidnaps a woman who has rejected him. Both novels were inspired by Wyoming’s Johnson County War.

The year also saw Henry Wallace Phillips’ Red Saunders, a collection of stories about an amiable, big-hearted, red-haired cowboy from the plains of North Dakota, with a fully developed sense of humor and a wry wit. He would appear again in two more collections of stories and a novel.

Over a period of two decades, the cowboy had evolved from a minor but often troublesome character given to violence and gunplay. With the turn of the century, he had become the central figure in stories of western romance and adventure. In the following decades, a genre of frontier fiction, the cowboy western, would evolve and flourish around him.

Image credit:
Book covers and illustrations from the novels
Drawing, John Alexander Harrington Bird (1846-1936), Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Arthur Henry Paterson, The Better Man (1890)


  1. Interesting early history of the genre. Thanks! I've been reading some early dime novels from my collection lately. While most aren't exactly what I'd call well-written, they are entertaining and give insight to bygone days. I'll have to look up some of these more serious attempts at literature.
    I didn't know the Great K&K was a novel. I have the Tom Mix movie, whicj I found quite entertaining.

  2. Ron, thanks for a timely and a terrific post. Timely because only last Sunday I bought an illustrated book about cowboys titled "The Old West: The Cowboys" published by Time-Life Books in 1973. It is a detailed pictorial history of the American cowboy whose high time, according to the book, "lasted a bare generation, from the end of the Civil War until the mid-1880s, when bad weather, poor range management and disaster cattle-market prices forced an end to the old freewheeling ways." It has some fantastic colour and black-and-white paintings and photographs of cowboys in action as well as drawings of a cowboy's attire. I didn't know they were called vaqueros derived from a Spanish word and influenced by Spanish California. I have just started reading the book and your narrative of early frontier fiction is going to add to the excitement of reading about this historical period in America.

  3. You got yourself a good reference book that should be full of good images. I believe that series was pretty dependable for historical information, too.

    There were two streams of cowboy traditions, the Texas cowboys, who learned about open-range cattle herding from the Mexican vaqueros. Then there were the California and Great Basin cowboys who preserved more of the style of their Mexican predecessors, especially in garb and gear. They came to be called "buckaroos," a corruption of "vaquero."

  4. Ron, it is a good reference book and the Time-Life editors have credited dozens of writers and researchers as well as historical museums and societies for all the information it contains. Many of the books in the bibliography should be in public domain. I hope to write about the book soon, at least as soon as I get the essence of it.

  5. Mama don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys. :)