For much of American history, it was an insult to call a man a "cowboy." During the American Revolution, cowboys were British loyalists who stole cattle and oxen from local farmers and delivered them to British troops. Claudius Smith, the "Cowboy of the Ramapos," was hung for his crimes in New York in 1779 after the state's Governor offered a $1,200 reward for his capture.
The word cowboy remained decidedly unflattering well into the 1880s when the San Fransisco Examiner said that "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country...infinitely worse than the ordinary robber." This was the era of the Cowboys of Cochise County, a particularly ruthless band of cattle rustlers and outlaws operating near Tombstone, Arizona, whose criminal activities were curtailed by the Shootout at the OK Corral and the subsequent Earp Vendetta Ride.
Our modern view of the cowboy has been shaped by time and several factors. The mid-1880s saw the expansion of the cattle industry from Texas across the entire west. Both American businessmen and rich investors from England, Ireland, Scottland, and Europe funded ranches, cattle, and cowboys, leading to one of the biggest economic booms in history and laying the foundations for America's dominance of the world's economy while simultaneously funding the development of cities and infrastructure across the West. Books like The Virginian, by Owen Wister, began to mythologize the cowboy, and literary giants from Zane Grey to Louis L'Amour followed.
Hollywood gravitated to the cowboy and western stories from it's earliest films well into the late 20th century. The greatest actors of multiple generations starred in westerns, from Tom Mix to Roy Rogers, John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart to Burt Lancaster. The period following World War II was dominated by western movies, which were dominated by cowboy stories.
Theodore Roosevelt traveled west in 1884 after the dual loss of his mother and his wife to start a cattle ranch just north of Medora, North Dakota. He was indelibly shaped by the cowboy's lifestyle and the cowboys he befriended there. When he returned in 1900 on a campaign swing with future President William McKinley, he told locals, "I had studied a lot about men and things before I saw you fellows. But it was only when I came here that I began to know anything, or measure men rightly."
In his book Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West, Christopher Knowlton says that it was Roosevelt's time as a cowboy that would shape and refine the New York City boy into the western man, and that deliberately defining themselves as cowboys would help later Presidents with their public images:
"The rich city boy with Ivy League credentials would become the cowboy president. And he would not be the last politician to cultivate that image of rugged independence to improve his standing with the American public. Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush similarly reshaped their public image. For Lyndon Johnson, the cowboy boots, the Stetson hat, and a herd of registered Herefords made a tall, lanky kid from the rural hill country of Texas look like a respectable western cattle baron. Ronald Reagan, a former lifeguard from Illinois who had acted in B-movie westerns, bought a Santa Barbara ranch and styled himself a twentieth-century cowboy. Ivy Leaguer George W. Bush, scion of a patrician family from Greenwich, Connecticut, which had deep roots on Wall Street, donned cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, and a cowboy swagger to help shed his image as a spoiled, rich preppy who had attended Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School. Not surprisingly, the public persona of the cowboy proved more politically palatable—and more marketable—for these men than the one they had been born with."
Movies, books, and Presidents have all played a part in redefining the cowboy, but nothing has had more of an influence on the popular perception of the cowboy than one man—Buffalo Bill Cody. From 1883 until his death in 1917, Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show extolled the virtues of the cowboy while portraying the profession as central to the culture and the history of the American West. When Buffalo Bill galloped to the rescue of a remote settler's cabin as a part of his show, followed by a band of gallant cowboys. audiences across the country and later across the world believed that what they were watching was gospel truth—that cowboys were the real heroes, the knights of the West.
William F. Cody was a scout, a soldier, a hunter, and a showman, but not a cowboy. He had indeed sped off from Fort McPherson in Nebraska in the early 1870s in pursuit of Cheyenne and Sioux enemies, but with Army soldiers, not a band of cowboys. There was not a group of cowboys at Fort McPherson. There was only one. One Texas cowboy who had arrived near North Platte in 1869 trailing a couple of thousand longhorns to sell to local ranchers. Of course, that cowboy did become Buffalo Bill's best friend, scouting partner, business associate, and eventually costar. And that cowboy did ride with Cody to recover stolen horses from Minneconjou Sioux horse thieves. And that cowboy did hunt buffalo with Grand Duke Alexis and the Earl of Dunraven. And that cowboy did lead the Pawnee tribe on a long summer buffalo hunt. And that cowboy did explore the Yellowstone before almost any other white man had entered it. And that cowboy did demonstrate his lasso skills for the American audience, popularize the broad-brimmed Boss of the Plains style Stetson hat, demonstrate his world-class accuracy with the revolver, marry the most famous Italian ballerina in the world, and costar with Buffalo Bill for the first 4 years of their theatrical careers.
In Texas Jack Omohundro, Buffalo Bill was introduced to the cowboy. To stories of stampedes on the Brazos and raiders on the Rio Grande, Comanche riders on the Llano Estacado and rustlers on the Texas frontier. Texas Jack had lived that life, from the ranches to the Chisholm trail to the Kansas cowtowns, and he brought his experience to the acting combination he formed with Buffalo Bill and Ned Buntline in 1872, the first man to demonstrate cowboy skills on stage.
In 1877, between the time Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack ended their joint theatrical venture but before they started their own separate shows, Texas Jack wrote a letter to the Spirit of the Times magazine extolling the virtues of his former profession:
"The cow-boy! How often spoken of, how falsely imagined, how greatly despised (where not known), how little understood? I've been there considerable. How sneeringly referred to, and how little appreciated, though a title gained only by the possession of many of the noblest qualities that go to form the more admired, romantic hero of the poet, novelist, and historian: the plainsman and the scout. What a school it has been for the latter? As “tall oaks from little acorns grow," and tragedians from supers come, you know, the cow-boy serves a purpose, and often develops into the more celebrated ranchman, guide, cattle king, Indian fighter, and dashing ranger. How old Sam Houston loved them, how the Mexicans hated them, how Davy Crockett admired them, how the Comanche feared them, and how much you “beef-eaters” of the rest of the country owe to them, is such a large-sized conundrum that even Charley Backus and Billy Birch would both have to give it up."
Texas Jack died in 1880, and two years later his friend Buffalo Bill started his Wild West show, complete with heroic cowboys in the style of Texas Jack. The next year, Cody wrote a short book about his cowboy friend, entitled Texas Jack, the Prairie Rattler.
In 1908, almost thirty years after Texas Jack's death, Buffalo Bill brought the cast of his Wild West show to Leadville, Colorado, and to the grave of his best friend and partner, to deliver a eulogy about the man who was "one of the original Texas cowboys, when life on the plains was a hardship and a trying duty" and "one of my dearest and most intimate friends." Nearly a decade later, Buffalo Bill rode through Leadville for the final time on a return visit from Glenwood Springs to Denver. Too weak to leave his train car, Buffalo Bill sat up in his bed when told he was in Leadville, telling his daughter about the grave of Texas Jack, his friend and partner. Four days later, Buffalo Bill was dead.
Few men are truly remembered. America remembers Buffalo Bill. And though America largely forgot about Texas Jack Omohundro, the cowboy who first popularized the profession and helped turn the word "cowboy" from an insult to an honor, Buffalo Bill remembered. And because Buffalo Bill remembered Texas Jack, the world remembers the cowboy.