The Cowboy Western and the Utopian Impulse


  • Jack Weston





Nowhere in our culture has our instinct for freedom, or the utopian impulse, been expressed more consistently than in our fascination with the cowboy Western. Who was the cowboy and how did he enter our consciousness? In the three decades after the Civil War, British and U.S. capital created corporations to profit from the free grass of the Great Plains formerly grazed by buffalo. They hired cowboys to tend and herd cattle on their ranges and drive them to railhead markets. The cowboys, seasonal or casual laborers, joined trade unions such as the Knights of Labor, engaged in job actions for higher wages and better working conditions, and finally as homesteaders set up herds of their own, starting with rustled cattle. These cowboy homesteading ranchers supported populist groups such as the Farmers' Alliance and formed local associations to protect themselves against the hired guns and range laws of their old bosses, the big cattle companies which controlled the state governments. In this uneven competition, the cowboys lost out, went into sports and entertainment (wild west shows, rodeo, the movies), became show-piece attendants on dude ranches, or cowtenders on fenced, specialized ranches.