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The Modern Cowboy

Second Edition

John R. Erickson. Photographs by Kristine C. Erickson

Publication Year: 2004

“The American cowboy is a mythical character who refuses to die,” says author John R. Erickson. On the one hand he is a common man: a laborer, a hired hand who works for wages. Yet in his lonely struggle against nature and animal cunning, he becomes larger than life. Who is this cowboy? Where did he come from and where is he today? Erickson addresses these questions based on firsthand observation and experience in Texas and Oklahoma. And in the process of describing and defining the modern working cowboy—his work, his tools and equipment, his horse, his roping technique, his style of dress, his relationships with his wife and his employer—Erickson gives a thorough description of modern ranching, the economic milieu in which the cowboy operates. The first edition of this book was published in 1981. For this second edition Erickson has thoroughly revised and expanded the book to discuss recent developments in cowboy culture, making The Modern Cowboy the most up-to-date source on cowboy and ranch life today. “We meet the modern cowboy (his dress depends on weather, chores, and vanity) and follow him through the year: spring roundup, branding and ‘working’ the calves; spotting problem animals and cutting them from the herd; repairing windmills and mending fences; fall roundup, and feeding animals in winter. . . . This is a lively portrait, sure to appeal to all Western buffs.”— Publishers Weekly

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Series: Western Life Series

Contents and List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-xi

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Author’s Note

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pp. xiii-xvii

Cowboying in the Texas Panhandle isn’t exactly the same as cowboying in California; it’s not even the same as cowboying in East Texas. Differences among cowboys arise from history, tradition, weather, and terrain, to name a few. Wherever they live, cowboys figure out their own solutions to their own particular set of problems and adapt...

Part One: The Modern Cowboy

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1. What Is a Cowboy?

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pp. 3-8

In 1978 and 1979 I was working as a cowboy on a ranch in Beaver County, Oklahoma. In the depths of January, I drove over to the next ranch and found my good friend and cowboy companion, Jake Parker. “Jake,” I said, “we’re about to starve out. We just can’t make it on six hundred dollars a month. Inflation is killing us and I’m so tired...

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2. What He Looks Like, What He Wears

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pp. 9-23

The cowboys I have known were pretty much average-sized fellows, rarely very tall, very short, or very heavy. Perhaps this physical description fits a national average and would be the same in other professions and trades, but I suspect there is more to it than that. If you observe people in a public place, such as an airport or a bus station...

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3. The Cowboy’s Wife

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pp. 24-30

Not only were women in short supply in the Old West, but the cowboy who lived in an isolated cow camp and ventured into town once a month was in no position to go courting. And even if he had been able to go courting and had managed to find the girl of his dreams, he would have taken a wife and lost a job. Most of the old ranches were...

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4. Horse Sense and Cow Sense

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pp. 31-39

In these opening years of the twenty-first century, some livestock operations are phasing out the use of horses and relying on four-wheelers for checking and gathering cattle. Machines don’t eat hay, and machines don’t require special knowledge or training. For some livestock operations, particularly those that utilize small pastures and...

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5. Cowboy Vices and Recreation

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pp. 40-45

In his book The Cowboy, Philip Rollins noted that smoking was universal among the old-time cowboys, while chewing “was common but far from universal” (pp. 85–86). Of course the old punchers always rolled their own smokes, and in typical cowboy manner of raising nonsense to the level of folk art, they took great pride in rolling their...

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6. The Cowboy’s Newspaper

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pp. 46-54

During that time period, I have subscribed off and on to other magazines and stock papers, but LW has been the one I have consistently read cover to cover. In its pages I find information about range conditions and cattle prices, humorous columns, news about the industry, profiles of ranchers and cowboys, articles on brush control and grass...

Part Two: Tools of the Trade

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7. The Horse

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pp. 57-66

There are many kinds of horses, and over the centuries they have been used in many different ways: war horses, hunting horses, jumping horses, draft horses, coach horses, circus horses; horses for track racing, polo, rodeo, and show; and some are nothing but pets. There are Italian breeds, Polish breeds, Persian, Mongolian, African...

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8. Pickups and Trailers

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pp. 67-75

There was a time in the Old West when a cowboy did just about everything horseback. The modern cowboy still does much of his work horseback, but he has also come to depend on two very useful pieces of equipment: the pickup and the stock trailer. Used together with a horse, they have vastly increased his range and mobility, and...

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9. Pasture Roping, Then and Now

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pp. 76-88

The rope is a tool of the cowboy’s trade with which he can perform a number of specialized functions. Of all the skills a cowboy possesses, roping is likely to be the one he prizes most highly. He may draw substandard wages, and in town he may be regarded as a mere hired hand. He may have patches on his blue jeans and holes in his...

Part Three: What Cowboys Do

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10. Winter Work

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pp. 91-101

In the early 1880s, when Charles Goodnight and other Texas ranchers began upgrading their beef cattle with purebred British stock (Angus, Shorthorns, Herefords), the day of the old Longhorn cow had come to an end. Through careful breeding and culling, ranchers were able to develop cattle that produced more beef per live-weight-pound than did the old Longhorn. In other words, they...

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11. Spring Roundup and Branding

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pp. 102-115

In a cowboy’s life, the spring branding season is a time of joy and excitement. Gone is the deadening routine of winter, the bleak days, the long nights, the cold hands and feet, the incessant demands of hungry animals, the isolation and loneliness. He puts up with these things because they are part of the job and because, in order to ride on...

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12. Summer Work

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pp. 116-124

On a cow-calf ranch, the first job of the summer begins after the spring branding. Freshly worked calves go through a period of stress, which may last only a few days or up to a week. Stress is caused by loss of blood, the shock of dehorning and castration, soreness, and even a reaction to the vaccine. In small calves the stress is usually not severe. Their horns are small...

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13. Windmills

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pp. 125-135

The Central Plains region of the United States is an ocean of grass, and like the ocean, it has very little potable water. Vast stretches of the Central Plains lack a reliable year-round supply of surface water and until the windmill appeared in the West in the 1880s, cattle ranching was a seasonal enterprise. Our entire system of cattle ranching in the...

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14. The Fall Work

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pp. 136-141

For the rancher whose cow herd is cycled to produce a spring calf and who chooses to sell the calves rather than retain them, the fall shipping season brings payday. Though he may sell off a few cull cows during the year and may elect to sell a small bunch of calves in the spring, most of his income is generated in the fall of the year. After...

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15. Calving Out Heifers

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pp. 142-151

A heifer is a young female, a young cow. Many ranchers routinely save back a certain percentage of each year’s heifers, grow them to breeding age, calve them out, and work them into the herd to replace brood cows that have been culled. This is a long and expensive process. When a heifer is held back for breeding purposes, she is at...

Part Four: The Bottom Line

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16. The Modern Cattle Business

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pp. 155-165

Many colorful character-types entered the drama of American history and then disappeared when economic conditions changed. The fur trapper, the Indian trader, the buffalo hunter, the gold prospector, the riverboat pilot, and the traildriver all made glorious but brief appearances on the western stage. Not one of these characters exists...

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17. Economics and the Rancher

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pp. 166-174

There has always been a kind of luster attached to ranching, and a good deal of that traces to the fact that the grazing of livestock animals requires the use of a large amount of land. Americans, most of whom were landless peasants when they arrived on these shores, have shown an appetite for owning land, and ranchers have been the ones...

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18. Economics and the Cowboy

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pp. 175-180

If the economics of cattle ranching are gloomy, it should come as no surprise that the economic picture of cowboying will wear the same hat. Indeed, the surprise might be that cowboying has survived into the twenty-first century and that any horseback jobs remain at all in an industry so beset with economic...

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19. The Last Cowboy?

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pp. 181-185

The thesis of Jane Kramer’s 1977 book The Last Cowboy was that the cowboy didn’t have much of a future. The frontiers had been tamed, the big pastures had been fenced, and something called “agribusiness” had moved into the Old West, pushing the cowboy out of the picture. Kramer was a competent journalist, and she was correct...

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20. Some Classic Books about Cowboys

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pp. 186-195

The years from about 1920 to 1955 produced some of the best writers and writing we have on the subject of the old-time cowboy: Will James, Ben Green, Andy Adams, Philip Ashton Rollins, J. Frank Dobie, and others. Mr. Dobie made western writing respectable and blazed the trail for regional writers who followed. He so thoroughly...


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pp. 197-198


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pp. 199-211

E-ISBN-13: 9781574414165
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574411775

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 58 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Western Life Series

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Subject Headings

  • Cowboys -- West (U.S.).
  • Cowboys -- West (U.S.) -- Pictorial works.
  • West (U.S.) -- Social life and customs.
  • Ranch life -- West (U.S.).
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