The range cattle industry didn’t just make beef; it also created the single most beloved, celebrated, talked about, and sung about worker in American history. If generations of little boys and girls across the Atlantic grow up on tales of knights in shining armor, American children have long been raised on tales, songs, and images of the noble riders of the range. Cowboys embody a very powerful—very American—myth of freedom and self-sufficiency. But from the cold, hard perspective of economic reality, cowboys were the poorest of the poor. Dirty, dangerous, lonely, and poorly paid, cowboy was a job for desperate men: down-and-out ex-Confederates who had lost all they owned; liberated black slaves who, suddenly masterless, found themselves at loose ends; Indians, struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder; and Mexicans, sharing that bottom rung.
On the ranch, the cowboy’s principal job was to ride over an assigned stretch of range and tend the cattle, doing whatever needed to be done. The most demanding labor was the trail drive, in which cowboys moved a herd of cattle—perhaps as small as 500 head or as large as 15,000—to northern ranges for maturing or to market at railhead cattle towns like Abilene, Ellsworth, and Dodge City, Kansas; Pueblo and Denver, Colorado; and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Distances were often in excess of 1,000 miles over four principal cattle trails. Hazards of the trails were almost as numerous as the herds themselves: storms, floods, drought, stampede, rustlers, hostile Indians. Pay was about $100 for three or four months’ work.