The Americanisation of the Outback: Cowboys and Stockmen

By Hoy, Jim | Journal of Australian Studies, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Americanisation of the Outback: Cowboys and Stockmen


Hoy, Jim, Journal of Australian Studies


In 1906 Michael Patrick Durack, son of pioneer Australian cattleman Patsy Durack and father of famed Outback author Dame Mary Durack Miller, visited a ranch in the vast range country of Alberta, where he was greatly taken with the wild and woolly cowboys of North America:

   This `outfit', as they call it, consists of 15 men, 2 wagonettes and 50
   horses. They have here 3,000 bullocks of all ages from 18 months upward
   which they hold day and night, putting them together about 9 pm wherever
   they happen to meet up. Two men watch until 4 am when they are relieved.

   There are some great names amongst these fellows and it's interesting to
   hear their tales. `Slippery Bill', the head serang, got his name from his
   ability with the bow knife when living down in Mexico. Then there is `Ba Ba
   Jimmy', `Mopoke Tom', `Deadly Dick' from Wyoming, `Slim' from `way down
   Montana', `Sloppy' the cook from East Ontario and `Barb Wire Johnnie' who
   is credited with being the best Broncho buster on the Prairies of Western
   Canada.

   I slept with them in their tent under six blankets, a huge beaver coat and
   canvas covering similar to what our chaps use for their swags. They were
   keen to hear about Australia but I kept them going with questions about
   their lives out here in the west.

   As I turned in, one of the boys slipped me a six chambered Colt's revolver,
   telling me that I may not need it but it's a useful toy to have in case of
   some reprisal on the camp. They are mostly wild, reckless young chaps
   scarcely recognising the existence of God, Heaven or Hell and their
   language scarcely fit for publication in a lady's journal. They hail from
   many countries -- a number originally from England.

   Their horses are herded night and day by men called `Wranglers'. Every man
   carries a rope on his saddle and lassoes his horses each morning -- this
   process being a popular pastime. They are all out by 4 in the morning, the
   cook, who carries coal and wood having the stove alight in his tent.(1)

My reaction on first reading this passage was to wonder why M P Durack was so impressed by the numbers of cattle and horses? Why was he so avid to hear the tales of the colourfully nicknamed cowboys? Why was he so thrilled by a supposed danger that necessitated sleeping with a six-gun by his side? As Dame Mary points out, her father had always kept a gun with him when he camped in the Outback, while the nicknames of Australian stockmen were no less colourful, nor their deeds less daring, than those of their American cousins. Perhaps the unaccustomed cold Canadian air had affected his fancy, or perhaps he was made dizzy by the tossing of so many lariat ropes, a tool as ubiquitous in America as the stockwhip Downunder, each equally rare in the opposite locale. Whatever the cause, the response of this seasoned stock raiser, this accomplished rider, this daring bushman foreshadowed the deferential, almost envious, attitude that many of his countrymen have subsequently displayed toward the American cowboy.

That, at least, is my opinion, based not upon any sort of scientific study but upon my impressionistic responses to conversations and observations deriving from a lecture and research tour to Australia in March and April of 1990. The topic of my lecture, delivered at four universities, from Townsville to Perth, was the American cowboy, a topic that seemed to elicit substantial curiosity and interest among audiences, while my research centred on Australian rodeo and other aspects of station and stockman folklife.

Yet in almost all respects I found Australian ranching customs and traditions far more intriguing, more dangerous, more `western' than those of North America. The heyday of the open-range, trail-driving cowboy in America, for instance, lasted barely a generation, from the opening of the Old Chisholm Trail in 1867, to the wholesale fencing that began on the XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle in the early 1880s and was virtually complete within a decade. …

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