American Heroes, Myth and Reality

By Marshall W. Fishwick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14
Don't Fence Me In: The Cowboy

"There's still hundreds of miles of country where there's plenty of cattle and no fences, where the cowboy wears his boots out in the stirrup and not in irrigation ditches . . . where a man's a man."-- Will James, The Drifting Cowboy

Rousseau's "natural man", that romantic symbol of freedom which captivated the eighteenth century, triumphantly entered the American forests as the buck-skin clad hunter, only to emerge on the Great Plains a century later as the American cowboy. Somewhere between the Alleghenies and the Rockies the followers of Daniel Boone traded coonskins for sombreros, long rifles for six- shooters, and moccasins for spurs--without losing their fascination for the hero-loving American public.

The two symbolic figures, hunter and cowboy, made similar appeals to the trait valued above all others in American culture: freedom. The hunter wasn't happy unless he had what Daniel Boone called elbow room; which translated into the twentieth century terms became a popular cowboy ditty, "Don't Fence Me In." There was something nostalgic about it. For only two decades had the cowboy roamed hundreds of miles with no fences to hamper him or his herd. By 1954 those days were as distant as speculation over the morals of Grover Cleveland or the feasibility of eating tomatoes. With the coming of barbed wire and homesteaders in the 1870's, the open range quickly disappeared in fact, but not in fancy. On the back of Old Paint, the Cowboy has ridden through whole libraries of serious literature, hundreds of

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