History

11 Myths About Cowboys Hollywood Made Us Believe

Cowboys are fascinating figures, but you might rethink your Hollywood-inspired view of them after learning these 11 surprising facts that debunk common myths.

Not the Gun-Slingers You Thought

The gun-slinging cowboy ready for a duel at high noon is more myth than reality. Real cowboys rarely carried weapons as their jobs didn’t call for it. Old West towns often banned guns, meaning cowboys had to disarm upon arrival, debunking the notion of the Wild West as a lawless land filled with constant shootouts.

Dirty Secrets of the Wild West

Life in the West wasn’t as clean as depicted in Hollywood. Cowboys often faced hygiene challenges and were prone to sexually transmitted diseases, partly due to infrequent bathing and visits to the local brothels. 

Venereal Diseases

With at least half of the prostitutes carrying venereal diseases, the cycle of infection was relentless. Back then, medical know-how was scant, leaving those affected with little relief. This aspect of cowboy life is a stark contrast to the glamorous portrayals in western films and novels.

Camel Riders of the Wild West

Believe it or not, camels were once part of the cowboy’s story. The arid landscapes of the American Southwest saw these desert animals introduced as part of an experiment by the U.S. government and private entities. 

The Civil War messed things up, and camels got set loose into the wild. So, some cowboys ended up riding camels when horses weren’t around. 

Not So Independent 

A common belief is that cowboys embodied the ultimate independent spirit, needing no one and nothing but their horse and the open range. This image, however, overlooks the collaborative nature of their work. 

Relying on Community for Survival

Cowboys were part of a tight-knit community, relying on each other for assistance, companionship, and survival. Their tasks, from roundups to cattle drives, necessitated teamwork and mutual support, dispelling the myth of the lone cowboy as an accurate representation of their daily lives.

Love in Lonely Places

The Wild West was more progressive than you’d think, with cowboys finding companionship in each other during long, isolated stretches. Historians have even found love poems between cowboys, hinting at a queer history that Hollywood’s “Brokeback Mountain” only began to uncover. 

With society’s norms far behind them, these men formed bonds out of necessity and desire, challenging our stereotypes of the rugged, lone cowboy.

Wild West Self-Promotion

Outlaws in the Wild West were the original influencers, spreading their notoriety with bold tales of their exploits. Jesse James and Billy the Kid were masters of self-promotion, often exaggerating their deeds to legendary proportions. 

This starkly contrasts with the more hardworking life of genuine cowboys, who didn’t seek fame but got lumped in with these louder, more notorious figures.

Cowboys and Their Horses

The classic image of a cowboy is incomplete without a horse. Yet, history tells a different story. Post-1885, the brutal winter changed cowboy life drastically, reducing the prevalence of long cattle drives. 

Not Always Riding Horses

The devastating weather led ranchers to keep their herds nearby, ending the era of expansive cattle drives. Cowboys ended up fixing fences more than riding out. Sure, some cowboys and horses shared epic bonds, but often, those horses were more like company cars provided by the bosses.

The Cowboy’s Standing in Society

Contrary to their revered status today, cowboys were not always looked upon favorably. 

Early perceptions were harsh, shaped by their disruptive actions and rough lifestyle. Regarded as unreliable and uneducated, they were often marginalized by society. 

It wasn’t until the romanticization of the cowboy in the 20th century that their image was transformed into that of the noble, rugged hero.

Adolf Hitler’s Obsession with Cowboys

The fascination with cowboys extends beyond American borders, with Germany showcasing an unexpected enthusiasm for the culture. From dressing up as cowboys at clubs to Hitler’s own obsession with the cowboy image, Germany embraced this slice of American history with unexpected enthusiasm.

The Real Peaceful West

The Old West was far less violent than movies suggest. The notion of the Old West as a place of constant conflict and lawlessness is challenged by historical records. 

Community Over Conflict

Studies show bank robberies were rarer than in modern times, and cowboys needed to maintain good relations with neighbors for survival, contradicting the image of the lone, gun-toting figure.

The Diversity of the Cowboy Community

The cowboy community was much more diverse than is commonly portrayed. African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans made up a significant portion of the cowboy population, challenging the stereotypical image of the cowboy as a white male. 

Despite facing racism, these cowboys played crucial roles on the frontier, challenging the whitewashed narrative of cowboy culture with a more inclusive reality.

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