Every member of his family has done it almost exactly the same way for more than a hundred years. Only the names have changed.
Nestled near the Powder River and well off the beaten path in southcentral Montana is the Stewart Ranch—a fourth generation operation that has raised cattle in these parts since the early 1910s. Their ranch spans thousands of acres, but no one outside of the Stewart family really knows exactly how many. Why? Because asking a rancher how many acres they have is considered rude. And it is surest way to end conversation quickly.
Leo Stewart is the great-grandson of Jack and Elsa Stewart who first settled here in 1914. He attended school nearby in a tiny building along the river in one of the most remote corners of Montana. His class had just five other students. “And that was a large class,” he said.
On this day, just before the sun rises over the Honeycomb Hills in the east, Stewart is tending to his American quarter horses and working in the tack room where the saddles, bridles and other equipment is kept. On this cool autumn morning he and five other cowboys, one cowgirl, and three cow dogs are getting ready to gather the cattle so they can be sorted, counted, and loaded onto trucks headed to the market.
Clouds of Stewart’s breath fill the cold Montana air while lifting a saddle onto his chestnut-colored horse. It’s something a member of his family has done on this ranch in almost the exact same spot every morning for more than a hundred years. Only the names of the cowboys and the horses have changed. And although there are differences between today’s cowboys those first ones who first moved cattle into these parts in the 1800s, the more things change, the more they also stay the same.
Vaqueros were America’s first cowboys. Everything the world knows about cowboys today can be traced to the vaquero cattle drivers whose existence dates all the way back to the 1500s. Most of those early cattle drivers were African, Mexican, Native American, and Spanish men who were laborers forced to raise cattle and rear horses on Spanish ranches in Mexico. This included parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas, which were all part of northern Mexico at the time. Soon their culture and knowledge spread throughout the west as ranches began moving millions of cattle from Texas to railheads in Kansas and grazing land in places like Montana, Colorado, and Idaho. Soon after the mythology of the American cowboy was born.
Long before moving pictures, old time radio Westerns entertained Americans with dramatic stories and fictionalized accounts of cowboys. “Gunsmoke,” a Western drama that began on radio in 1952, later made the leap to television where it became the longest-running primetime television show lasting 20 seasons. Hollywood movies, comic books, and books also spread the idea of the American cowboy far and wide. Movies, magazines, comic books and other forms of media also capitalized on the idea of the great American cowboy. Author Louis L’Amour, who wrote 100 Western-themed novels and over 250 short stories further built the swashbuckling, hard-working cowboy as a lasting symbol of America. And at one time he sold more books than any other author in American history.
While real American cowboys differ from their fanciful portrayal in popular media, they don’t differ much from their ancestors. Yes, some of the tools are new, but even those haven’t changed much.
“Cowboys aren’t much different than they were a century ago,” said Chad Gibbons, who works as a cowboy raising Charolais cattle near Standish, California. “The only big difference is today’s cowboys as a group are younger and a bit more cocksure than their fathers and grandfathers used to be.”
Though it takes a lot of work raising cattle on a ranch, he said, many don’t realize the kind of investment a cowboy (or cowgirl) makes so they are well equipped to tend to their herd in the first place. “If you don’t ride the horses and train them regularly, neither the cowboy nor the horse will work well together. It’s one reasons many some ranches are hanging up the reins and using all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) instead, Gibbons said. “They are far less glamorous than a horse, but they cost a heck of a lot less. But you aren’t really a cowboy then, are you?”
Yes, cowboys use pickup trucks and computers, but they are not primary tools of the trade. Hard work, a calm demeanor when working with the animals, and the ability to be an independent thinker and problem solver are still a cowboy’s most important assets. A computer doesn’t help round up cattle, fix fences, feed animals, or train horses. And a pickup truck is only good for driving the many dozens of miles between the ranch and the nearest town where they can fetch supplies. Beyond that, today’s modern cowboy still works with a horse under the glaring sun or beneath a blanket of stars fighting extreme temperatures, drought, wildfires, lower prices for their cattle, and smaller margins. But most wouldn’t have it any other way. Which serves as a reminder to that the Western American spirit and cowboy culture lives on just as it did centuries ago, too.