When someone talks about cowboys, what comes to your mind? Maybe you think of wide open spaces where cowboys ride their horses and guide cattle toward their ranch. Perhaps it reminds you of songs with a western twang and folksy appeal. Others immediately reminisce upon childhood memories of watching T.V. westerns like Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, and The Gene Autry Show.
All of those connotations of cowboys tend to glamorize or bring a simplified image of the true cowboy life. The life of a cowboy was (and is) frequently difficult. Cowboys typically spend many hours alone in harsh weather conditions while earning little pay.
To honor cowboys of the past, and recognize the current role of cowboys the Idaho legislature passed a bill in 2016 declaring the fourth Saturday of each July as the National Day of the Cowboy. Since then, other states have recognized this date, and it is now known as the National Day of the American Cowboy.
The romanticism of the cowboy image and lifestyle is a great starting point to engage and interest students in learning more about pioneers, western exploration, and American life during the 1800’s. The sites below provide fact-based information to learn more about cowboys and their role in the development of the western states.
- History – The History Channel provides many resources to learn about cowboys. Discover how Spanish vaqueros arrived in the Americas in 1519 and were the first ranchers of cattle and other livestock.
- The National Cowboy Museum – The museum shares two educational units for middle school students. The units focus on paintings by western artists and explore their connection to the American West. Also, the museum provides Wandering Western Chests for local teachers in grades 3-5. Even if you don’t live near the museum, these chests are worth a look. They contain many lesson ideas and suggestions for teaching about American cowboys and Native Americans. Use these ideas as inspiration to create your own western chest to introduce your lessons on the American West to your students.
- PBS History Detectives – PBS Investigation series offers two episodes based on saddles believed to have belonged to famous cowboys. Watch the videos online and explore the related content offered on the PBS site.
- 15 Places in the U.S. Where Cowboy Culture is Alive and Well – Try to think of the states where cowboys still exist, and you will probably find them on this list. However, there are a couple of surprises. Did you guess Florida? What about Louisianna? Share this page to find brief descriptions of 15 locations to find cowboys and their typical work.
- 5 Amazing Facts You Never Knew About the American Cowboy – This blog from Ancestory.com shares information about cowboys that you wouldn’t learn from a John Wayne movie. This blog is a wonderful starting point to begin research on cowboys and share other little-known facts about the American West.
- Famous Cowboys, Lawmen, Outlaws, and Pioneers – View this extensive list to find the names, birthdate, date of death, and cause of death of many men and women considered to be legends of the old west. Select the link to go to individual Wikipedia entries to learn more about each. Explore other lists using links near the top of the page to learn about famous cowboy actors and famous cowboy characters on screen.
- The Wild West Cowboys – Discover more about the cowboy way of life by learning about famous landmarks, cowboy poetry, songs, and famous heroes and legends. Explore other sections of this site to find western videos and videos of famous outlaws.
- Library of Congress Western and Cowboy Songs – Learn about the roots of western music, and its distinction from country music, and its emergence into the culture during the mid-19th century. Be sure to follow the links within the page to learn more about individual songs and listen to audio recordings.
- Cowboy Poetry – Cowboy Poetry contains new and old poems about cowboys. This site accepts poems and lyrics related to uniquely western themes. Use the search feature to find poems on the site, or browse through special collections including poems and songs about cowboy dads and granddads and classic cowboy poetry.
- CurriConnects Frontiers and Settlers – use this CurriConnects list to find books for every age and reading level as you learn more about western expansion.
Even if your curriculum doesn’t specifically include teaching about cowboys, learning about cowboys is an excellent “hook” to get students interested in western expansion, life in the 1800’s, and famous Americans. Put on your cowboy hat and see where it takes you!
What is your favorite way to teach about cowboys and western expansion? Share in the comments below.