Written by Jeff Savage
The wild west is wild no longer. The cowboys who defined life in the wild west have all but disappeared. Today’s grade schoolers and middle graders may not even know the stories of how the west was won. Jeff Savage’s book American Cowboys performs the important function of presenting this information in easily comprehensible prose. His book both describes the life of the unsung cowboys and gives the reasons why they disappeared.
The last chapter — Trail’s End — describes how the change came about. “The Homestead Act….made public land in the West available to settlers on payment of a small fee. In return, the settlers had to live on and cultivate the land for a minimum of five years.” Little by little the open ranges gave way to settlements. Barbed wire fences went up. The heroic cowboys became fence-riders and patrolmen, but no longer were they, and the cattle, lords of the open grasslands.
The first chapter sets the scene. Young James McCauley is on night watch. An unexpected rainstorm starts a stampede that separates James from his watchman buddy and the large herd of cattle. Roundups were dangerous.
The daily rigors and hardships of a cowboy’s life are well described, but there was an allure to life in the open plains. People from the East ran away to become cowboys. Young men from as far away as Europe came because they had “heard tales about the exciting west.”
The information is complete and very well organized. We learn of the tools of the cowboy’s trade. A good horse was an absolute necessity, as was the multipurpose lasso. Every item of his clothing had a specific purpose: from the bandana to the oversize Stetson. We picture the cowboy as a heroic character. “As much as the cowboys didn’t mind bragging, they hated complaining….There was no sympathy for a whining cowboy.”
As food habits changed the demand for beef grew. Cattle had to be driven to distant markets. “Cattle worth four dollars a head in Texas might be worth more than forty dollars a head in Kansas and Missouri and places north.”
The map of the major trails that the cowboys used for cattle drives is an effective reminder of how the country was settled. There is much in the book that lends itself to discussions and reading activities. The glossary explains terms that have also almost disappeared from daily usage. Indeed an attractive addition to a reading list.
The Chisholm Trail: http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/C/CH045.html
The American Cowboy: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-americancowboy.html