Every year, on the fourth Saturday in July, the National Day of the Cowboy is celebrated in the United States. It seems somehow fitting that the same month the USA observes its Independence, it recognises this stoic, hardworking symbol of the American West – a true icon of Americana!
Who are the Cowboys?
While cowboys were effectively ‘ranch hands’ in the real Old West, their journeys on the prairies while running cattle drives came with much-associated adventure, which has been romanticised for nearly two centuries in books, films, and games.
Thanks to these works of fiction, just about any horse-riding stranger with a gun in the Wild West is affectionately referred to as a cowboy. The idea of ‘cowboys’ seemed to evolve massively from their farming status to that of gun-wielding, Stetson-wearing, posse forming, outlaw fighting heroes.
So, despite the entire sub-culture of post-civil war society being identified as cowboys, the purest definition of the word actually refers to someone who herds cattle on horseback.
History of the Cowboy
The era of cattle drives that we have all read about or seen on TV, found commonplace in states like Texas just prior to and after the American Civil War in the mid-19th Century. The cattle business began to boom, and cowboys would traditionally run the herds to where the money was.
The Wild West was just that – Wild. Cattle ranches were not often fenced in like they are today, and it was commonly accepted by ranchers that other farmers would move their cattle through their territories. The rugged terrain and potential threats from wildlife, such as bears, wolves, and cougars, meant that traditional cowboys were hardened outdoorsmen and notable survivors.
The iconic cowboy, however, traces back a little further than the Civil War, finding his origin in Spain. In fact, the term ‘cowboy’ comes from the Spanish word ‘vaquero’, which is derived from the root word ‘vaca’ meaning ‘cow’. The iconic figure on horseback with hat, spurs, and a lasso were traditionally borrowed from Mexico, who had strong Spanish influence embedded in their culture.
The first time the term ‘cowboy’ was used in written form, was by author Jonathan Swift in 1725, but the intended use of the word was to describe the work of a young boy who tended cows. Later, Western literature caused the cowboy to evolve into a rugged, masculine, horseback adventurer. The Wild West has re-defined these figures for us a lot, as most of the stories we have heard about cowboys in books and films have truly little to do with animal husbandry.
True cowboys still exist in cattle herding states and regions in America and Canada. Every year, these true heroes, both male and female, get to strut their stuff in horse and cattle-based sports events, called rodeos. These events still find big followings in the cattle states, like Texas, Montana, and Alberta (Canada), and help keep the rugged image of the Wild West alive.
Cowboy Books and Literature
As mentioned before, much of what we have come to know about cowboys has been defined by the books we have read and the movies we have watched. Some of the earliest Western literature came about in the earlier parts of the 19th Century, during the very age being written about. People, like James Fenima Cooper, told stories of the American frontier, in settings like the Appalachian Mountains and the areas West thereof. The Leatherstocking Tales are a great example of this early fictional work.
Between 1850 and 1900 the ‘Western’ truly established itself as a specialised genre. Many of these sorts of tales were published as “Pennydreadfuls” or later as “Dime Novels”, a book-style named after the cheap nature in which they were made.
These hugely successful books were one of the main reasons that cowboys are now so readily associated with the image of mountain-men, outlaws, and lawmen of the Western Frontier. These novels would fictionalise stories around the lives of real men living at the time, such as Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holiday. Many of these characters are household names as a result of the tales told about them.
By 1900, the Western genre of books had picked up a great following and was even adopted by foreign writers. At this time, some of the stories began to spread eastwards across the globe thanks to a new medium of literature, called Pulp Magazines. The popular ‘Hopalong Cassidy’ series of stories by Clarence Mulford appeared in 1904 in this form, as well as in dime novel format.
Progression into the 20th Century saw many evolutions in writing style, including the genre’s move to the comic scene. Both Marvel and DC climbed on the bandwagon from around 1948 and 1951 respectively, releasing stories such as Kid Colt Outlaw (Marvel) and All-Star Western (DC). Other Western-styled comics were published by Charlton Comics, Prize Comics, Fawcett Comics, and others.
It was around the 1950s that some of the top novels made it to the silver screen. Jack Shaeffer’s 1949 novel, “Shane” was one such story that made it to film in 1953.
Between the ‘70s and 2000s, Western Fiction dropped in popularity – mostly because film superseded written media. The only sub-genre that managed to stay its course were Adult-Rated Westerns, which are known for their explicit sexual content.
Cowboys of the Movie World
Westerns were recognised as one of the most popular film genres in the mid-20th Century. In fact, such movies were already well attended throughout the 1930s. John Ford’s “Stagecoach” thrust now renowned actor, John Wayne, onto the Hollywood scene, making him a mainstream movie star. He became the quintessential face behind the Western Genre at that time and will live long in the hearts of your grandmothers.
A string of popular and iconic Western films ran through the ‘50s era, earmarking that period of movie history as the Golden Age of the Western. Some of the renowned titles included Broken (1950), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and Wichita (1955) to name a few.
The cowboy craze spread to the 1960s with titles such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The ‘60s saw the introduction of a new cult hero for the cowboy/western genre – Clint Eastwood. Known as ‘The Man with No Name’, this seldom speaking, tough stranger, and nightmare to outlaws, would headline a string of Spaghetti Westerns called the Dollars Trilogy. The recognisable character in the brown poncho and hat, sucking on cigarillos and having little to nothing to say catapulted Eastwood to fame with A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Over the years, many cowboy Westerns have stolen the hearts of moviegoers. More recently, the 1990s made us fall in love with Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, and Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, and Keffer Sutherland in Young Guns I & II. Even the comedy genius of the 1999 Steampunk Western - Wild, Wild West with Will Smith and Kevin Kline will leave a long-lasting stamp on our memory.
Almost all the above-mentioned stories had the same root of genetics running through their veins – Masculine Gunslinging types on horses whipping the butts of the baddies and riding off into the sunset to live another day. These stories sold tickets and did a tremendous amount of work for romanticising the American Frontier. It placed the cowboy firmly as a patriotic symbol of American pride.
Western Slots and Pokies
Just about every worthwhile genre or theme will find its way onto the gaming scene at some point or another and may even trickle through to the online casino world. Let’s face it, the type of adventure that Cowboys and Westerns exude makes for some great game features and bonus rounds.
It’s for that very reason that many of the top gaming studios in the online casino market have ventured to re-tell some of the best Western Stories over the reels in good ol’ slot fashion.
While a myriad of games can be found online with an American Frontier theme attached to them, whether it be the Wildlife theme, Gold Digging tales, or plain old Cowboy high jinks only a few stand out. Recent recollection would highlight games like Sticky Bandits by Quickspin or Dead or Alive and Dead or Alive 2 by NetEnt.
✓ Sticky Bandits
Quickspin’s 2017 Sticky Bandits tells the tale of Railway Bandits over 5 reels and 30 paylines. The simple visuals yet apt soundtrack provide a real sense of the Old West on the screen. Massive Sticky Wilds are the stand-out feature n the game, but a standard free spin round provides you with suitable action to your bankroll.
✓ Dead or Alive
NetEnt are the true masters of the slot world. They are known for their ability to make a theme come alive through top graphics, sounds, and engaging features.
Dead or Alive was released in 2013 and became the most popular Western-themed game by far. Its high variance and massive max win drew crowds. The typical dusty ranch visuals are complimented by some apt western-classic sounds. There is no meaningless meandering tumbleweed in this game though, each feature is well-placed for the ultimate entertainment experience.
It may only be played over 9 paylines, but Dead or Alive provides several winning ways, dominated mainly by the Sticky Wild wanted poster Wilds and a host of free spins.
✓ Dead or Alive 2
Just when you think NetEnt has outdone themselves with the original Dead or Alive game, they provide an even more volatile option in 2019. Not only was the math model changed, but the maximum win peaks at over 100,000x your stake.
Instead of one free spin feature, there are three up for grabs in the game. It could literally turn you into a millionaire if the way of the West is with you.
A dusty Western Main Street forms the scene for the action. Here, the game maker even allows you to shoot selected items on the screen between spins – just for the heck of it! The game headlines some of the worst cowboy outlaws the genre has ever seen, such as Apache the Kid, Billie the Kid, Belle Star, Jesse James, and Della Rose.
The Wild West will live on for a long time still and it is on days like this when we must tip our hats to the impact that the era has had on our entertainment. It has followed mankind for over two hundred years and shows no sign of dying yet. Still today, the cowboys attend the cattle and compete in Rodeos throughout the ranch lands of North America.
Even if the Cowboy genre has petered out on paper and the big screen for a while, it will most certainly still be around on the reels for a long time, so make sure you play your favourite Western at a Gambler’s Pick partner casino, today!