Lecture 6: Ways and Habits of the West


The title comes from a memoir written by Virginia Bill Hamilton, who upon having taken up ranching in Dakota Territory, said he no longer was fit for life back east, because he had adopted “the ways and habits of the West.” This lecture, like Hamilton’s memoir, focuses on ranching on the Great Plains.


Outline of Lecture

Introduction: Rawhide to Lonesome Dove

The Long Drive

This is the traditional way to begin the story of the range cattle industry in the American West—begin in Texas, tracing back to Spanish origins, then forward with the long drive and with northward expansion up the plains. Credit where it’s due—surely much of the culture of the cattle range is of Hispanic origin. The origins and evolution of the range cattle industry, however, are more complex than credited by early historians.

The Open Range

Whereas early cattle drives ended in cattle town stockyards, subsequent movements stocked the ranges north to Montana with beeves to be finished on grass and then with breeding stock for cow-calf operations. In prairie Canada, too, extensive ranching commenced, but on a somewhat different basis than in the US. The end of the open-range cattle industry, subject of so much nostalgia, is itself mythic—but not so clear-cut as generally portrayed.

Cattle Kingdoms

“The Cattle Kingdom” is a phrase often used in histories to describe the open range era—as if once fences went up, cattle culture ended on the plains. In fact, there have been new cattle kingdoms after the open range, successions and adaptations whereby cattle culture continually reinvents itself. It is a commonplace of our mythology now and then to announce the demise of the cowboy. Such announcements are premature.

Amarillo by Morning

Despite the modernization of the cattle industry on the plains, cowboy iconography remains popular. This constitutes an example of a regional culture appropriating a stereotype and making it a badge of identity.




In connection with the Long Drive, check out my handy map of cattle trails.


"In Search of Virginia Bill" is my site recounting research on South Dakota rancher and autobiographer W. H. Hamilton.


My singing text of "The Strawberry Roan" is posted at my folksong site.


Before you quit, throw your loop over the International Texas Longhorn Association.


Thinking About the Great Plains

Wister, Owen. "The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 91 (September 1895): 602-17.

Haley, J. Evetts. “Cow Business and Monkey Business,” Saturday Evening Post 207 (8 December 1934): 26-29, 94-95.

The Great Plains at the Grassroots


Selected Bibliography

Osgood, The Range Cattle Industry

Jordan, North American Cattle Ranching Frontiers

Abbott, We Pointed Them North

Adams, Log of a Cowboy

Gilfillan, Sheep

Lang, Ranching with Roosevelt



Red River

Lonesome Dove


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