The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1996, Volume 42, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Cowboys of the Americas.

By Richard W. Slatta. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 306 pages.

Reviewed by Clare V. McKanna, Jr., Department of History, San Diego State University. McKanna’s manuscript on homicide in the American West is forthcoming in 1997 from the University of Arizona Press.

Richard W. Slatta’s comparative history of the cowboy in the western hemisphere would have pleased Herbert Eugene Bolton, the “father” of The Americas history course. Although on hard times for a decade or more, comparative history has recently made something of a comeback (for example, see James O. Gump’s Dust Rose Like Smoke, an examination of the British defeat by the Zulus at Isandhlwana and George Armstrong Custer’s fall at Little Big Horn). This book is a welcome addition to that enduring tradition.

Slatta’s investigation, based largely on a thorough reading of secondary sources results in a lively, social narrative of the cowboy in the Americas. As the author suggests this is rural social history that focuses on cowboys in Alberta, Canada and on the Great Plains in the U.S., vaqueros in Northern Mexico, llaneros in Venezuela, huasos of Chile, and the gauchos of the Argentine pampas. He compares the various cowboys of the Americas in a variety of ways that include typical ranch work, frontiers, equestrian games, drinking and gambling, and race relations. In his chapter “The Cowboy Rides Again: Myth, Literature, Popular Culture,” Slatta clarifies some of the myths about these frontier equestrians. The twentieth century brought many changes including the “rehabilitation” of the gaucho, the purloining of the cowboy v. Indian image in fighting in Vietnam and, of course, the literature, film, and television genre that “whitened” the cowboy by eliminating blacks and Hispanics except as villains. In Vietnam American soldiers labeled any dangerous unsecured region as “Indian Country.” The author contends that John Wayne’s film “Green Berets” turned the conflict into a “Western morality play, but soldiers themselves conceptualized the war in terms of cowboys and Indians” (p. 195). Not surprisingly, Slatta also makes it clear that violence levels among cowboys were high all the way from the Great Plains to the Argentine pampas and usually involved heavy drinking.

With this well-researched volume, Slatta has provided a useful look at the social-economic life of the cowboy in the Americas. This work is not intended for the serious historian, however, there is much here for the average reader wishing to understand cattle culture. A very readable book, Slatta spins an excellent story about cowboys and their life-style. The history buff or general reader will love this book. Professional historians probably will complain that he has used too many secondary sources. On the other hand, the excellent readability should offset this criticism. Cowboys of the Americas includes a superb collection of paintings, prints, and photographs that offers an important visual image of the cowboy, and a useful bibliography. It is highly recommended.