Still reading American Colonies: The Settling of North America, I just came across a detail that upended everything I thought I knew about the history of the cowboy. The context is the creation of the Carolina colony in the late seventeenth century; it was settled mainly from Barbados, which had too many people crammed into too little space (in 1680 the most populous town in British America was not Boston but Bridgetown), and it had to find a way to support itself—it was too far north to grow sugar, the crop that made the Barbadian landowners rich. The colonists traded with the Indians for deerskin and slaves, but those were “volatile and diminishing commodities”; they harvested pine trees for lumber and tapped their pitch to make tar, vital for shipping.
Carolina also became the preeminent cattle country in the English empire, as the Carolinians pioneered many practices later perfected on a grand scale in the American West, including cattle branding, annual roundups, cow pens, and cattle drives from the interior to the market in Charles Town. Many owners entrusted the roaming cattle to the care of black slaves, who had previous experience as herdsmen in Africa. In Carolina the black herdsmen became known as “cowboys”—apparently the origin of that famous term.
The OED, however, takes cowboy in this sense only back to 1849: “The Mexican rancheros.. ventured across the Rio Grande.. but they were immediately attacked by the Texan ‘cow-boys’.” Does anybody know about this earlier use in the Carolinas?
Update. Ben Zimmer, in a comment, points out that this theory “was first put forward by Peter H. Wood in Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion, first published in 1974 … Woods simply writes, ‘It is even possible that the very word ‘cowboy’ originated through this set of circumstances’ (p. 31). He gives no evidence for this conjecture…” So it is a mere hypothesis, and to my mind not a very plausible one. Nothing to see here!