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!


  1. Documenting the frontier, South Carolina & the cherokee
    Cattle ranching was important to early South Carolina. Frontier entrepreneurs registered their distinctive “brands” with the provincial government. Note the fleur-de-lis mark of Huguenot rancher Isaac Mareque dated 1698. Secretary of State. Recorded Instruments. Livestock Mark Books, 1695-1737.

  2. Although most contemporary American history books attribute the Mexican ‘vaqueros’ as the source of the American cowboy, their origin can actually be traced back to the animal husbandrymen of 17th century Europe. Certainly, the Mexicans had some influence on the cowboy culture of the American West, especially with the wearing of chaps, the lasso and the rodeo, but the basic occupation predates even the European settlement of the Americas.

  3. Ben Zimmer says

    I believe this theory about the origin of the “cowboy” 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 (based on Wood’s 1972 dissertation at Harvard). It’s available via Google Print here.
    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, but it has been cited in various historical works such as here and here.

  4. I ask this off-topic every once in awhile, but can antone recommend a book on the influence of the French in the American West from the beginning through the XIXc?

  5. Ben: Thanks, that’s exactly what I was looking for. Too bad Taylor felt the need to hype an already interesting set of facts by making it seem that the word itself came out of that time and place, when that’s just a conjecture — “perhaps” would have been a much better adverb than “apparently.” Why are people so cavalier about linguistic facts?

  6. Cowboy, cowman, cowpoke, cowpuncher, vaquero and buckaroo (from vaquero).
    In its origin, the word “vaquero” stands for the man who hunted cows for leather in South American “vaquerías”, from 1500 up to XIX century, as cattle was not raised for flesh. Raising cattle begun when “vacas” extinted and the word changed its meaning, instead of a cowpredator it meant “the one who takes care of cows. It is possible to trace back vaquerías to the basque tradition of bull and boar hunting. In the sense of taking care, there is the dialectal spanish “vaqueiros”.

  7. How do you keep a chap enslaved when you give him a horse and wave him off into the countryside amply provided with beef?

  8. The local Indians were well paid to return escaped slaves.

  9. Might have been cheaper, then, to pay them to return straying cows and do without the cowboy? But I digress.

  10. Andrew Dunbar says

    What about this from “Seymour’s Sketches” by Robert Seymour, published about 1836:
    “The little fool’s alarmed, I do believe!” said he; “He’s only a cow-boy, I dare say!” And with this sapient, but unsatisfactory conclusion, he opened his book, and read aloud, to keep up his courage.
    This from “Summer on the Lakes” by S.M. Fuller, published in 1843:
    Long ago, I was looking from a hill-side with a friend at one of the finest sunsets that ever enriched this world. A little cow-boy, trudging along, wondered what we could be gazing at.
    This from “The Banks of Wye” by Robert Bloomfield, published 1811:
    Or was the bounded view preferr’d,
    Far, far beneath the spreading herd
    Low’d as the cow-boy stroll’d along,
    And cheerly sung his last new song.
    But cow-boy, herd, and tide, and spire,
    Sunk Into gloom, the tinge of fire,
    As westward roll’d the setting day,
    Fled like a golden dream away.
    These were found just using Google on Project Gutenberg where they may be more. I may well be missing something but it just seems to be a synonym for “young cowherd”.

  11. People had been driving cows extremely long distances to market for ages, and particularly in Scotland. And Ulster. Which is where those Barbados-to-Carolina people came from, no?
    Brands, I don’t know about.

  12. I see a common mistake being made in these comments. When doing this sort of digging and theorizing, it’s crucial to decide if one is researching the word “cowboy” or the idea “cowboy.” They are different things that take different paths and lead to different answers.
    The three early cites above for cowboy do indeed seem to refer to a young cowherd, which would be a different sense of cowboy than is commonly understood.

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