When describing cowboys in the Prairie West, one often conjures up images of a wide-brimmed hat, bandanna, chaps, high-heeled boots, and faded jeans. The cowboy has been romanticized in film and books for his strength, courage, independence, and rugged good looks. MacEwan tends to half-heartedly agree with such a generic stereotype. Though the cowboy has been admired by people of all ages the Prairie West's working cowboy hardly resembled the decorated and dashing hero celebrated in the cinema. The cowboy, according to MacEwan, was a two-fisted gentleman, a man of action rather than words.
A cowboy's day was filled with hard, often hazardous, work. Orchestrating cattle drives, controlling stampedes, rustling, shooting, and horse riding were all part of a cowboy's daily routine. They were the stark realities of the frontier industry. MacEwan demonstrates his distaste for how the cowboy is portrayed in film; he feels the cowboy is unfairly represented. Life on the frontier was filled dangers, and carrying a gun was crucial for the working man who needed to survive the elements of nature.
Skilful horse riding began on the trails in Texas where thousands of cattle were herded in long cattle drives northward. Cowboys had to carefully herd the cattle and avoid the ever-dangerous stampede. The ability to use a lariat was imperative; to a cowboy nothing was more valuable than a reliable horse and a sturdy piece of rope.
According to MacEwan, the town of Fort Macleod was at the heart of cowboy culture. It was a community of rugged men and hitching posts, of wagons and horses. Competitions showcasing such skills as rope throwing and steer wrestling were an almost a daily occurrence, drawing attention to a cowboy's skill and bravado.
The roundup was the cowboy's favourite event of the year; he reveled in the prospect of a roundup as much as a wheat farmer anticipated threshing season. It was a grand affair consisting of tents, chuckwagons, corrals, cattle, and, of course, the all-important cowboys. The roundup translated into long hours on horseback. The biggest roundup in the history of the Canadian West occurred in 1885 near Fort Macleod. There were over a hundred cowboys, 16 chuck wagons, and over 60 000 cattle.
A successful cowboy required a steadfast work ethic. He would work overtime without complaint, often depending on his vigour and resourcefulness. Cowboy imagery is often romanticized in film and literature. The profession was dangerous and filled with daily hazards. MacEwan believes that the work of the Western Canadian cowboy was ignored and underappreciated. The cowboy's commitment to the land was unwavering, and his accomplishments directly contributed to the development of the West. The cowboy, according to MacEwan, complemented the magnificent scenery of the West with his heroic drama and unique chivalry.
MacEwan, Grant. Between the Red and the Rockies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1952.