Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 1983


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 121-22.


Copyright 1983 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Clio's Cowboys is an important book, the first truly analytical historiography of the glory days of the cattle trade. It will probably also be controversial, because it chastises three generations of western historians for mindlessly repeating sweeping generalizations about cowboys and cattlemen, for relying on questionable sources, and, worst of all, for disembodying the most colorful of the nation's epics with impersonalized economic and business histories.

Don D. Walker says that historians-for all their pretense of accuracy-do no better in capturing the essence of the American cowboy than do novelists, whom they superciliously dismiss as naive. Suggestive examples of Walker's heresy: Joseph G. McCoy's Historic Sketches, which most historians have accepted almost as holy writ, is the polemical memoir of an "embittered old man" (p. 6); other standard sources such as J. L. Hill's The End of the Cattle Trail and J. Marvin Hunter's Trail Drivers of Texas are little better; Fred Shannon, Ramon Adams, Joe Frantz, and Julian Choate are "shallow" (p. 2) in their respective evaluations of sources such as these; Theodore Roosevelt, upon whom historians often rely, "too often ... could not see the particular for the general, the person for the type" (p. 40); Ernest Osgood, Edward Dale, Walter Prescott Webb, and Louis Pelzer penned nostalgia disguised as history and passed off under inaccurate titles; Frederick Jackson Turner's assertions about frontier individualism have been unthinkingly repeated by historians without qualification, even though they are demonstrably false; Robert Dykstra erred by rejecting fiction as source material; Jimmy Skagg's "abstract economic drama [ultimately 1 may prove to be damaging to history" (p. 191); William Savage's call for better Western fiction "may even aggravate the, weakness we are hoping to overcome" (p. 112); and Evetts Haley's biography of Charles Goodnight, while engaging, is inadequate, for the author was overwhelmed by his subject. Clio's Cowboys is an extraordinarily candid appraisal of cowboy history that spares few.

Walker chides historians for relying upon the likes of McCoy, Hill, and Hunter while ignoring sources such as Edward and Eleanor (Marx) Aveling's obscure Working Class Movement in America (1891), which includes a chapter on the proletarian cowboy and his bourgeois oppressor, the rancher. Meanwhile, academicians have foisted off sentimental claptrap as serious history. Dale did it. So too did Rudolf (spelled "Rudolph" by Walker) Clemen.