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Anonymous Cowboy

Advertising Billboard Project by: Anonymous Artist

Location: S.W. Corner-Howard St. and Clark St., Chicago

On View October 30 – November 29



A look at the demographics of the American frontier tells us that fully 25% of the men we think of as cowboys were African American and as many or more, perhaps 30% were Mexican vaquero. Native Americans were also pushing cattle side by side with their white, Mexican and black brethren. Do the math and Americans of European decent may very well have been a minority of all cowboys during the heyday (1866 - late 1880’s) of the great cattle drives in the “wild west”.


The task of getting a herd of cattle from ranch to railhead required a crew of twelve to fifteen men. The Chisholm Trail from Fort Worth in Texas to Abilene, Kansas, for example, was more than 1000 miles of rugged, harsh and dangerous wilderness. It took a crew two months or more to push 2000-3000 head such a distance and demanded a working, core unity of knowledge, skill, and toughness. Coherence of such a unity would have been impossible without the committed observance, among the entire crew, of some kind of implicit, hegemonic social pact. The code that emerged asserted that fairness and respect among the men was essential.

According to William Loren Katz, a scholar of African-American history and the author of 40 books on the topic, including The Black West, “within their crews, they (Blacks)* found respect and a level of equality unknown to other African-Americans of the era”, and further,  “Cowboys had to depend on one another. They couldn’t stop in the middle of some crisis like a stampede or an attack by rustlers and sort out who’s black and who’s white. Black people operated on a level of equality with the white cowboys.”   

**There are many variations of  the “code”. More modern versions like the one on the right, begin to incorporate “tolerance” and eventually, specific references to racial and gender equality.

THE CODE**  Taken from the website of the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, the following passage offers a sincere if somewhat sentimental portrayal of the stereotypical, romanticized nobility associated with the traditional cowboy..

“The iconic cowboy represents the best of America — the courage, optimism and plain hard work. Cowboys are heroic not just because they do a dangerous job, but also because they stand for something — the simple, basic values that lie at the heart of the cowboy way."

The cowboy way, also known as the “Code of the West” or “Cowboy Code” came into being as an unwritten set of homespun and necessary laws. Though never formally encoded, they stood as rules of conduct for survival. On the trail, maintaining the integrity of the code was expected among any and all others at all times. It was a social contract that laid out a pragmatic, ethical scheme without which success, survival and (not to be forgotten), companionship would have been untenable if not impossible. In the wilderness, the threat of danger and calamity were real and ever present. Committed and sincere observance of “the code” was a necessity.


On the trail commitment to the code would have been apparent throughout the crew’s daily interactions with one another. In town, however, the imperatives forsworn by adherents to the code could be, and often were, withheld; selectively and restrictively applied to the exclusion of a great many cowboys.  Apparently, it was only out on the range that all cowboys received the respect and fairness foundational to the “code”.  In other words, fealty to these rational laws, which, in great measure, implicitly and substantively defined and validated a man’s status as a “true” cowboy, in predictable circumstances, was allowed to become not only capricious but unnecessary. 

For “Anonymous” and many others, stopovers in Abilene, Enid, Fort Worth and Lone Wolf may have, in fact, been as threatening as any stretch of wilderness lying between them.

 * Parenthetical by authors

 Written under the guidance and direction of the artist.

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