Equality State or Cowboy State--and What About the Miners?: An Essay

By Phil Roberts


Over the past three or four years, this Wyoming native has noticed a major change in the way many of us refer to our state. The “Equality State” is the official nickname—recognizing the role the first territorial legislature had in decreeing that their new territory be the first in the nation to grant women equal rights.  But, today, even though it is more generic and less specific to Wyoming, the nickname “Cowboy State” seems to have supplanted the earlier, official label.

Rather than emphasizing the equality aspirations set forth by the earliest Wyoming lawmakers, many seem to take greater comfort today in the nickname, “the Cowboy State.” And it probably should be no surprise.  There is little comfort provided by the obvious contradictions in equality in theory and equality in fact. Even casual knowledge alerts the least observant that equality is hardly closer today than it was in the last century.  The enduring quality of the cowboy myth continues to resonate for those nostalgic for a time that never was.  

In politics, the cowboy myth has been used as a powerful symbol of rugged individualism, disdain for government, impatience with rules, and a certain feeling of inferiority. It is bolstered by clinging to the perceived virtues of that mythical common man.  The reality of the cowboy, however, is an uncomfortable reminder that America always has had a class system. In the economic scheme of things, the cowboy was at the bottom, the ultimate loser in the American game of using the weight of possessions as a measure of success. He was the hired itinerant worker whose only possessions were a horse, a saddle, a hat, chaps and boots. Few of these cowboys survived the waves of ranch consolidation, emphasis on machinery to do what physical labor once confronted and, in terms of their own livelihoods, increased opportunities for education, rural electricity, social security and the enforcement of labor standards and the minimum wage. If he didn’t become a rancher, the cowboy went into another occupation which often necessitated a move out of Wyoming to more urban areas of America.

As a contemporary measure of this collision between the cowboy myth and the cowboy reality, no one today aspires to the role of the real cowboy--seeking to make a living on the meager wages offered for distinctly unskilled labor. Real cowboy jobs in Wyoming go begging or get taken only by non-English speaking immigrants whose labor options are almost entirely closed. Maybe it isn't accidental that the real cowboys that are celebrated in the state's heritage—“the characters” as Pete Simpson calls them--were made extinct by the New Deal  To those celebrating the mythic cowboy, the real cowboy would be the subject of scorn, the product of an underachieving, underclass. Who with any ambition, after all, would aspire to a career as an itinerant laborer, working with cattle, facing the most precarious of futures fraught with economic hardship? 

The myth of the cowboy was in full swing by the early 20th century, but for Wyoming, a place lagging the national trends, the celebration of the cowboy myth took on its greatest significance in the 1930s when the bronc rider took his permanent position on our license plate.  The last of the open-range cowboys, if any were left, celebrated their 80th birthdays or older.  The hardships dimmed with years or media depictions modulated the worst of them into heroic obstacles that were overcome.

The mythic cowboy had become the mascot for the University of Wyoming. That adoption, in the late 19th century, furthers my point. When an opposing team, a group of soldiers from Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, played against a University of Wyoming team and suffered a humiliating loss, the opponents accused Wyoming of hiring a "ringer"—a cowboy, a paid itinerant, to bolster the team's strength. The accusation continued in later games, too. "They have a bunch of cowboys on that team," was the derisive charge, the meaning of course that Wyoming had a bunch of itinerant, lower-class, probably paid ruffians on the team who lacked the mental acuities expected of collegians.

Wyoming students, however, seized on the symbol and the cowboy of myth. Many must have known full well that the cowboy of reality was what many of their fathers known when they were their age. The fathers—or grandfathers—had overcome the hardship, and thus, had the means to send their sons off to college so they would avoid a similar hard existence.

            To one old-timer in Niobrara County many years ago, Wyoming and, indeed, the nation, was now celebrating the very lifestyle he had worked a lifetime to overcome. "All that time I was a cowboy, I didn't know how romantic it was," he said, not pointing out that the educated classes of his youth, too, had failed to see the occupation as anything but lower-class, loathsome and indicative of a lack of ambition, if not total absence of a brain. It was an age when free land could be had through filing under a federal homestead act. Why would anyone remain an unskilled, floating, itinerant laborer unless he was not lacking in ambition, ignorant, attempting to flee a criminal past, or just in love with work around livestock—animals that one didn’t even own?

            Later, jobs for the poorly educated laborer in such areas as the oil industry, construction and urban-based manufacturing were becoming more lucrative, and if not unionized, at least made secure through workers compensation statutes and guarantees of income after retirement.  What incentive was there for anyone to remain a low-paid, seasonal agricultural laborer?

            But if changes in the economy and various forms of government regulation brought an end to the cowboy of reality, it served to incorporate the cowboy myth of the rugged individualistic who disdained regulation, worked alone and in all kinds of weather to serve and protect the interests of his employer.  While he might have done it for the love of the animals, that is difficult to see, given that he was protecting what would be steak and hamburger once it was shipped to faraway markets after roundup. (In fact, the Belden image of the cowboy carrying the calf across the saddle can have the alternate meaning of demonstrating the fragility of his economic station that even saving the life of a tiny calf might spell the difference of his employer’s making it or going broke in the cattle business).

            In the 1930s, re-creation of what the cowboy actually represented made its way into state politics. At first, politicians like Democrat Lester Hunt profited from the powerful symbol after he commissioned the "bucking horse" for the state's license plate when he served as secretary of state. But later, the newly fashioned image suited Post-World War II conservatives who embraced the new mythical cowboy while their Democratic opponents inexplicably ceded the powerful symbol that Hunt used effectively for election to governor and the U. S. Senate. The conservatives carefully refashioned the image. As opponents of big government they adopted the mythical cowboys as symbols of resistance to any organized government.  With their big business allies, they also repositioned the cowboy as someone utterly loyal to authority, not unlike how Southerners once were convinced that the slave mammies in the antebellum South so loved their employers. The cowboys demonstrated the love through unconditional loyalty, steadfastly guarding their individuality by accepting whatever wage the rancher would pay, and storing their bedrolls in bunkhouses regardless of such inconveniences as lack of heat, solid walls, or tight doorways, or vermin and snakes under the floorboards.  By accepting those conditions, the cowboy was showing a fierce loyalty, a love for his boss and an acceptance of his inferior station in society.  It is in those respects that the myth of the lost cause and Southern slavery coincides with the myth of the Wyoming cowboy.

            Celebrating the mythical cowboy, for some, may mean wanting to relive those mythic times when employees accepted with gratitude whatever they were given and worshipped the boss as a higher form of humankind. The message for today is unmistakable. Why can't that class of people be that way today?  And there should be more of them. Clearly, it must be the current culture, spurred on by government policies, that made them change and drove them into other endeavors. It was the minimum wage, unions, other alien forces, that make the current lower classes shiftless and lazy, disrespectful of their superiors and unwilling to accept the conditions their predecessors “thanked us” for providing.  Why can't they be like the cowboys of the past?

            Curiously, the logo of the bucking horse on the Wyoming license plate was added just at the time that the open-range cowboys of the 19th century were fast disappearing. But, coincidentally, in that very decade, the Wyoming State Legislature designated "Wyoming Day" as Dec. 10th of every year.  It did not commemorate statehood (that happened on July 10, 1890), nor any particular cowboy-based celebration or incident. It honored the day in 1869 when territorial Governor John A. Campbell signed the Suffrage Bill, granting women the right to vote and hold office--for the first time in any government. 

             The bucking horse logo reflects the nostalgia of a by-gone age.  With its complicated mythology, the cowboy image provides the state with a retrospective of where we believe we came from--regardless of whether or not it is accurate in any or all of its historical details.  The myths can provide inspiration, whether or not the story is absolutely correct. 

                On the other hand, our motto as the "Equality State" can be viewed as far more than retrospective pride in an isolated legislative act carried out in the first territorial legislature on the frontier. We can view it as aspirational--it is more than the past that we commemorate by the term. It is a goal to which we, as a state, ought to be moving toward.

            One must also consider the other tradition in Wyoming history. More people worked on the railroads and in mines in 19th century Wyoming than worked as cowboys on the open range.  To this day, the state's economy is much more reliant on mining than on agriculture. How did the miner lose out to the cowboy when it came to historical myth-making in Wyoming?

             Unlike his contemporary cowboy who worked in more familiarity with his boss, miners worked under supervisors who, in turn, served absentee owners whose motives were never in doubt--higher profits regardless of the toll on human labor. Unlike the myth of the cowboy that grew in contradiction to the reality, the myth of the miner more closely parallels the facts. The story is a familiar and oft-repeated one about banding together to gain economic parity with an absentee soulless corporation bent on making profits and paying as little as possible for labor, safety and benefits to its workers.

But the miners are still with us. They lasted longer than cowboys because they were more successful in organizing and gained greater protections from government as a result. (After all, the office of state mine inspector goes back to before statehood). But those economic gains and assurances of safer working conditions came at a high cost to the myth of the miner!  Who wanted to return to those mythic times when non-English speaking workers were so desperate to live in America that they accepted jobs in the far interior in a place bereft of vegetation, besieged by bad weather, plagued by cave-ins, subject to loss of limb from unsafe equipment, and at the mercy of outside economic interests?  Who wanted to celebrate the myth of the miner who experienced working conditions so vile that mine disasters in Wyoming took hundreds of lives and brought thousands of life-shortening injuries and disease? 

One important element of the myth of the miner, that they were one big international family, was rooted in company policies seeking to divide labor by using their racial and ethnic differences. Among the prevailing opinion-leaders of Wyoming, however, there is little reason to exploit the myth of the miner. Not only are they still with us, but they are a laboring class lacking the respect for the natural hierarchy by voting for labor-friendly candidates and actually embracing the need for government regulation of upper class ambition. Despite their century or more of Wyoming presence, in fact actually preceding the cowboy into Wyoming, they remain the aliens--the outsiders who refused to accept the myth of their class and be satisfied with it like the imagined—and extinct—species of the cowboy.                                                                   

            Historians recognize the class nature of such racist-tinged incidents as the Rock Springs massacre. Yet, at the same time, the Johnson County Invasion continues to suffer from misinterpretation as an incident of sheepmen v. cattlemen (false) or farmer v. rancher (false), or law-abiding citizen v. rustler (also false). Even those who are descended from the small ranchers who were targets of the "invaders" seem to deny it was a class-rooted conflict between big operators and many of their former employees--ex-cowboys who were seeking escape from the itinerant lifestyle, now so celebrated in the myth of the cowboy, if not the reality of his actual condition in the open-range days on the frontier.  

One can argue that the reality of the cowboy--an individual who was forced to cope as best he could with the economic circumstances he found himself in--did believe strongly in the concept of equality. There is the famous story of the newly-arrived British ranch owner who met a cowboy on his ranch just as he was arriving in Wyoming. He introduced himself and announced that he was the man's "lord."  The cowboy shot back, "That man ain't been born yet." 

The cowboy well knew that when conditions were difficult on the range--in bad weather, in stampedes, in confrontations with rustlers--he needed to count on his fellow cowboys for help.  Regardless of their race or ethnicity, they became a part of his community. While stories are told of ugly racial incidents in cattle country in the 19th century, there are even more stories of men judging their companions on their honesty, integrity, steadfastness--men who would "watch your back." And the race or ethnic background was entirely irrelevant in a time and place where the individual character was the supreme judge of a man's worth.

But one must view this individualism in perspective. The cowboy's worth was not measured by his own ambitions as much as by how well he cooperated with the others in his "community"--his co-workers and those who relied on his character for their very lives. "Equality" meant that each person was measured without regard to color or creed.  Character came with the person--not from what group he may come from. Respect for the boss came when it was earned and demonstrated. If the boss didn't earn that respect, the cowboy simply moved on. In those instances, the boss might have had a superior economic position, but to the cowboy, he was distinctly unequal--indeed, inferior and not worthy of respect.

Individualism, defiance of government regulation and disregard for community has many contemporary heroes not bogged down by the baggage of the real cowboy. They are the radio talk-show host, the glib politician, the entrepreneur, the computer billionaire, the corporate CEO, the major shareholders in the huge multinational chain stores and fast-food franchises. They are those making millions in salaries and stock options while they disparage reform or pare down the labor force and shift jobs offshore where labor is cheaper.  In the political future, what role will pieceworkers in the computer industry, Wal-Mart “associates,” fast-food workers, and low-paid tourism service workers have as they are replaced by automation, cheaper imported labor or innovation?  And what part will the itinerant “temps” in all these various sectors have in the nation's mythology?  Will they become the 22nd century version of the American cowboy?  And, by then, how will that extinct species be used nostalgically to excuse inequality, chastise the unworthy, justify exploitation, and forgive unearned privilege for another generation?

It is time to either accept the historical facts of the cowboy life, use the lessons to aspire toward the mythical, simple virtues, or recognize that the myth is only the nostalgic dream of those wanting to excuse their own privileged station. There is no denying that cowboys in the late 19th century reflected the mores of their generation and the attitudes of their times, at least in the abstract. .The reality is that the cowboy might have been racist or bigoted in person as well, but not usually toward the individual with whom he worked and lived.

The legacy of the equality bound up in the nickname of  the “Equality State” is as much aspirational as historic. It is firmly in the Wyoming tradition to aspire to a more equal society, not just recognizing the need for equal economic opportunity and social justice, but by working actively to further those goals for the benefit of everyone. We can keep the “bucking horse” license plate. It provides not only retrospective on from where we have come, but knowing that while some may view it merely as advertising of a mythical past, it can serve to remind us of our aspirations for equality. In moving toward perfecting equality, we need to hope the same aspirations of many of those represented by that figure who sought nothing more than an equal shot at a livelihood, a chance to  escape from the uncertainties and hazards of the open-range cowboy life, and participation in the enduring American project of equal rights.