Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram
Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

Romanticizing Cowboys and Indians

J. Frank Dobie

Seeking out the "true and natural and genuine" was what J. Frank Dobie was all about. A Texan folklorist in the tradition of John Lomax, Dobie perpetually sought the reality behind the romance, finding deeper truths within the memories, anecdotes, and tales taken from the individuals who lived the hard life of the range. For years the prototypical Texan thinker, Dobie's populist vision helped people understand the real West and its people, while always suggesting that its lessons are a valuable but rapidly fading reality.

Born in South Texas in 1888, he attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, majoring in English. From there he taught public school, then attended Columbia University in New York City to get his master's degree. In 1914 he joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin.

After a brief tour in WWI, two years spent on his uncle's South Texas "Rancho de los Olmos" changed his life. Frank Abernethy, a renowned protégé of Dobie, says it was there that Dobie "discovered his calling—to transmute all the richness of this life and land and culture into literature."

Returning to UT, he began writing and in 1929, with A Vaquero of the Brush Country, his literary notoriety was established, continuing through 19 books and countless articles published during and after his lifetime. The rich, varied, and honorable life of the cowboy and rancher, at one with his integrity, his herd, and his land, is Dobie's most common topic. As a professor and as editor for the Texas Folklore Society, his teaching impacted a generation of students. Ultimately, Dobie left a stamp not only as the chronicler of cowboy life, but as its strongest advocate as well.

Vaquero Influence

Among the many things richly documented by Dobie was the influence of the Mexican cowboy, or vaquero, on North American cowboy culture. Often the victim of harsh and disrespectful treatment at the hands of "white" settlers, ranchers, and lawmen, the true cowboy owed a great deal to his Mexican forebears.

The first vaqueros, literally cow (vaca-) boys, came to Texas during a wave of settlement from the south starting in the mid 1600s. The hamlets that sprang up along the Rio Bravo Del Norte (the Rio Grande) were based on salt trading and cattle ranching. A mercantile economy then developed to outfit those communities.

These early vaquero settlers developed not only tools and skills required for the ranching industry but also the ancestors of the Texas Longhorn; in Spanish they were called llaves torsidas (twisted horns). This early breed was hardy, had a very tough hide, and did well in the hot dry brush of South Texas. It was the hide that protected them and provided what North Americans knew as "Mexican iron"—super-tough rawhide. In fact, the primary reason Longhorn cattle were raised was for their leather. It was only after trains that could bring the meat to market arrived that cattle were raised for commercial beef production. Fatter breeds nearly replaced the Longhorn at that time.

Map from endsheets of <em>A Vaquero of the Brush Country</em>
Map from endsheets of A Vaquero of the Brush Country
J. Frank Dobie

Dobie's geographical southwest and his historical southwest are inextricably linked, a notion clearly related in his texts and their maps. This image is the inside cover of A Vaquero of the Brush Country.

<< previous section | next section >>

Printer-friendly Text