Cowboy Culture

Cowboy Culture

Fort Worth drovers are not your stereotypical cowboys

Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

When you read “cowboy,” what image comes to your mind?

It likely varies depending on your age, but thanks to decades of movies and television shows, there’s a good chance you see a strapping white man straddling a horse with a ten-gallon hat set just so on his head.

No doubt there are many cowboys who fit that description, but that’s a single picture in a thick photo album, according to Kristin Jaworski, Trail Boss of the Fort Worth Herd, a group of Texas longhorn cattle and cowboys formed in the city to pay homage to the cowtown’s steer-steeped past. “People think we are all John Wayne, all the same age, race, gender,” she says. “And that’s really not right at all. In the Herd, we’re so proud to reflect the diversity of past and present cowboys.”

Who cowboys were and are and what they actually did and do is today wrapped in a concept called cowboy culture, and it’s alive and well in Texas—particularly Fort Worth. It’s part of Jaworski’s job to unravel the myths and reveal the realities of cowboys, but she always begins by honoring their place in her state’s identity. “Our Western heritage here is very strong. We are very proud of that throughout Texas,” she says. “Here in Fort Worth, the American cowboy, the stockyards, the Texas longhorn—they are tied so closely to our roots, our stories, and our economy.”

In the late 1800s, cattle became a highly valuable commodity, one in which Texas, despite being a poor state, was rich. “The rest of the country was suddenly hungry for beef, and Texas had a lot of cattle—especially Texas longhorn, a breed founded in south Texas—but we didn’t have the railroads to get the cattle out of the state,” Jaworski says.

The solution? Take the cattle north to the nearest train. The problem? The nearest train in Kansas wasn’t all that near. Still, when cattle sold for $1 a head in Texas but $40 a head once at the rail station, making the long journey was worth it, and the cattle drive was born.

Cattle drives required highly skilled cowboys to successfully and safely “drive” herds for hundreds of miles along the trails from ranch to railhead. A major route, the Chisholm Trail, went right through Fort Worth, and the city’s stockyard was the last place to stop for supplies and a bit of rest before an especially long stretch through rough terrain. “The cattle drives were a brief time in our history but an important time too,” Jaworski says. “And that’s what we at The Herd do today; we commemorate and celebrate that time and share it with others.”

The Fort Worth Herd is comprised of 15 longhorn steers. Cowboys (called drovers) drive the cattle twice each day, seven days a week, along East Exchange Avenue in the Stockyards National Historic District, to the delight of crowds of excited spectators. “It’s only about a quarter mile, and that distance is nothing compared to the cattle drives of old,” Jaworski says. Yet it still allows the Herd’s cowboys to demonstrate their horsemanship and other areas of expertise. “The perception is that we open the stockyard gates, and the steers simply walk down the street, with me and our other cowboys just riding down the street beside them,” she says. “And, actually, that is what happens, but it takes a lot of work and training for that to happen in a way that’s safe and low-stress for the animals.”

The Herd’s daily drives also demonstrate the historically accurate diversity of cowboy culture. “Texas cowboy culture had a huge Mexican influence. There were Black cowboys back then too, and even a few women,” she says. “So, we show that here with the diversity of our drovers.” Each Herd cowboy is outfitted in different style clothing and tack with different saddles on their horses. From the spurs to the hats, it’s authentic and period-correct. 

Getting every last detail right is crucial, according to Jaworski. “It’s important because after the cattle drive era came and went, Hollywood sensationalized the cowboy, and so many now meet our cowboys and think we’re gunslingers or something,” she says. “We strive to teach what life on the trail was like; it was a real job with purpose and meaning. And we are not ranchers, not rodeo cowboys, but representatives of a time that was short but significant, so we want to hold on to it and ensure it’s not forgotten.”

The Black and cowboy experience in Texas is being preserved and reflected by groups such as Circle L 5 Riding Club, a Fort Worth organization with 95 members and more than 40 women, a large percentage, which highlights female contributions to cowboy culture. It was founded in 1951 to give cowboys of color the chance to participate in rodeos in and around Fort Worth. “Mr. Ed ‘Pop’ Landers started Circle L 5 Riding Club with four other founding members: John Farrell, Scott Farrell, Shirley Sanders, and W. D. Warrick,” says Marcellus “Moe” Anderson, Circle L Five’s president. “He dreamt of creating a riding club where he could ride as a Black cowboy in any parade or rodeo he desired.” 

Today, Circle L 5 is the only historically Black riding club in Fort Worth, and members continue to show off their horsemanship skills, performing and competing in rodeos across the state when they’re not caring for their horses, partaking in trail rides, and living the lives of modern-day cowboys. It’s also offering the inclusivity its founding and early members were denied, welcoming all races, ethnicities, ages, and genders, and is seeing increased interest from Hispanic and Caucasian populations.

Jaworski stresses why putting cowboys’ true diversity on display is so vital. “It’s key because it’s correct, but also, because it connects with people,” she says. “Maybe there’s a little girl who looks up to one of our female drovers, and maybe that gets her interested in horses. I think that’s so cool. The more diverse we are, the more we spread our message.”

Jaworski and other Herd cowboys consider themselves ambassadors for Fort Worth and its story. “I love working with visitors and sharing all about our city,” she says. “And I love showing them, if only in a glimpse, who we are and educating them a bit.”

As our society continues to grapple with labels and stereotypes, this kind of education is an ongoing need. “Even now, a lot of people are surprised that a woman leads the Herd, and some ask about the challenges of being in this role as a female, but I don’t like to focus on our differences,” Jaworski says. “I focus on our commonalities, the strengths and skills we cowboys share, and what we can do together, as a team.”