I have ridden a horse maybe three times in my life. I don’t know how to throw a rope. I have been head-butted, stepped on, tail-whipped, chased around, and dragged by cattle, but never felt the desire to wrestle or ride them. But I love the sport of rodeo. Barrel racers and their horses, whether paints or roans or buckskins, merge into one speeding being as they round the third barrel. Calf ropers’ hands blur tying three hooves together while their fellow athlete—their horse—keeps the rope taut.
For a short period of time, cattle drives were big business in Nebraska. After the Civil War ended in 1865, growing demand for beef plus a surplus of longhorn cattle in Texas led to thousands of Texas cattle being herded north to Nebraska, where the Union Pacific railroad transported them to the eastern states. Some cattle drives went even farther north, taking beef to Indian reservations in Dakota Territory. Early on, drives brought cattle to eastern and central parts of the Nebraska. Kearney was common destination in the mid 1870s.
The American cowboy has come to symbolize bravery, justice, and the nostalgic freedom of the Wild West. But real cowboys didn’t spend all their time fighting bandits and riding into the sunset like movie heroes. What did real Nebraska cowboys do every day? Find out through a new exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum and an article in the Fall 2013 issue of Nebraska History.