We just returned from a wonderful, much-needed vacation … two weeks in Texas. We flew into San Antonio and did the Alamo experience, one which I heartily recommend. But the height of our vacation was the week we spent at a guest ranch in the ‘cowboy capital of the country’. Of course, before arriving, we weren’t aware that there was a ‘cowboy capital of the country’, but there is … and it is Bandera, Texas. This tiny, one square mile town, nestled in the Texas Hill Country, proudly boasts a population of 957. There were a few shops and restaurants, and considering the population, quite a few pubs. Many of the local watering holes had motorcycles parked out front, but a few hitching posts were still around, where you knew horses once waited patiently for their owners to return.
But we were not staying in town. Five miles outside of town, we found our way onto what was to become our ‘home away from home’ … a small, out-of-the-way, family-run guest ranch. As we tentatively drove through the gates and up the long, dusty driveway, we were warmly greeted by a lumbering golden retriever and his much more energetic porch mate, a yellow lab. At that moment, we knew this was our kind’a place. We entered the rustic main ranch house, approached the desk and before checking in, were immediately asked if we were interested in going out for a ride. What? Really? Now? Our answer … YES! Did I say this was ‘our kind’a place’?
Since the 1930s, five generations have been welcoming guests to this 725 acre ranch, giving them a glimpse into the cowboy way of life. Guests can stay for as few or as many days as they’d like … and quite a few came and went while we were there. But as we all got to know each other, at the dinner table, during rides, around the campfire at night, we discovered most of the families were from ENGLAND. What? More guests were from England, and other European countries, than from the U.S.!!
But why? What was the fascination with this Western cowboy culture? (Probably the same reason I find European culture, history and traditions so fascinating.) I think it might go back to Western films and tv programs. If you’ve seen the movie Belfast, set in the 60s, your heart will melt at the scenes where Buddy is mesmerized whenever a Western TV program is on the telly. And to escape from the oppression the family was living through, they went to the cinema to see Gary Cooper starring in the classic High Noon.
Who remembers Gunsmoke? Rawhide? The Lone Ranger? These programs, and many, many more were just as popular in the U.K. and Europe as they were here in the U.S. And children weren’t the only ones fascinated by these TV series, their parents were too. Growing up, boys wanted a six-shooter cap pistol, cowboy hat and chaps. Young girls wanted to be Annie Oakley or Dale Evans, wearing fringe and riding Buttercup. Didn’t you want a blood brother? I did.
My English hubby, who had never been on a horse in his life until he met me (and now I can’t keep him off one), has seen far more Western films and TV programs than I ever have. Starting with The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903, through the 1970s, Western films boomed!! Spaghetti Westerns, the low-budget films made in Italy, of which over 100 were made, were hugely popular throughout Europe, and propelled Clint Eastwood into stardom. Then came a flood of novels, making this genre one of the bestselling ever published. It was quite common for a Western novel to sell a quarter of a million copies in paperback in England alone. German author Karl May was well known for his books portraying the American West, although he had never been there.
But the fascination didn’t START with books and movies, it actually began more than 400 years ago. Records show that five Abnaki Native Americans from Maine were brought to England in 1606. Although there is very little written about them, or why they were there, it would be hard to believe they went of their own free will.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith (even if only through Disney’s fictionalized storytelling). In case you may have forgotten, the child Pocahontas is said to have saved the life of John Smith after he was captured by the Pamunkey tribe and sentenced to death. Ten years later, at the age of 18, Pocahontas moved to England with two of her tribespeople. She was married to John Rolfe, a tobacco farmer in Jamestown, Virginia, at the time, having already been baptized as a Christian and now fluent in English. Pocahontas changed her name to Lady Rebecca Rolfe and died just three years later in England of tuberculosis. The British fascination with what they perceived to be this savage, new world, must have had its start at this time.
And, of course, we can’t forget about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows. William F. Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill” took his American West spectacle to England in 1887. No one in England had ever seen anything like it before. Cowboys, Indians, sharp-shooters, trick riders, whip-cracking … performed before the Queen of England and all of European royalty. His shows were so well attended, Cody became an overnight success and a living legend in England. Buffalo Bill continued touring England and Europe to sell-out crowds for six years.
I now have a much better understanding of the complete fascination of the cowboy culture among Europeans and primarily the British. The idealization of this freedom-loving spirit with its vigilante independence coupled with the lawlessness and romance of that timeless era, which has been portrayed not only in movies, but in books, magazines, tv programs and our imaginations, has captured the hearts of people everywhere. Of course, Europeans want to experience the cowboy spirit of that era and live it for a few days. Don’t we all?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References: City of Bandera, Spaghetti Westerns, Vintage News, History Today, Wandering Australian, True West,