AHA Annual Meeting

Do Have a Cow, Man! A Historian Anticipates a Denver Ritual

Seth Denbo | Dec 1, 2016

Cattle call: Steer a course to 17th Street on January 5, 2017, for the National Western Stock Show Parade. National Western Stock Show via Wikimedia Commons

One of the ideas from my AP US history class that has stayed with me is the adage that barbed wire killed the cowboy. Not being a historian of the American West, I don’t know whether recent work in the field has revised this idea, but I think of it as a moment in my historical education at which I began to grasp basic ideas about causality and change. Effective means of livestock containment brought new farming practices that changed labor and living conditions. Which is a long way of explaining why at noon on January 5 I’m going to walk a few blocks from the Denver Convention Center to see dozens of longhorns and accompanying cowgirls and ­cowboys parade through downtown Denver in a display of nostalgia for the Old West.

The parade kicks off the National Western Stock Show, one of the largest of its kind in the country; in 2006, on its 100th anniversary, the show drew almost 750,000 spectators. This year the parade coincides with the start of the 2017 AHA annual meeting. While we often associate livestock with Texas, Colorado ranks as one of the states with the largest population of cattle. One of the major cattle-drive routes of the mid-19th century went through Denver, then an outpost with a few thousand inhabitants, on its way to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Mexicans, Native Americans, and African Americans drove the thousands of cattle that were sold along this route. From these iconic cattle drives to the homesteaders who raised animals for their own consumption, the history of livestock farming was, to a great extent, connected with the history of settlement and and domination of the Great Plains by whites. Whatever your perspective on that history, livestock have made an indelible mark on the American past. So join me for what promises to be very a different kind of start to the annual meeting.

Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He tweets @seth_denbo.

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