Do Real Cowboys Buy What the Yellowstone Television Series is Selling?

The Wild Bunch (1892). Clockwise top left, Kid Curry, Bill McCarty, Bill (Tod) Carver, Ben Kilpatrick,
and Tom O’Day

I live in a rodeo town once considered the wild west. Prescott, founded in 1864, is home to the World’s Oldest Rodeo. So, you would think we know a thing or two about ranching, cowboy culture, and western life. 

But here’s the thing. Many of my friends are obsessed with the TV series “Yellowstone.”

Everywhere I go, it’s Yellowstone this and Yellowstone that. My friends talk about the Dutton family as if they were their family members. It’s extraordinary. When I told them I had not seen the series, my friends were stunned. They couldn’t believe it. 

I usually don’t have much time to watch television. I can think of better ways to spend my time, like writing. However, one evening I thought I would find out what all the hype was about. I clicked on the first Yellowstone episode. I was surprised at the level of violence and vulgarity, and maybe I shouldn’t have been. I didn’t know what to expect. 

Nowadays, you can hardly view anything on television that isn’t rated MA (mature audiences) or R. Even the PG13-rated offerings are raunchy. That’s Hollywood for you. 

My all-time favorite western television series production is “Lonesome Dove.” Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones are depicted as the quintessential cowboys that we have all come to romanticize. An excellent real-life depiction of the cowboy life. In other words, great storytelling. 

Real Cowboys, branding, circa 1912. ©2023PrescottVoice

I love history and collecting original material about the old west and the personalities that settled the west, like photographs, letters, rare books, and manuscripts (written by real cowboys). 

Whenever I have the opportunity, I visit working ranches in the Prescott, Arizona, area. Spending time with people who live and work on ranches is a real eye-opener, and it’s nothing like what is depicted in the Yellowstone series. 

Not long ago, my husband and I were on our way to a rodeo in Camp Verde (about an hour east of Prescott). It’s a scenic drive. But that day, it was even more so when we saw a group of cowboys gathering cattle on the range. 

I asked my husband to quickly pull the truck over to the side of the road, and before you knew it, I was out at the barbed wire fence, snapping photos like crazy. The backdrop of the beautiful mountains and the cowboys rounding up the cattle was a rare sight. It was a thrill to capture this from-life scene. 

Cowboys gathering cattle in Camp Verde. ©2023PrescottVoice

Yes, real-life cowboys (and cowgirls) are still working cattle and ranches, just like in the old days. But do these cowboys resemble what is depicted in the Yellowstone series? I don’t think so. 

Heck, the real-life cowboy outlaws of the Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy, seem like choir boys compared to the cowboy characters on Yellowstone. 

I know, it’s just a show meant to entertain. But is it? Or does the show say more about the societal breakdown in which we live?

Cowboys deeply understand and connect to the ranch lifestyle and culture portrayed in the show Yellowstone. Many of these cowboys have expressed their disapproval of the series.

One of the problems with the show is the significant need for better storytelling, think Lonesome Dove. 

The cowboys in the Yellowstone series are portrayed as violent and ruthless, which I feel is a gross misrepresentation of the cowboy way of life and culture. 

I believe the show’s creators could do a better job of accurately showing the authentic cowboy lifestyle.  

Do cowboys have the extreme, violent behavior that is presented on the show? I don’t think so. 

I am involved as a volunteer at the Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo and am exposed to cowboys frequently. My husband grew up on a ranch and is a cowboy. I’ve never seen him behave like the characters in Yellowstone. 

And where do all these gunfights happen? Given what you see on the show, you’d expect to see cowboys brandishing their six-shooters every day in the streets of Prescott. I have lived here for over 25 years and have never seen a gunfight. Have you?

In Prescott’s early territorial days, there may have been a shooting or two in the saloons on Whiskey Row. But most of the gunfights reported in the papers occurred at the mining camps, some in Dewey, Congress, and Williamson Valley.

In 1905, it was reported in the Weekly Journal Miner that territorial Judge Richard E. Sloan warned Prescott residents to leave their guns at home. He said, “The indiscriminate carrying of revolvers has led to much trouble.” 

Judge Sloan threatened Prescott residents that he would severely punish the first culprit brought before him on the charge of brandishing a revolver in public. The legislation passed in 1905 made it illegal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. 

At the End of the Day. ©2023PrescottVoice

Another issue cowboys have with the Yellowstone series is how it portrays the treatment of animals on the ranch. A few cowboys I’ve talked to believe this is a gross misrepresentation of their way of life. 

In reality, cowboys take great care to ensure the well-being of the animals, and they have a deep respect and reverence for the animals they work with. Horses and cattle are partners in a cowboy’s everyday life, so they are good stewards of their livestock.

Opinions about Yellowstone vary widely; you know by now that I’m not a fan. But many are, if for nothing more than the shock and awe entertainment value. 

Some cowboys have expressed their disapproval of the show, while others enjoy it and find it entertaining. I know some who scoff and chuckle at the show, like my husband, who refused to watch more than the first episode we watched together. My husband said, “where are the ropes most cowboys have on their saddles?” The rope is an essential tool. Much less the Henry rifle in the scabbard, used for survival. It’s these little things that are noticed by real cowboys that make the show unbelievable and inauthentic. 

Two Cowboys and their horses, circa 1910. ©2023PrescottVoice

Historically, cowboys entertained themselves by competing on the ranches they worked at. This is how today’s rodeo began—the original extreme sport.

The following quote by the late Texas novelist Clay Reynolds puts things into perspective.  When asked about the TV series Yellowstone and real-life cowboys, Clay gave the following historical reference and insight: 

“The cowboy of western lore didn’t exist as depicted in films and TV shows. By and large, a herder of cattle held just about the worst job there was. The labor, though skilled, was hard and frequently dangerous; the pay was lousy; working conditions severe. It was a job often taken by the most down-and-out, just a hair better than being a ditch digger or town Waddie, mucking out saloons, moving an outhouse over a new glory hole, or shoveling out a stable.”

Many have fully embraced the image of the cowboy as created by Hollywood and TV as their own, galvanized their superstitions and traditions, and certainly, the clothing and tack markets for cowboy styles have been adopted as authentic. But the era of the Old West Cowboy was truly a brief one, lasting less than fifty years, and no one at the time admired them as noble ‘knights of the plains’ or any such nonsense as was propagated by dime novelists and pulp fiction writers.”

Sadly, Clay passed away on April 14, 2022. He was a prolific writer and historian. 

The Yellowstone series may be popular as entertainment. But in my opinion, it doesn’t come close to an accurate representation of today’s cowboys. 

Murder and brutality are substituted for authenticity and reality. I guess this is the kind of entertainment that audiences want these days. 

I still think fondly of the 1985 series Lonesome Dove and wish productions like that would return. The characters are unforgettable. I can’t count how many times my husband and I have watched it together. It never gets old. 

My friends will probably think that I’m crazy when I tell them that I won’t be watching the Yellowstone series. Que the shock! 

The first episode was more than enough for me. 

If I want a dose of politics, murder, brutality, and darkness, all I have to do is watch the news. 

What do you think? I would love to know.

About the author

Hi, I'm Teri Franks, the voice behind Prescott Voice. I've spent years immersing myself in all that Prescott has to offer, and I love sharing the unique stories and experiences I've discovered. When I'm not writing, you'll find me exploring Prescott's trails or tasting our local cuisine. I believe that the vibrant lifestyle here in Prescott inspires us to live a healthier, happier life. Come join me on this exciting journey as we explore Prescott together.

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