Cowboy Ethics | Ten Principles To Live By

“There will never be any class of people in our country that can replace the old western cowman for common sense, shrewdness, humor and fine citizenship.”

Will Rogers, American actor (1879-1935)

When I think of “cowboy ethics,” I remember my childhood in Southern California and watching Roy Rogers and Dale Evans on television. What wonderful role models they were! From a Cowboy’s & Indians Magazine article in 2011 during the Roy Rogers Centennial:

“He was as good as they come. He was a straight shooter and could sit a horse as if he were born in the saddle. He could yodel like nobody’s business. He walked the straight and narrow in his hand-tooled boots and lived by a code worthy of his white Stetson.”

Like many toddlers back then, I took a nap in the afternoons after a busy day of play. Then, I would wake up to watch the King of the Cowboys on television, which I recall has sponsored by Nestle’s Quik (which became Nesquik), chocolate mix. I remember wanting to go visit Roy and his family at the ranch every single day. That impression has stayed with me all these years.

James P. Owen and the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership focus on the values that are part of our American Western heritage. When I returned to Austin in summer, 2013, I was delighted to find the Center based here. Cowboy values are, “values all Americans can share, no matter what our politics, our religion, or our station in life.”

Cowboys are heroic — not just because they do a dangerous job, but because they stand for something. Principles like honor, loyalty and courage lie at the heart of the Cowboy Way. The Center shares the following ten principles, which are good guidelines not only for business, but also for nonprofits.

1. Live each day with courage

2. Take pride in your work

3. Always finish what you start

4. Do what has to be done

5. Be tough, but fair

6. When you make a promise, keep it

7. Ride for the brand

8. Talk less and say more

9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale

10. Know where to draw the line.

Legendary film star and humorist Gene Autry (1907-1998), promoted his own “Cowboy Code.” Autry’s code was written, “For all of his young fans that wanted to be just like him. A wildly popular recording, movie, and television cowboy superstar of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, his cowboy code reflected the characters he portrayed: men of high moral character that stood for everything that was good, decent, and fair.”

Autry’s code puts a new spin one some of the code noted above, and I like how he approaches the subject.

The Cowboy Code By Gene Autry

  1. The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
  2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
  3. He must always tell the truth.
  4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
  5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
  6. He must help people in distress.
  7. He must be a good worker.
  8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
  9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
  10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

Orson Welles shares the context for developing an honest code of behavior, which was so important during the early American western expansion.

“In common with all Protestant or Jewish cultures, America was developed on the idea that your word is your bond. Otherwise, the frontier could never have been opened, ’cause it was lawless. A man’s word had to mean something.”

Orson Welles, American actor (1815-1985)

My own ancestors were among the early settlers of the Panhandle in far north Texas. My great-uncle helped bring the railroad to Amarillo, along with many other amenities. My great-aunt wrote about her love for the wide open expanses of the Panhandle, and about some of the notable characters of the time including Billy The Kid. An old family story concerns my great-grandfather – who was also a railroad executive, but based in Santa Fe, New Mexico – being on a train with both Billy The Kid and Wyatt Earp. They were riding on opposite sides of the train unbeknownst to one another! My great-grandfather prayed they never discovered one another that tense day. An honest code of behavior was definitely needed during the American western expansion, an exciting but often dangerous time. (Our family papers – Appleton and Ten Eyck – are housed in the Zimmerman Library, University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.)

Returning to the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, I obtained a copy of James Owen’s book, Cowboy Values: Recapturing What America Once Stood For (Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2008). The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of cowboys and the American West by a number of contemporary photographers. James remarks that America needs the cowboy more than ever, and he cites Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Here is one of many discussions I especially enjoyed:

“With a little creativity and commitment to do something, each of us can find some way to make a difference, however modest …. when we get involved in a personal, hands-on way, it sets up a completely different dynamic: one in which whatever time and energy we give yields a rich dividend in terms of the satisfaction and expanded awareness we get back.”

You might enjoy watching this video interview. Let’s all be more like cowboys, whether we be businessmen or business women, organizational leaders, nonprofit professionals, or simply family members (no matter what age).

Additional Resources

  • Golden Productions hosts a “cowboy” YouTube channel. Topics covered are wide ranging (literally).
  • Dr. Dan Hillenbrand hosts a podcast, Modern Cowboy. While he does promote his product line on the website and I know nothing about that, the podcasts are insightful about modern cowboy life. Follow the link to reach the podcast page.
  • Dawn Moore has written about her late father (who played the Lone Ranger), for The Huffington Post (HuffPost Entertainment), “What Becomes a Legacy Most?” (June 20, 2013).

“What’s his legacy? That he inspired and continues to inspire the notion of offering assistance without seeking acknowledgement or fame. To come to the aid of someone in need. Pretty powerful stuff. As is the Lone Ranger Creed. Written by Fran Striker in 1933 as the template for the radio show’s writers – as in, ‘What would the Lone Ranger do?’ – it remains remarkably timeless. Its tenants set quite a high moral bar few people could master; fewer still would even attempt. My dad was quoted often as saying portraying the character made him a better person. A little hokey perhaps, but hey, if the love that flows from his multi-generational fans is any measure of that effort, then I would say he accomplished his goal.”

  • New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. Our family has donated a vintage Winchester rifle to the museum, which is located in Las Cruces. I think aspiring cowgirls and cowboys would enjoy visiting!
  • Texas Historical Commission, “The Cowboys of Color Rodeo” (2017).

  • Texas Historical Commission, “The Vaqueros of South Texas” (2017).

  • Katie Gutierrez for Texas Highways, “Vaqueros: The Original Cowboys” (2021). “‘The American cowboy, our great national folk hero, is recognized around the world as a symbol of our country,’ Hoy says. ‘Cowboys as we know them, however, would never have come into existence without the vaquero. They were the original cowboys.’” You might also enjoy getting to know Asociacion de Charros San Antonio. Follow them on Facebook!
  • Someone was kind enough to send me a link to an article announcing just how serious the state of Wyoming is about “cowboy ethics.” Here is a write-up courtesy of State Symbols USA, Wyoming State Code of Ethics.

If you want to be a real life, modern cowboy, consider the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M University Kingsville. The quote at the top of the page was recently shared by a member of the King Ranch Family on Facebook (*). I couldn’t resist sharing it here.

Although not related to ethics, a friend shared a short film with me dating from 1917 by The Bray Studios, Inc., “How the Cowboy Makes His Lariat.” It shows cowboys in action on another type of task, and you might enjoy it.

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