Soldiers and Indians
"Soldiers and Indians" would have been more accurate than "cowboys and Indians," but even that wasn't as common as Hollywood would have us believe. The majority of soldiers serving in forts and outposts of the old west never fought Indians and some never even saw an Indian (Duncan and Ward).
The Wild West
After the US bought the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, more and more people headed west into what they believed was mostly empty land. This was just plain wrong. Native People had been living there for centuries. Many, like the Cherokee, had already been pushed west from their original lands many years earlier (Anderson and Wetmore). Imagine living in a place where your parents and your grandparents grew up (and even their grandparents!) and then some strangers come along with guns and tell you to leave. They tell you that you and all the other people in your town now have to move to a reservation 1,000 miles away and you can't leave that reservation or you'll be arrested. This is what happened to many Native People when they were moved from all over the US to "Indian Territory" in what is now (mostly) Oklahoma and southern Kansas in the 1830s (History.com "Trail of Tears").
Though there are working cowboys today, cowboys of Hollywood legend only existed for a very short time, between about 1866 and 1886 when 20 million cattle were driven by cowboys on horseback from Texas to northern railheads (places where railroads started or ended). The price for cattle in Texas was very low, but people in eastern cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, or New York would pay much more for beef. That made it worth it for ranch owners to hire cowboys to drive their herds 1,000 miles or more along trails such as the Chisolm Trail or the Goodnight-Loving Trail. The cattle could then be shipped by train to the east where they could make much more money selling them.
If you look at the map of the trails on the right you'll see some cross the area promised to the Indians (which seems crazy since it was their land to begin with). This meant occasionally they would have fights with cowboys, but usually, cowboys and Indians never saw each other at all (Duncan and Ward).
Instead of the stereotype from the movies of fighting cowboys and Indians, the real story was very different. One cowboy who did see Indians wrote, "The people we saw, scattered about in small villages or begging [beef] from us, were not the 'savage foes' of Western lore but a sorry lot of starving human beings."
Image courtesy of the NPS
Because the United States government made it illegal for Indians to leave their "reservations," they were given food rations, but as this cowboy pointed out, "rations are issued for seven days but last only three. After months of pleading with the government agent, Cheyenne braves were allowed to go on a buffalo hunt, where they found nothing but bones left by white hunters" (Olson, Allred & Proch 24). The Native People of the Americas had their land stolen, their families killed, were forced onto reservations, and because these were often in areas with little resources and no jobs, they also faced starvation.
There were a few battles (battle is a poor word, however since the army had Gatling guns and could kill Indians, including women and children, without penalty) between the army and Native American tribes in this area during the heyday of the cowboy, but the idea that cowboys and Indians were constantly at war is a myth . . . except in the movies.
Anderson, William L., and Ruth Y. Wetmore. "Cherokee." NCpedia. University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.
Duncan, Dayton, and Geoffrey Ward. "The West." The West. Dir. Stephen Ives. Prod. Ken Burns. PBS. Sept. 1996. Television.
Haeber, Jonathan. “Vaqueros: The First Cowboys of the Open Range.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 15 Aug. 2003. Web.
History.com Staff. "Trail of Tears." History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.
Image file: Public Broadcasting Station. "Isom Dart." Wikimedia.org. Wikimedia Commons, 20 July 2017.
"Indian Wars Time Table." United States History. Online Highways, LLC., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017. <http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1008.html>.
Olson, Tod, Scott Allred, and Gregory Proch. "We Prepare for Indian Attack but Meet None." How to Get Rich on a Texas Cattle Drive: In Which I Tell the Honest
Truth about Rampaging Rustlers, Stampeding Steers, & Other Fateful Hazards on the Wild Chisholm Trail. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2010. 24.
Ponsford, Matthew. “America’s black cowboys fight for their place in history.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, 28 Nov. 2012. Web.