Of Quakers and Cowboys

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The image of the cowboy was created in Western movies and novels as a hard living, hard drinking gambler who is quick with a gun and lonely for women.  Quakers are also viewed in popular culture through erroneous stereotypes, and are believed to be extinct, except for their image on the Quaker Oats box. 

Two thousand Quakers happened to be in Greely, Colorado last summer at the time of the Greeley Stampede, which is likely one of the three best rodeos in the United States. The Quakers were in Greely to attend Friends General Conference (FGC), and a reporter from the Greeley Tribune contacted us to explore the possibility of writing a story that would compare Quakers and cowboys. That article never was written, but the question was planted in my mind: How do popular images compare with the realities of cowboys and Quakers? I also began wondering whether these two groups might have something more in common.

The Hollywood image of a cowboy does not match the reality of a rancher friend of mine who rides with the cattle and also serves on the local branch of the Federal Reserve Board. The image does not fit our own “Grandpa” as a young man – an overworked, poorly fed ranch hand and cowboy who ate his lunch every day under a tree near the local one-room schoolhouse, where he spotted his future wife.

The popular image of Quakers, if they are even considered to be alive today, has them living in sheltered communities like the Shakers, or wearing the peculiar clothing of the Amish.  These images don’t fit a Quaker I know who is the president of a large, state-funded college.  Nor do they include the many Quakers who work as international consultants, promoting peaceful communities and economic development.

Once I saw that both these groups counter common misconceptions about themselves, I started seeing other similarities between Quakers and working cowboys.

Both groups care for the flora and fauna of the earth. Quakers do this through organizations like Quaker Earthcare Witness. Cowboys rotate their herds between pastures to protect the grasses there, and of course, they care for their animals. Even in rodeos, stock contractors protect the animals under their care, even though the public is generally uninformed about this.

Truthfulness is a Quaker testimony.  A rancher’s handshake agreement is considered binding.

Community is another Quaker testimony.  The tradition of ranchers working the hay harvest together or coming to the ranch of another family to do the work of an ill or injured neighbor is part of the cowboy life.

Simplicity is a third Quaker testimony.  When on an extended cattle round-up, cowboys are likely to travel for days with only as much as they can tie on the back of a saddle.

A fourth Quaker testimony that illustrates an important similarity is the Quaker testimony of equality, particularly of women.  Women as recorded ministers and meeting clerks have a long history among Quakers.  Similarly, women have long been essential in assisting cattle and horse round-ups, working from vehicles or horseback.  Many ranches are owned by women, who carry all the responsibilities for planning, staffing and financing.

Finally, both Quakers and cowboys share the quality of tenacity. Both are known for sticking to their principles. Neither is likely to change their ways in response to the misconceptions of others. ~~~

Nancy Dolphin was introduced to rodeos by her father at the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago in the late 1940s.  She is a member of Durango CO Monthly Meeting who sojourns in Tempe AZ Monthly Meeting in the winter.