As a kid, my nickname was “Cowboy.” I dressed as one every Halloween for as long as I can remember. I loved getting a new cowboy hat every year. I was ready to ride the range wearing my double gun holster, as my bike substituted for a horse. So, our visit to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City seemed the perfect fit.
Opened in 1955 as the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum, the museum has transitioned to cover life in the western states, from the life of Native Americans to the rodeo tour. This marked my third visit to the museum.
As you enter the museum, you immediately see “End of the Trail,” one of the most recognizable sculptures in the United States. The sculpture created by South Dakota artist James Earle Fraser originally offered two views of Native Americans. The first signified the end of the Native American, while the second offered a look at the future of a proud, spiritual people. Obviously, Native Americans didn’t fade away, but rather have grown over the years, with more than 2 million living across the country.
The museum also features sculptures of a mountain lion, Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston.
The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum offers visitors about a dozen permanent exhibits, as well as special exhibits. From cowboys to western TV and film performers, the permanent exhibits provide a look at western life. Artwork features western artists Karl Bodmer, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.
The Native American gallery in the Museum of the Frontier provides a look at history and culture through artifacts, memorabilia and art of the First People, whose tribes roamed the plains, as well as living in mountain and desert villages.
The museum features the artwork of an Oklahoma Native American artist through May. Jerome Tiger, a Muscogee Creek and Seminole, died in 1967 from an accidental gun shot. Beginning his career in 1962, Tiger created beautiful pieces focused on Native American life and history. He used oil, water color and pencil among his preferred styles.
The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum also includes the non-Indian migration west, including fur traders, military and cowboys. Fur traders and explorers were among the first Europeans to encounter Native Americans. As a descendant of a French-Canadian fur trader (Francois Perrin, who adopted the name Trudell as the original member of our family), I’m always interested in learning about their lifestyles and roles.
The Army section of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum highlights soldiers, Indian scouts, as well as weapons and fort life. A soldier playing a bugle is featured in the center of the display.
Life on the plains presented challenges. From taming the land for farming to hunting bison, pioneers needed to face the challenges with a stern outlook.
Eventually, cowboy life started to take root. Cowboys of all backgrounds rode cattle herds, worked ranches and mended fences. Spaniards are credited as the first cowboys – Vaqueros – dating back to the 1500s.
The American cowboy covered a wide range of land, including Hawaii. As early as 1798, Paniolos worked Hawaii’s cattle herds.
On the mainland, American cowboys came in all shapes and colors, ranging from Native American and African American to Caucasian. Cowboy styles varied from buckaroo to southwestern. Even cowgirls got into the act.
The western lifestyle led to the advent of the rodeo system. Riding bucking horses, bulls and roping calves remain part of the American rodeo scene. Cowboys and cowgirls compete for championship belt buckles, saddles and trophies, as well as prize money.
Westerns were favorites among movie makers and fans as the movie industry took off during the early 1900s. Actors, including Nebraska’s Hoot Gibson and Henry Fonda, made a living acting in early westerns. Gibson, a Tekamah native, starred in more than 220 movies. Grand Island’s Fonda, who was an Oscar winner, starred in several westerns, including “My Darling Clementine.”
Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Hopalong Cassidy probably rank as the best-known western actors of their time.
Once television took hold, westerns became a staple for viewers, with hit shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “The Big Valley.” Actors like James Arness, Lee Majors and Barbara Stanwyck were stars.
The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum offers a beautiful background for an outdoor stroll in the Western States Plaza and Gardens. The garden is home to native plants and flowers, as well as statues of western stars, such as Buffalo Bill Cody, and the gravesites of famous horses and bulls, including rodeo bull Tornado.
The museum is home to several statues recognizing western life, including cowboys on the range and a Native American couple traveling on a pony.
In addition to the exhibitions, the museum is home to the rodeo hall of fame and western achievement, as well as a western town and a children’s play area.
The National Cowboy and Western Heritage presents an interesting look at life in America’s west. We recommend visiting the museum.
Disclaimer: Thank you to Visit OKC for the complimentary admission. However, all opinions and views are ours.