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How accurate are 1883 and Yellowstone and what exactly is Cowboy culture?

The American West is enjoying a television revival but how accurate are shows like Yellowstone and 1883 – and what exactly is cowboy culture?

Both shows have historical elements but are fictional stories, with the Kevin Costner-led Yellowstone centered on the modern day lives of the Dutton family’s Montana ranching empire, and new prequel series 1883 offering a rich take on their ancestors’ brutal journey across the Great Frontier.

Despite the huge popularity of both shows, Kiwi viewers may not be familiar with the concept of cowboying – beyond Hollywood depictions of the Wild West – or understand how modern American cowboy culture remains relevant in 2022.

Kevin Costner plays John Dutton, the hard-nosed patriarch of the family who own and run a Montana ranching empire.

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Kevin Costner plays John Dutton, the hard-nosed patriarch of the family who own and run a Montana ranching empire.

To sum things up, cowboys are essentially horseback mounted workers that tend to herds of cattle or horses on ranches – a specific type of farm that focuses on breeding, raising, herding and selling animal livestock, such as cattle or sheep. Cowboying can also encompass rodeo performers and horse trainers.

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Set against a gorgeous backdrop of mountains, rivers, and lush valleys, these roles are colorfully portrayed in Yellowstone – now four seasons in – while also embracing western tropes about preserving ranch culture, protecting the land from greedy developers, and setting tensions with Native American tribes.

The endless drama of the Dutton family – headed by Costner’s widowed patriarch character John Dutton, and his children Kayce (Luke Grimes), Jamie (Wes Bentley), Beth (Kelly Reilly), and Lee Dutton (Dave Annable) – ties those threads together in a contemporary context, making it reminiscent of the classic primetime soap Dallas, with the affluent and feuding Ewing family and its massive oil empire.

The celebrated but often misunderstood life and work of a cowboy remains key to the US meat industry, a reality which may surprise American city folk, or Kiwi viewers raised on ideas of John Wayne riding off into the sunset, or Clint Eastwood winning another gun fight .

“Whether people want to admit it or not, some people don’t realize that that way of life is still alive,” Costner told Variety.

Costner says the old ways of the west are still vital to the American way of life and US meat industry.

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Costner says the old ways of the west are still vital to the American way of life and US meat industry.

“This meat doesn’t get to our cities without somebody getting up early in the morning and late at night taking care of those animals in some way. It’s a way of life still. You know that the country still has some big open spaces. And [‘Yellowstone’] takes that all in.”

Yellowstone and 1883’s authenticity is largely down to the creator of both shows, Tayler Sheridan – the multi-talented screenwriter, producer, film director, and actor – who grew up on a Texas ranch and now owns and operates two of his own outside Dallas.

Sheridan regularly appears on Yellowstone as the straight-talking horse trader Travis Wheatley, and last year was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Isabel May as Elsa Dutton in 1883. The Yellowstone prequel series covers off how the family came to settle in Montana.

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Isabel May as Elsa Dutton in 1883. The Yellowstone prequel series covers off how the family came to settle in Montana.

1883 tells a much grittier and more violent story that highlights the lawlessness of the wild west and the harsh realities of late-19th century life.

Starring Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Isabel May, and featuring cameo appearances from Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson and Billy Bob Thornton, the stand-alone series reveals how John Dutton’s ancestors established the Yellowstone ranch.

Through 10 episodes, we follow James and Margaret Dutton – the great-great-grandparents of Costner’s John Dutton – and a caravan of European immigrants as they attempt the perilous westward journey across the Great Plains from Fort Worth to Oregon. It’s clear early on that not everyone will last the distance.

Along the way they encounter bandits, rattlesnakes and other wild animals, and face other threats of disease, suicide, hangings, and wagon trail accidents.

Tim McGraw plays Civil War veteran James Dutton embarking on a westward journey across the Great Plains.

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Tim McGraw plays Civil War veteran James Dutton embarking on a westward journey across the Great Plains.

1883 is also visually stunning, giving viewers a sweeping look across the vast grass plains which span more than 180 million acres and crosses five US states, located west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains.

Having visited Fort Worth and stayed on a real working North Texas ranch, this writer was excited to see famous locations – such as the Brazos River, and the historically accurate presence of the Comanche tribe – feature in the show.

Steeped in western lore, that area of ​​Texas is close to the famous Goodnight-Loving Trail, a route used in the 1860s to drive cattle west into New Mexico, a story that was told in the 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove.

Sam Elliott's character Shea Brennan is tasked with guiding the Dutton family and group of immigrants along the Oregon Trail.

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Sam Elliott’s character Shea Brennan is tasked with guiding the Dutton family and group of immigrants along the Oregon Trail.

One of the largest Indian raids in Texas history also occurred nearby in 1836, when 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was abducted by Comanche, a piece of history that inspired John Wayne’s problematic 1956 classic The Searchers.

Both Yellowstone and 1883 have helped breathe new life into the western genre, and their success means fans can look forward to the Yellowstone universe expanding further with two more spin-off series coming our way.

1932 will cover the next chapter of the Dutton family legacy during the Prohibition era and the Great Depression, while 6666 (pronounced ‘four sixes’) is expected to revolve around the real-life 6666 Texas ranch, which is owned by Sheridan, and features in season four of Yellowstone.

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