The mere mention of the word brings a Man with No Name character to mind—the dust-covered gunslinger of the old west who, after strutting into a saloon, orders a whiskey and growls, “Leave the bottle.” Nothing could be more American than the cowboy.
If that’s what you thought when you read the word cowboy, prepare to have your mind blown. Mine was.
Before becoming synonymous with the cattle herder of the American West, the term cow-boy was used in England. It’s meaning was literal—a boy who took care of cows. But if the cow-boy was instead an adult, it implied a man of low social status. In class conscious England, it would have been a derogatory term.
However, when the Revolution War began, the term took on a new meaning. Early in the conflict, Westchester County in New York state became a so-called “Neutral Ground” between Colonial forces in Peekskill to the north and Red Coats to the south in the Bronx.
Residents there found themselves sitting between two opposing armies. Instead of being caught in the crossfire of massive battle, inhabitants were subjected to repeated raids by groups of bandit thugs who harassed and plundered the rural communities by stealing produce and livestock from farmers and robbing travelers.
These roving bands of pro-British Loyalists or Tories eventually became known as cowboys. Legend says these lawless raiders would jingle a cowbell to attract men searching for lost cows into roadside thickets where they would ambush and rob them. However, the name more likely came from their method of raising funds by selling stolen cattle to the British army.
American colonists participated in similar tactics and activities but were known as Skinners.
The most significant difference between the two groups was that the British actively recruited armed Tory groups. The British often outfitted these men with weapons, uniforms, and horses.
Cowboys in Bucks County
The hard times of the Revolution and the turbulent state of the Colonies presented ample opportunity for these cowboy guerrillas to get away with robbery and murder, even here in Pennsylvania.
One of the most famous cowboy groups operating here in Pennsylvania was a notorious gang of brothers from a Quaker family called the “Plumstead Cowboys.” They were also known as the “Doan Boys” and the “Doan Outlaws.”
Renowned for being British spies, the Doan gang’s principal occupation was robbing Whig tax collectors and horse theft. The group stole over 200 horses from their neighbors in Bucks County that they sold to the Red Coats in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
On October 22, 1781, the Doan gang robbed the Bucks County Treasury in Newtown of 1,307 pounds sterling. This was three days after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on October 19. The money was never recovered.
The Doans were polarizing figures. Loyalists wrote of the Doan gang as if they were Robin Hood. Patriots referred to them as demons. No doubt their success as spies, horsemen, runners, jumpers, and their numerous criminal exploits hardened both views.