The 'Last Cowboys' Of The New American West

Download Audio
The Wright's property, near Zion National Park. (Courtesy John Branch)
The Wright's property, near Zion National Park. (Courtesy John Branch)

With Jane Clayson

Behind the most successful rodeo family in history is a story of grit, family, and faith. Meet “The Last Cowboys."


John Branch, sports reporter for The New York Times and author of "The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West." Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his story "Snow Fall" about a deadly avalanche in Washington State. (@JohnBranchNYT)

Cody Wright, oldest son of Bill and Evelyn Wright’s 13 children, father of five, cattle rancher, and two-time world champion in professional saddle bronc riding.


On the Wright family's changing (or unchanging) relationship with the West:

Branch: "We all have this image of the west, filled with nostalgia, dripping in sepia tones, and the Wrights and many people — I think people would be surprised to know how many people — are living this life still, and trying to hang onto it. But the west is changing in so many ways. And just kind of surrounding them. The Wrights are figuring: what are we gonna do to build our future here? And they have taken the approach: to build our future, we're gonna dig in deep on the past, and that's rodeo and ranching. We're gonna make it work or just gonna do it harder, do it better, and make it happen."

"[The Wright family] is trying to say: can we fit in this world? The world is changing around us... is there still a place for us here?"

John Branch

"People like the Wrights have to figure it out. And so a lot of people have had their kids just go to the big city and take jobs. And that way of life, that farm, sort of dries up and goes away. You drive around the West and you see many towns that you could just picture were once vibrant... nothing but a dot on the map anymore. Those places are going away. People like the Wrights are trying to hold out. And they're trying to say: can we fit in this world? The world is changing around us... is there still a place for us here?"

From The Reading List:

The New York Times: "The Ride Of Their Lives" — "No family dominates a rodeo event the way the Wrights do saddle bronc. But rodeo is a young man's game, which is why the family patriarch works to grow his cattle herd. Rodeo and ranching may be vestiges of the Old West, yet the combination is one family's hope for future generations.

In the 21st century, building the family business depends on the twisting vagaries of drought, public-land policy and beef prices — and whether the Wright boys can continue winning world championships on bucking horses.

As the boys circle the West in search of eight-second rides and small-dollar payouts, their father works alone, overseeing hundreds of cows over thousands of acres.

The Wrights have been working parts of this canyon country since their Mormon ancestors arrived more than 150 years ago. Supporting future generations, however, may mean moving on."

The Los Angeles Times: "True grit in the modern American West: 'The Last Cowboys' by John Branch" — "This book being about a Red State family, a certain reader might wait, tightly coiled, to read the words Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke or Cliven Bundy. But it's only the final name that appears at all — they think of the famous anti-government rancher mainly as a neighbor, and a smart cattleman. Are the Wrights so studiously small in their thinking? Or is it Branch himself who steers his book into feeling like it's more about people you might have over for dinner than a tough look at how powerful forces emanate from Washington and connect to this iconic Western landscape?"

Excerpt of "The Last Cowboys": 

For 150 years, one family has been raising cattle on thousands of acres in the high desert of southern Utah. It’s a way of life that’s slowly slipping away. Urbanization, drought, public-land disputes all threaten what they have spent so long to build. Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times writer John Branch takes us there in his new book. Three generations of ranchers and yes, rodeo champions.

This hour, On Point: The Last Cowboys.

- Jane Clayson

This program aired on May 15, 2018.


More from On Point

Listen Live