Students will examine James Walker’s Cowboys Roping a Bear as the impetus for historical inquiry in order to formulate arguments leading to a brief, class-wide debate. The relationship between human settlement and the natural world has been historically untenable and this painting can be used as a launching point for discussion.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaSocial Studies
Students will able to:
- describe and interpret the contents of a painting;
- analyze key elements of the painting to provide the context for historical engagement, research, and debate;
- work collaboratively to assemble key debate points and questions using visual and textual resources;
- participate in a debate; and
- represent their personal position on an opinion spectrum and reassess their position after considering the points presented in the debate.
- Begin by having students consider their pre-existing or initial opinion on the issue of removing native animals to allow for human, societal, and cultural development.
- Define an opinion spectrum using locations in the classroom—e.g., one corner of the room can be labeled “Support the need for animal removal” and the opposite corner labeled “Oppose animal removal.” Place some kind of marker to indicate the approximate center point between the two.
- Have students stand where they think their opinion falls on the spectrum, then have them look around and make some observations about how people are distributed.
- Display or pass out copies of the painting and briefly share the information from the About the Art section.
- Have the students recall other examples of animals whose removal facilitated Anglo expansion westward, such as the buffalo, grizzly, or wolf. The article titled “Animals in the Museum of Westward Expansion,” found on the National Park Service website, may be a helpful resource to share.
- Break the class into groups of four or six, then divide the small groups into two sides and assign roles for debate. One side of the class will support the human right to remove these animals and the other will oppose the removal of animals.
- Students should take five to ten minutes to work within their small groups to generate arguments and prepare questions for their opponents to answer.
- Conduct the debate, allowing each side a chance to present their case. Then give the opponents a chance to provide a rebuttal and ask questions.
- With ten minutes remaining, stop the debate and have students again represent their personal position on the issue—regardless of which side they were arguing in the debate—by standing at the appropriate point along the same opinion spectrum. Ask who changed their position along the spectrum from the beginning of class and have those students share what caused them to shift their position.
- Two sheets of paper to label ends of the opinion spectrum
- Article titled “Bear in Mind: The California Grizzly at The Bancroft Library”
- About the Art section on Cowboys Roping a Bear
- One color copy of the image for each student or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Social Studies
- Evaluate and analyze sources using historical method of inquiry and defend their conclusions
- Analyze the concepts of continuity and change and effect
- Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals, ideas and themes
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
James Walker was born in England in 1818 and moved to New York with his parents when he was a child. He lived in New York for most of his life, traveling frequently in the United States and to Mexico. He was living in Mexico City in 1846 when the Mexican War broke out. He was forced into hiding for six weeks before being able to get behind United States lines. In addition to painting scenes of the war, he was fluent in Spanish and served as an interpreter for United States troops. In the 1870s, he moved to California and was captivated by California’s romantic Mexican past. He established a studio in San Francisco, where this painting was probably made.
What Inspired It?
After moving to California, Walker often visited the ranches of his Spanish-speaking friends. This painting was probably made after a trip to a ranch near San Diego. During his visits, Walker became fascinated with the life and culture of the vaqueros [vah-CARE-ohs]—the Spanish cow and ranch hands. In this painting, the men are not roping the bear merely for amusement. In the early 1800s, grizzly bears were one of the biggest threats to cattle. While the Anglo-American style was to use heavy artillery to control threatening bears, the vaqueros preferred to rope them from the back of a well-trained horse. This method of bear control required a great deal of skill and was a dying vaquero art.
Vaqueros outfitted themselves in dashing yet functional dress, and Walker shows all the details:
- Wide-brimmed hats with flat tops gave protection from the sun.
- Thin leather jackets, similar to today’s jean jackets, were often decorated with silver. They were tough yet light and protected against thorns and bug bites.
- Leather pants had buttons down the legs that could be buttoned or unbuttoned according to the weather.
- Botas [BOW-tahz], leather leg wraps, were worn for extra protection against cactuses and snakes.
- Colorful woven blankets, called serapes [sehr-AH-pehs], were rolled up and carried behind the saddles.
Most vaqueros made their own reatas [ray-AH-tahs], or ropes, by braiding four to eight strands of rawhide together. Most reatas were about 60 feet long.
The lasso is a long rope with a loop at one end that, once the rope has been accurately thrown, tightens securely around the target. It was a tricky maneuver—a vaquero used a special technique to toss the rope and quickly drape one end of it around the saddle horn, or handgrip. If he did not drape the rope around the saddle horn before the animal pulled the rope taut, the vaquero could injure a hand, even losing a finger or two between the rope and saddle horn.
At one time California supported the greatest number of grizzly bears in North America, but they became locally extinct by 1908. The decline of the California grizzly began during the Spanish Colonial period. At first, the bear population increased as free-ranging cattle provided an easy food source, but their numbers dropped with the increase in human settlement and the killing of grizzlies by cattlemen. Grizzlies were often captured for sport by vaqueros using only horses and ropes.
Walker balanced the figures in this painting by pairing each rider’s pose with the rider opposite him. For example, the two vaqueros getting ready to throw their lassos are opposite each other in similar poses. Color is also mirrored, this time left and right, as seen in the two riders wearing white shirts on white horses.