There are a couple of versions of how the cowboy hat was born.
One version goes back to the early 1800's, and that the cowboy hat evolved from the Sombrero.
The story goes that cattle herders, arriving from the East to work on the plains, adopted the sombrero and remodelled it into the cowboy hat that is still currently worn today.
So, the first "cowboys" were the Spanish/Mexican herders of the Southwest. The favored hat of the Mexican vaquero was a broad rimmed hat with a high peaked crown, many times decorated
with design stitching. The size of the largest brim was 30 galleon, which the new cowboys from the East called "30 Gallon".
The Spanish herders were well estabilished in the cattle business long before the Americans headed West. Vaqueros perfected a style of handling cattle, and passed it onto the Anglos. But, cowboy hats were not called their present name for many years to come. Cowboy was not the popular term used
by men working cattle. They preferred to be called cattlemen if they were ranchers, and the help was called a "hand", with the best cowboy in the bunch being referred to as "Top Hand". The term Cowboy was reserved for the drifters that wandered from ranch to ranch, never staying in one place too long.
The second version of the invention of the cowboy hat goes to none other than John B. Stetson. It seems that John ventured westward due to health problems, looking for a drier climate. During a hunting trip, Stetson was showing off to friends that he could make cloth from fur, without weaving. Stetson then took the cloth, and fashioned a large hat, with an enormous brim, noting that this hat was so big, it would protect a man from any element known to man. Stetson wore the hat as
a joke for the remainder of the trip, but it actually worked so well, when he returned home to Philadelphia, he decided to manufacture a hat liking to his original idea. In 1865, he began to produce the big cowboy hats in number, and before long, the original Stetson hat that sold for five dollars was known as the cowboy hat.
At this point in history the two versions come together as one. The cowboy hat became a regular part of a cowboy's daily wear. The wide brim could quickly fan a fire, whip a horse to action, and draw the attention of distant riders. Some say, that a cowboy hat, made the man wearing it. But, most early cowboys would probably tell you, it kept the sun off their face, and the rain off their back.
Though in present days, we have more models of cowboy hats available than cars, the basic hat has remained the same. Every cowboy hat makes a statement about it's wearer, and is the most individualized piece of apparel in the western world. The west may forever be tamed, but the cowboy hat still brings a bit of the rugged and reckless history of the West, to it's wearer.