26 Vintage Photos of Cowboys & Cowgirls

Ever since the idea of the cowboy entered the public consciousness, people have been fascinated with them. Whether it’s the idea of getting to work with animals, the rough & tough image, or the concept of freedom they represent, cowboys have become an integral part of American history and culture. Here are some vintage photos of cowboys that show what day-to-day life really was like for these horse-wrangling icons.

Once again, all photos courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At The Ranch

While a handful of cowboys would work exclusively on cattle drives, most were employed to work at ranches, where their duties were pretty much what you would expect of a ranch hand. A lot of their time was spent protecting and herding the animals they were in charge of, like this cowpoke did back in 1900.

They would feed the animals, like this young man was doing when he was photographed by Russell Lee in 1940.

And, while popular culture tends to pair the cowboy with only cows and horses, they would take care of all manner of farm animal. While in this photo, shot by Russell Lee in 1940, it looks like the rancher is about to end the poor creature’s life, he’s actually just trimming up the sheep’s wool.

On the Range

Pop culture depictions tend to focus on cowboys' lives out on the range, and with good reason – cowboys spent plenty of time sleeping under the stars and braving the wilds. For some ranchers, this merely meant keeping an eye on your herd while they went out to graze, like this wrangler was doing when photographed by Erwin Evans in 1907.

Of course, when it came to the famed cattle drive, things quickly became a lot more active. Still, most of the work involved merely herding the cows forward as seen in this image by John Vachon taken in 1938.

The more difficult job went to those assigned to wrangle up the stranglers and escapists, like this man, photographed by Erwin Evans in 1907, was attempting to do.

On occasion, cowboys would go out looking to capture wild animals that might endanger their herds or that might otherwise affect the day-to-day life at the ranch. Photographer John C. H. Grabill didn’t include any notes on what happened to the buffalo captured by these three cowboys in 1889, but hopefully they either let him go or at least used him as a food source. Unfortunately, given that American bison were hunted and killed to near extinction during this period, these outcomes seem unlikely.

Chuck wagons were the traveling cowboys' best friends as they provided their daily meals. Here are a group of wranglers enjoying their dinner some time between 1880 and 1910.

While life on the range was hard work, there was still time for recreation here and there. Here a gang of cowboys enjoy a game of mumble peg, as photographed by Erwin Evans in 1907.

If you’ve ever wondered how cowboys would ensure their horses wouldn’t run away overnight, well, this 1906 picture reveals their secret – a corral made out of rope. Sure some of the men might have a favorite horse that would never wander away from them, but most of the horses would certainly wander off if not tied up or corralled in one place.

Training Horses

Being that a cowboy’s main mode of transportation was a horse, it only makes sense that they would spend a lot of time training these wild animals to serve as a form of transportation. Generally, the training process would start by roping a horse and teaching it to walk while roped, so it would get used to being under someone’s control. Here a cowboy is trying to start the process on a foal as photographed by Marion Post Walcott in 1941.

The next step would usually involve putting all the riding equipment onto the horse and getting it used to being led around by its halter while equipped with a saddle, stirrups and the rest of the gear. As you can see in this image taken by Erwin Evans in 1907, most of the horses would fight the process every step of the way.

The final and most dangerous step of the process would be “bronco busting,” where the rider would actually have to get on the horse and teach it to mellow out and respond to the rider’s commands. Here’s one cowboy trying to break his horse back in 1904.

Training a horse was (and still is) a lot of work, but in the end, having a well-trained, reliable horse was always worth the effort, as this cowboy would certainly attest to.

Managing Cows

As the name implies, cowboys often dealt with cows. Here you can see how difficult it could be for even two experienced men to get a stubborn calf to cooperate, as evidenced by Russell Lee in 1939.

While branding is a bit controversial in today’s society, in the early 1900s it was the only way to prove that a cow was yours. With all the cattle rustlers in the West, it was something that every ranch had to do on a regular basis.

Of course, it wasn’t all about getting the cows to bend to your will; sometimes the cowboys were downright kind to their cattle. Russell Lee managed to capture this tender moment between a cowboy and his steer back in 1940.

Performing in Rodeos

As you can see, many cowboys were used to roping and tying calves and riding bucking broncos on a daily basis. That’s why it only made sense for cowpokes to get together and test each other’s skills, hence the birth of the rodeo (interestingly, the sport began in Spain and Mexico before it came to the U.S.). These three cowboys were trying to get “Unruly Butcher Bob” ready for his performance back in 1910. Here’s a tip for any aspiring rodeo performer: if three grown men still can’t control a horse, you probably don’t want to start your career with that particular creature.

Of course, a great rider can manage to stay on just about any bronco as Mr. O’Donnell proved in his amazing ride on Whirlwind in 1911.

If you’ve ever been to a rodeo, then you certainly recognize these pens used to help the rider get on the angry creature before the round begins. This particular starting gate was photographed in New Mexico by Russell Lee in 1940.

Bull riding is the one event that grew exclusively from the sport’s Latin roots as the practice was originally an offshoot from bull fighting and was not part of a cowboy’s daily activities. Even so, the American rodeo quickly adopted the competition, and these days it’s one of the most popular rodeo events around. This rider was performing in the Bean Day Rodeo in New Mexico when he was photographed by Russell Lee in 1939.

By the early 1900s, the sport was pretty darn big and performances took place in massive arenas. There were also many people competing. Here are all the participants in a roping contest held in Oklahoma City in 1909. To see the image all in one piece, visit its page at the LOC.


For women, work on the range was rarely an option, but there were still a decent number of women who worked on ranches out West, performing many of the same duties as their male counterparts. Here’s one Montana woman dressed for the job in 1909.

Interestingly, while there weren’t many women on the range, there were a number of female rodeo stars in the sport’s early days. Here is Lucille Mullhall, the first woman to use the term “cowgirl” to describe herself, in 1909.

And here’s champion female rider “Kitty Canutt” riding Winnemucca in 1919.

The Pendleton Round-Up held some of the largest all-female competitions in the country, until one rider died in 1929. After that time, female rodeo contests were largely discontinued for the next fifty years. Here are all the female competitors during the golden age of women’s rodeo at the Pendleton Round-Up in 1911. To see this picture all in one piece, visit the LOC.

I must admit, writing this article was particularly exciting for me, as I come from a long line of cowboys. In fact, my grandfather, Harry Harness, moved from a ranch in Montana to California where he started an Arabian horse ranch with my grandmother. I’m sure many of you have similar stories or have even participated in activities like these yourselves. If so, share your stories in the comments!

5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.


Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.


Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.


If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.


While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.


Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

Svetlana Ivanova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
What It's Like to Live in Yakutsk, Siberia, the Coldest City on Earth
Svetlana Ivanova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Svetlana Ivanova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

The residents of Yakutsk, Siberia are experts at surviving harsh winters. They own thick furs, live in houses built for icy environments, and know not to wear glasses outdoors unless they want them to freeze to their face. This is life in the coldest city on Earth, where temperatures occupy -40°F territory throughout winter, according to National Geographic.

Yakutsk has all the features of any other mid-sized city. The 270,000 people who live there have access to movie theaters, restaurants, and a public transportation system that functions year-round. But look closer and you’ll notice some telling details. Many houses are built on stilts, and if they’re not, the heat from the building thaws the permafrost beneath it, causing the structure to sink. People continue going outside during the coldest months, but only for a few minutes at a time to avoid frostbite.

Then there's the weather. The extreme low temperatures are cold enough to freeze car batteries and the fish sold in open-air markets. Meanwhile, a thick fog is a constant presence in the city, giving it an otherworldly aura.

Why do people choose to live in such a harsh environment? Beneath Yakutsk lies a literal treasure mine: Mines in the area produce a fifth of the world’s diamonds. Valuable natural gas can also be recovered there.

While Yakutsk may be the coldest city on Earth, it’s not the coldest inhabited place there is. That distinction belongs to the rural village of Oymyakon, 575 miles to the east, where temperatures recently dropped to an eyelash-freezing -88°F.

Snow-covered road.
Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna- CAFF, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Road covered in snow.
Magnús H Björnsson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Church surrounded by snow.
Magnús H Björnsson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[h/t National Geographic]


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