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.
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.
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!