Rise of the Cowboy
Before the Mexican-American War concluded in 1848, American traders who traveled to the Western frontier encountered Spanish vaqueros of northern Mexico. The arrival of railroads and an increased demand for beef during the Civil War drove the need for the cowboy. The earliest known photographs of these iconic Americans are tintypes, taken as early as the 1870s, most likely captured during a trail drive or at an end-of-trail town.
The Texas Live Stock Journal wrote glowingly of the cowboy on October 21, 1882: “A man wanting in courage would be as much out of place in a cow-camp, as a fish would be on dry land.
Indeed the life he is daily compelled to lead calls for the existence of the highest degree of cool calculating courage…the cowboy is as chivalrous as the famed knights of old.”
John Baumann, a British immigrant who moved to Texas and lived with the cowboy “on his lonesome prairies,” warned of obscuring the true character of these men with romantic qualities. In “On a Western Ranche” published in The Fortnightly Review on April 1, 1887, he cautioned the “restless, roving spirits who may be attracted by picturesque descriptions of a cowboy’s life that, unless they are prepared to toil during the long summer months, both by day and by night, for small pay and on scant fare, to be in the saddle from early dawn until sunset both Sundays and week-days, to abstain from comfort and civilisation for the greater part of every year, and so as to wear themselves out with exposure and manifold fatigues as to be reckoned old and past their work whilst still young in years, they had better remain at home and leave cowboy life alone.”
Baumann found journalism better suited him. He had been employed by a Panhandle cattle ranch four years earlier, working among the cowboys who painfully drove away half-dead and terrified horses struck by the poisonous loco weed that threatened to spread death to other horses and cows.
The image of another Panhandle cowboy has lasted the test of time. In an 1880s cabinet card, captioned “The Genuine Cow Boy Captured Alive,” Cottonwood Charlie Nebo stands with his “half-breed” partner Nicholas Janis, a descendant of an early-day interpreter at Wyoming’s Fort Laramie. Charlie’s daughter, Maude, captured his words in 1917: “I have been a cowboy for over 40 years. Have driven herds of cattle from the Gulf of Mexico to Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. In one bunch we had over seven thousand steers. I have driven ‘The Staked Plains’ three or four times with big herds of cattle—96 miles without any water in some parts of the journey. Am a veteran of the Civil War and an ex-Texas Ranger. Have had some exciting times in my career.”
The man behind the camera is among the unsung heroes who preserved for posterity early-day frontier cowboys. Tintypes are rarely identified by photographers, but others entered the scene later on and made names for themselves capturing on camera the open range days up to the early 1900s. These recorders of history included Charles Belden, L.A. Huffman and Erwin Smith, the latter whom historians at the Amon Carter museum in Fort Worth have memorialized as one of the greatest photographers of cowboy life who ever lived. From the beginning, America’s pioneer image makers followed the cowboy on the ranges or in trail towns, transporting heavy cameras, tripods and wet-plate equipment, and developing their negatives in makeshift darkrooms that ranged from tents to a canvas blanket. Without them, we would have a far-sighted notion of one of the most dramatic periods of American history.
Throughout this issue, the editors bring to you the best cowboy photographs of the frontier American West. To us, each one of these cowboys epitomizes Baumann’s words: “He is in the main a loyal, long-enduring, hard-working fellow, grit to the backbone, and tough as whipcord; performing his arduous and often dangerous duties, and living his comfortless life, without a word of complaint about the many privations he has to undergo.”