Photo Gallery: The Golden Age of the American Cowboy

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The latter half of the 19th century saw the "golden age" of the American cowboy; newly-built railroad lines made it easier to transport cattle from the western plains to the east coast, where they could fetch top dollar. As these photos reveal, a cowboy's life was a hard one, but living freely on America's western frontier nevertheless appealed to thousands of men.

These photos were taken across the American West between the late 1800s and the early 1900s.||

In 1867, American cowboy's "golden age" began with the first shipment of cattle from Abilene, KS to Chicago, IL. It would last until the winter of 1885-86, when the cold weather would kill off 85% of the cattle in parts of the West.

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Most of the first Anglo cowboys originated as Confederate veterans of the Civil War and immigrants from the North who left their homes in search for jobs. Like Billy the Kid, these cowboys headed West in order to find better lives.

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The cowboy's daily life was dangerous. Being dragged by a horse was the most common cause of death, but cowboys also died from stampedes, lightning strikes and exposure.

|Art Archive;||

Unable to work as a cowboy due to his slender physique, Billy the Kid’s first job on the range was as a cook at the chuck wagon. Some of his jobs included cooking meals, washing dishes, making bread, caring for the horses, and building a fire. Although the working hours would have been long, usually beginning well before dawn and ending after sunset, the cook was typically highly respected by the cowboys he fed.


While now a defining symbol of the American cowboy, the cowboy hat served multiple functions. The wide-brim protected the wearer's eyes from the sun, the high-crown provided a cup with which to scoop water, and when folded over, the hat served as a pillow.


Many cowboys were not Anglo, but African-American, Mexican, and Native American. However, only the white cowboys have been largely included in western folklore. The Mexican vaqueros lived in the New Mexico Territory well before American settlers. In this photo, Navajo men race bareback in Denver, CO.

|Denver Public Library;||

Although they were harmless on the plains, cowboys were often dreaded in towns, where they had a reputation for drunkenness. Many residents believed cowboys, as a class, to be morally corrupted, vulgar, profane, and lecherous. Several towns created gun control ordinances that fined those who insisted on wearing a six-shooter.

|Haley History Center;||

Saloons, frequently outnumbering other establishments two to one, attracted cowboys from miles around. Inevitably, they also became centers of frontier violence. Billy the Kid's first murder occurred in a saloon similar to this one in Peco, TX.

|Haley History Center;||

Twice a year, ranchers would hold a roundup. In the spring, cowboys would collect the livestock in order to brand the young cattle. In the fall, the cattle would be collected again and selected for market. Then the cowboys would make a cattle drive to transport them to the nearest rail line. This 1887 roundup took place in Belle Fourche, SD.

|Library of Congress;||

The Chicago, IL stockyards (seen here) were the end of the line for much of the livestock, which would be slaughtered and packaged for sale back East. The profits for Western ranchers became so lucrative that in fewer than two decades, cowboys moved six million steers and cows to railroad outposts.


In the winter season, owners maintained their cattle with a small staff. Consequently, many cowboys lost their jobs during the colder months of the year. In order to support themselves financially, cowboys often took on odd jobs at saloons and stables or found work by mining, hunting, or trapping.

|Arizona Historical Society;||

Plentiful on the northern plains, wolves damaged hundreds of dollars of livestock each year. During the off seasons, cowboys often hunted and trapped wolves for pay.

|Library of Congress

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From Billy the Kid to Wyatt Earp, and George Custer to Geronimo, the real-life people who helped tame the west would shape the western heroes celebrated in film and television for decades.