Texas Faces The Camera

Although his heyday was brief, the cowboy became the legend of Texas and of America.

Lucchese boots, such as these, are the very best. They weren’t made for walking. On his horse the cowboy was powerful and free, a romantic male figure. Afoot he was just another poorly paid hand. Born from the Mexican vaquera, the Texan cowboy flourished when great cattle herds were driven north after the Civil War. The trail drives lasted only a few years, but the cowboy endures forever, the basic American myth.

A gallery of faces from the early years.

Daguerreotypy was invented just three years after Texas became independent in 1836. Many pioneer photographers plied their trade in the American West, and much of their work ended up hidden away in scrapbooks and file drawers. The photographs on these pages were uncovered by Richard Pearce-Moses, who traveled some twelve thousand miles around the state, examining family and museum collections under the auspices of the Texas Historical Foundation. The men and women in these photographs are unremembered by more formal histories. They gaze with an almost unimaginable innocence at the unblinking eye of the camera—an eye that captured a way of life etched on these faces.

There is no such thing as a typical Texan.

Chili stands once lined the front of the Alamo in San Antonio, a reminder that its Mexican heritage, from food to language to music, has persisted. Racial and ethnic divisions, while stormy at times, are at least straightforward: a Texan is either Anglo, black, or Chicano. Most Anglos came to Texas from other states, but Texas also was enriched by German stock, with Adm. Chester Nimitz of Fredericksburg the most famous.

The dawning of modern Texas, brought in with a gusher.

Oil and Texas seem inseparable, but it was not always so. The first big strike was at Spindletop near Beaumont in 1901. For a few heady decades it seemed that oil was everywhere, even in the backyard, as in this photograph of Kilgore. The boom continued into the 1950s, but long before then Texas had become a sort of colony, its one great resource being drained to enrich the Eastern companies that quickly dominated the oil fields. The oil is almost gone now, but the society it helped create all but wiped out the earlier Texas of these photographs. Texas has become modern, urban, sophisticated, the third most populous state in America. Today it is not always comfortable with the images of cowboys and wildcatters that define Texans to the world. But if that is not what Texans are, then what are they?