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The Cowhand

March 2023
2min read

One of folklore’s most romantic figures, the American cowboy, evolved, reached his zenith, and then nearly disappeared, all in little more than half a century. He left behind fewer authentic pictures of himself than the number of false images projected by television in a single week.

It is ironic that the most complete photographic record of the working cowboy was produced by a man who merely wanted to gather raw material until he could study art and become a sculptor of western life. In the meantime, Erwin E. Smith of Konham, Texas, undertook to learn at first hand all there was to know about the things he wished to remember. “I knew that the life wouldn’t wait; the technique would,” he said. “So I put oil Doston and the art schools as long as I could.” Such was the genesis of the greatest collection of cowboy photographs ever made.

Smith brought to the task great natural gifts—tremendous patience, unsurpassed imagination, and a genius for composition and perspective. He came late to the scene, however. The long cattle drives to the north that began alter the Civil War were over. The open-range grazing of the “beef bonanza” was steadily being transformed into ranching behind barbed-wire fences. Yet the equipment and work habits of the cowboy were still, briefly, what they had been in his heyday. Through Smith’s pictures we are able to visualize the operations of the big outfits of the Southwest shortly before heavier breeds of beef, new marketing methods, and mechanical efficiencies changed the cowboy’s life forever.

Smith’s first experience on the range came in the summer of 1894. when, at the age of eight, he dogged the heels of his cousin Edwin Sanders on the JCS ranch near Quanah, Texas. During summer vacations, the boy was trained to the leather by cattlemen of the old school who ignored his youth and treated him like a regular cowhand.

Resolved to become an authority on the West and to capture the cowboy’s life in art, Smith began experimenting with a box camera and developing fluids; while still in his teens he made several remarkably dear and well-composed pictures. In 1905 he set out for some of the bigger outfits of the Southwest. Would they hire him to work for small wages and permit him to take pictures of everyday ranch scenes? They would, and did; and for the better part of the next dozen summers he worked with the regular hands on many of the famous spreads in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

For several winters Smith studied art in Chicago and in Boston; but somehow he never produced much sculpture. Instead, he himself became a Texas rancher—a financially unsuccessful one—for a number of years. But he never lost his obsession with producing a faithful photographic portrayal of the American cowboy, and before he died, in 1947, His collection of negatives had reached into the thousands. Some 1,800 of them are now in the Library of Congress, presented by Erwin Smith’s sister, Mrs. L. M. Pettis. With her permission, AMERICAN HERITAGE reproduces on The following pages a representative group which shows the cowboy, in Smith’s simple phrase, as “a man with work to do.”

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