Members of the Jaycees, a leadership organization, pose on a car for a benefit rodeo in Phoenix, Arizona in 1928.
Members of the Jaycees, a leadership organization, pose on a car for a benefit rodeo in Phoenix, Arizona in 1928.
Photograph by Clifton R. Adams, Nat Geo Image Collection

What Cowboys Looked Like Nearly 100 Years Ago

On National Day of the Cowboy, see some of the first color photos of cowboys in the American west.

On July 22, states from Texas to Idaho will celebrate National Day of the Cowboy, hailing one of the most recognizable and iconic figures in North America.

A total of 12 states have passed statewide measures officially dedicating the day to the celebration of cowboy culture with activities like live country music, frontier-style games, and food served from a chuck wagon.

The photos above show some of the first color photos of cowboys in the U.S. Many were shot on autochrome, the first method of color photography. The technique used potato starch layered on glass to create color images that resembled paintings.

The cowboys pictured look exactly like you thought they would—decked out in chaps, cowboy hats, and thick leather boots.

Cowboys have become emblazoned in popular consciousness as a symbol of the American West, but their origins didn’t actually begin with settlers from the U.S.

When the Spanish arrived in what is now Mexico, they established ranches which, by the early 18th century, had spread into what is now Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. In order to maintain these ranches, the Spanish employed Native Americans as vaqueros (the Spanish word for cowboys.)

After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, settlers from the eastern U.S. flooded into the southwest—previously Mexican territory, now part of the continental U.S.—and ranching culture ceased to be uniquely Hispanic. Cattle drives to herd thousands of bovines from the Southwest to the Northwest quickly spread the lasso-throwing, boot-wearing culture to other American states.

Today there may not be many vaqueros driving large herds, but the cowboy still remains a uniquely American icon.

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