TITLE: The True Grit and the Romantic Myth of the Cowboy


SUBJECT AREAS: Visual Art, History, Social Studies


4.4 History. The student understands the political, economic, and social changes in Texas during the last half of the 19th century.

4.9 Geography. The student understands how people adapt to and modify their environment.


In this lesson students will:

  • develop an appreciation for photography as an art form and as historical documention;
  • recognize in the photographs the characteristics of life on the open range and in the West;
  • identify contemporary examples of the romanticization of cowboy life as seen in magazine articles, advertisements, and Web sites that perpetuate the myth of the West;
  • develop critical-thinking skills that help them identify the romanticization and true grit of cowboy life in other forms of art and popular culture.


Activity 1: Have students read information on photographer Erwin E. Smith and/or watch the video about Smith available for loan from the Carter’s Teaching Resource Center (TRC).
After viewing a selection of Smith’s photographs on the Web site, discuss with students the following questions:

How has the photographer chosen to portray cowboy life?
How has the photographer arranged the subjects?
Discuss of the photograph as art form, and then discuss the photograph as a form of historical documentation.

Activity 2: Ask students to brainstorm, thinking of everything that they associate with a cowboy. Write their responses on a large sheet of paper or on the chalkboard. Then, look at the list and see if there are any ideas that are similar, and eliminate the duplicates. Next, examine the list and identify whether or not students’ responses are romantic myths or true grit reality. These can be put in a chart.

Have students view the video Rediscovering America: The Real American Cowboy, which emphasizes the real world of the American cowboy versus the popular myths about cowboy life. It is available for loan from the Carter’s TRC.

Activity 3: Use The True Grit and the Romantic Myth of the Cowboy Student Activity Sheet student activity sheet as a prompt to reinforce some of the students’ ideas from the previous exercise or to supplement their ideas.

Activity 4: Have students review the Erwin E. Smith images in the online collection guide of the Web site, and then select five images that portray the true grit of cowboy life and five images that portray the romantic myths of cowboy life.
Prompt a discussion with these questions:

Does this show cowboy life in only a positive light? Does it glorify cowboy life, while glossing over or leaving out the reality of cowboy life?

Print these images from the Web site and align them in a chart. Then, ask students to briefly identify those characteristics of each image that reflect either the myth or reality of a cowhand’s life on the range.

From these exercises, students can begin to recognize the differences between the romantic myths and the true-life experiences of cowboy life. Over time, as stories are told and as we get further away from life on the range, the myths and the true grit can become the same in people’s minds.

Activity 5: Have students research and identify other Web sites related to cowboy life, then print images that reflect either the true grit or the romantic myths of cowboy life that exist to this day in Texas. Students can also conduct this exercise by searching for magazines, particularly for advertisements that capitalize on the myth of the cowboy to market products. If possible, cut out or photocopy the images from magazines to add to the chart of images that include Smith’s photographs.

WORKS OF ART (Click on image to view an enlargement.)

Erwin E. Smith (1886–1947)
Zack T. Burkett, LS Foreman, Overlooking the Canadian River, 1907
Nitrate negative
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Erwin E. Smith (1886–1947)
Placing the LS brand on a white calf. [Henry Lyman is on the right.] LS Ranch, Texas, 1907
Nitrate negative
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
  Erwin E. Smith (1886–1947)
A day herder, Bert Killion, on a knoll overlooking the grazing herd. LS Ranch, Texas, 1907
Nitrate negative
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas


Price, Byron. Imagining the Open Range: Erwin E. Smith, Cowboy Photographer. (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1998).

Worcester, Don. Cowboy with a Camera: Erwin E. Smith, Cowboy Photographer. (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1998).




Students demonstrate their understanding of how photographers portray contrasting aspects of the cowboy way of life—the gritty, cooperative hard work (reality) versus the heroic and lonely work (myth) of working cattle on the Texas plains.

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