What could be more American than the cowboy? We know this archetype mostly through movies, television series, dime-store novels, and wistful ballads.
Cowboys are among the most durable of movie heroes and have been a cinema staple since the advent of film. They have been portrayed by some of the most famous actors of all time, among them John Wayne, James Stewart, Heath Ledger, and Clint Eastwood.
But since these actors weren’t real cowboys, we at 24/7 Tempo have compiled a list of the most famous cowboys of all time. These are actual cowboys who roped steers, herded cattle, and rode high in the saddle. We looked at various lists, rodeo websites, and media sources to assemble our list.
Many of the cowboys on our list began their work life laboring as ranch hands and then shifted to a life of crime. Men such as Billy the Kid and Jack Dunlop took advantage of the wide swaths of lawless territory in the American West in the late 19th century to rob trains and banks.
Other cowboys such as Slim Whitaker, Hank Worden, and Ben Johnson parlayed the skills they learned while working for ranchers or rodeos into motion picture work as stuntmen, advisers, and doubles for stars like John Wayne. Many succeeded with their own acting careers. Johnson, a familiar face in western films, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the movie “The Last Picture Show.” These are the 30 best western film of all time.
Cowgirls also appear on our list, among them Annie Oakley, the showstopper for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. We also included Kitty Canutt, a women’s bronc riding champion, who purportedly had a diamond in her front tooth that on occasion she would hock when money got tight.
Bill Pickett is a noteworthy inclusion to our list because he was an African American cowboy, and historically, African American contributions to American West culture have been overlooked. Pickett was known for his innovative approach to wrestling steers.
On this list, no one is more of a cowboy than Walt Garrison. The Texas native competed in rodeos beginning in high school and went to play professional football for, you guessed it, the Dallas
Cowboys. Garrison continued to participate in rodeos during his football career and afterward.
24/7 Tempo reviewed various sources, including digital media company Ranker, which features polls on entertainment, brands, sports and culture, to tally a list of some of the most renowned, real-life cowboys. We compiled a list of the 30 recognizable cowboys and assessed their popularity by ranking the number of Wikipedia page views their respective pages accumulated between Oct. 26, 2018 and Oct. 26, 2020.