The Story of Erwin Evans Smith: Preserver of the Cowboy Way

He preserved the history of cowboy life on the range after the cattle drives ended and before the West had changed forever by learning to develop pictures of the working cowboy with a Kodak camera. Erwin Evans Smith wanted to become a sculptor. He began life in 1886 in eastern Fannin County in Honey Grove, Texas. At age four, Erwin’s father died. His mother remarried two years later, and his family moved to Bonham, Texas, when he was six. People described Erwin as a precocious and sensitive child.

Erwin spent summers at his uncle’s ranch in Hardeman County, Texas, a little over 200 miles from Bonham. The life of the cowboy enthralled Erwin, and he first began sketching and painting the ranch life. The trail drives were over by this time, and the Texas-born culture of the cattle traveling to the railheads in Missouri was dead.

Erwin foresaw what he considered the disappearance of the Western culture, and he was a working cowboy. From 1905 to 1912, he spent summers photographing cowboys and range life in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. (1) Erwin studied sculpting with Lorado Taft in Chicago, Illinois, in 1904. Lorado is considered the first U.S. midwestern sculptor, and his works still decorate Chicago and the state of Illinois. Lorado’s statue of Black Hawk overlooks Rock River near Oregon, Illinois. (2) Erwin also traveled to Boston to study with Bella Lyon Pratt during this time.

Three of Bela’s works can be seen in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He sculpted six female allegorical spandrels gracing the three arches of the entrance to the library, Philosophy, one of the eight figures in the rotunda, and the medallions of the four seasons in the pavilion. (3) Even though he studied under these two talented and famous sculptors, Erwin’s legacy remains his photography. Erwin and his friend George Patullo lived in Boston for three years, but traveled home to Texas every summer to ride the range and take pictures. George wrote about Erwin for the Saturday Evening Post and other publications. (7)

Capturing the Cowboy’s Image in Still Life

Erwin wanted to create an authentic picture of western culture. He disrespected artists and photographers who wanted to capitalize on life as he knew it with wild and rowdy romanticism. Erwin focused on daily life of cowboys, ranch owners, trail bosses, and bronc busters through trail drives, round-ups, daily work, and what they did for entertainment in their limited spare time. He paid interest to their clothing and tools.

Erwin and his camera hooked up with big outfits in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona like the Frying Pan, the JA, the LS, the Matador, and the Shoe Box Ranches. He chewed the fat with cowboys in Old Tascosa in the Texas Panhandle, now a ghost town. The film industry was hard at work exploiting the cowboy for profit. Erwin succeeded in capturing the harshness of the cowboy’s life. 

Erwin fell in love with everything about the West between his childhood in Bonham and his summers in Quannah at about eight years old. He sketched constantly, but when he realized as did so many others, that the lifestyle and culture was fading fast, he bought an Eastman screen focus Kodak camera with a Goerz lens and a volute shutter and worked with the cowboys as he grew up. Back home in Bonham during the winters, Erwin experimented and produced amazing results with his unrefined shutter, wet plates, developing methods, and printing his photography.

Erwin’s Kodak was a cartridge type of camera where he loaded a sheet of unexposed film into the back of the camera. He used nitrate film that produced the negatives which could be printed. His pictures portrayed brilliant clarity for the era. This left us with his collections in the U.S. Library of Congress, the Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library in Midland, Texas, and the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, and an exhibit in the Texas Memorial Museum at UT in Austin. (4, 5)

Erwin’s Life After Riding the Range

Erwin’s stepfather died when he was in his early thirties, and he returned home to help his mother. His stepfather had left investments and different enterprises, but Erwin was bankrupt by 1917. He never married and spent the remainder of his life outside of Bonham. At this point, Erwin took an interest in the rodeo circuit and took pictures of many top rodeo performers. He traveled to the Ft. Worth Fat Stock Show, today’s National Western Stock Show in Denver, the Cheyenne, Wyoming, Round-Up Rodeo, the Stamford, Texas, shows, and the rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Erwin came to know many of the rodeo stars. He worked with the Fannin County Fair and the Bonham Round-Up Club. He exhibited a big interest in Fannin County livestock events and activities and brought rodeo stars to perform in Bonham. During his life, Erwin tried to turn his photography collections into projects, but that never came to much in the way of success. (6) The University of Texas in Austin purchased a collection of his photographs for the 1936 Centennial celebration in Austin. The Cattleman magazine featured his photographs on their cover for many years. At best, while alive, Erwin enjoyed a modest success.

Erwin’s website does not list a half-sister. However, the Fannin County Historical Commission reports a half sister, Mrs. L. M. Pettis on Erwin’s page on their website, and a Mrs. E. N. Pettis of Washington D.C. and a Mrs. Albert Von Hovenberg are listed as half-sister survivors in his obituary. I believe the two sisters named Pettis are the same person. Mrs. Pettis continued to receive a huge amount of requests from around the world for the use of Erwin’s pictures while she was alive. The Amon Carter Museum reports that Smith and his mother moved into the home of his half–sister Mary Alice White Pettis in 1932. (7) Erwin also took a slight interest in cowgirls, African-American cowboys, wild west show performers, American Indians, nesters, and even lacrosse players in his later years.

In Death

Erwin died in Bonham in 1947 at age 61. He is buried in the Oakwood cemetery in Honey Grove, Texas. There were over 10,000 pictures in Erwin’s collection when he died. The historical marker erected at his gravesite in 1976 reads:

Artist-photographer Erwin Evans Smith, a Fannin County native, was enchanted as a youth with the culture and folklore of ranching in the southwest. He studied art in Chicago and Boston in hopes of becoming a western sculptor. For several summers in the early 1900s, he visited ranches to sketch and photograph cowboys at work and leisure. He never realized his dream of sculpting but left over 2000 photographs as a priceless record of life on the range.

Location: Oakwood Cemetery, Honey Grove

Possibly, the number of negatives is confused with the number of photographs.

Erwin Evans Smith Quotes

“From the first time I laid eyes on the sun burnt plains of the West, with its grand scenery, I have been in love with its still, enchanted solitude. Its change of colors no artist can portray.” (1)

“As well as I like works of art I don’t believe I would have resorted to art as a profession if it had not been for the disappearance of Western life which awakened in me a desire to dedicate my observations, as it is a last resort to recall those stirring scenes.” (1)


1. Erwin Evans Smith as a young man

2. Erwin Evans Smith in later years

3. Around a Campfire Having a Late Dinner [or Breakfast at 4 a.m.] JA Ranch, Texas 1908, Gelatin dry plate negative, 5 x 7 inches

4. Lone Cowboy



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