Special Report

The 30 Most Famous Cowboys (and Cowgirls) of All Time

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

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.

Click here to read about the most famous cowboys of all time

Methodology

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.

Source: stevecoleimages / Getty Images

30. Clay Carr (1909-1957)
> Hometown: Farmersville, California

Clay Carr was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1979. His family owned the Gill Ranches in California where he developed a variety of roping and riding skills. As a rodeo cowboy, Carr won five world championships over a 25-year career that took him to competitions in Australia and England.

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Source: Courtesy of KRTV

29. Reg Kesler (1919-2001)
> Hometown: Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

Canadian-born Reg Kesler was known as a leading stock contractor and rodeo producer. His animals were selected as top bucking stock at events such as the National Finals Rodeo and the Montana Circuit Finals. Before getting into the business side of rodeo, Kesler competed in saddle bronc, bareback riding, bull riding, roping, and steer wrestling. He is a member of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.

Source: Courtesy of bendellkarate.com

28. Don Bendell (1947- )
> Hometown: Akron, Ohio

Bendell is a rancher, martial arts expert, and prolific author whose works include “Coyote Run” and “Blood Feather.” He also wrote, produced, directed and co-starred in the movie “The Instructor.” Bendell, who is a Vietnam War veteran and former Green Beret, owns a 146-acre ranch south of Florence, Colorado.

Source: Beineke Library, Yale University / Wikimedia Commons

27. Slim Whitaker (1893-1960)
> Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri

Slim Whitaker appeared in more than 300 films, from the silent film era to post-World War II. Much of his work was in B-westerns, portraying bad men. Before he got into movies, Whitaker was working the rodeo circuit in his late teens. He became a cowhand at the Chowchilla Ranch in central California in the early 20th century. As westerns started becoming popular in the early years of movies, Whitaker was hired as a stuntman by Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson.

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Source: Donald Miralle / Getty Images

26. Mike Lee (1983- )
> Hometown: Billings, Montana

Mike Lee is one of the greatest bull riders of all time. Lee has 50 Professional Bull Rider wins; he has finished in the top five 177 times; and he is the sixth highest PBR money winner with $3.9 million in winnings. Lee said on Facebook in November that he was going to redirect his bull riding career to other associations.

Source: The Humboldt Star / Wikimedia Commons

25. Billy Stiles (1871-1908)
> Hometown: Casa Grande, Arizona

Stiles was a criminal — robbing banks and trains — and also a lawman, working twice as an Arizona deputy sheriff. While his career as a criminal landed him in jail multiple times, and even forced him to flee the country, his law enforcement work proved to be his ultimate undoing. Stiles was shot and killed in 1908 while serving a warrant.

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Source: Karl Walter / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

24. Wylie Gustafson (1961- )
> Hometown: Conrad, Montana

Wylie Gustafson comes from northern Montana and is a fourth-generation rancher and cowboy. A renowned singer and songwriter, Gustafson is famous for his yodeling prowess. Gustafson’s group Wylie & the West have appeared on the Grand Ole Opry 50 times. He has performed on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”

Source: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

23. Henry Nash (1869-1902)
> Hometown: Mount Sterling, Indiana

A cowboy from Indiana, Nash went pioneering in Arizona and later rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders volunteer military unit that gained fame during the Spanish-American War. Nash later became a teacher who worked in the Philippines.

Source: H.J. Rogner, Rawlins, Wyo. / Library of Congress

22. Kitty Canutt (1899-1988)
> Hometown: New York City, New York

One of the more colorful cowgirls of the Old West, Canutt, known by the stage name Kitty Wilks, won the women’s saddle bronc championship at the Pendleton Round-Up several times. She also had a turbulent relationship with husband and rodeo cowboy Yakima Canutt. The story goes that Kitty Canutt wore a diamond in her front tooth that she would occasionally hock during hard times.

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Source: DrStew82 / Wikimedia Commons

21. Jack Dunlop (1872-1900)
> Hometown: Texas

Like many men in the West, Dunlop, commonly known as “Three Fingered Jack,” turned to a life of crime after working as a cowboy in his late teens. Dunlop joined a gang in the 1890s and robbed trains and banks. After one attempted robbery, he was hit with a buckshot fired by a guard on a train. Dunlop fell from his horse and was taken to Tombstone, Arizona, where he died.

Source: Public Domain/ Willis Kent Productions / Syndicate Pictures / Wikimedia Commons

20. Montie Montana (1910-1998)
> Hometown: Wolf Point, Montana

Montie Montana was a beloved cowboy figure in Southern California who appeared at events and parades in sequined western attire. Montana was a real-life cowboy who learned roping tricks as a child growing up in Montana. He moved to California and parlayed his roping skills into a career in movies. He also lassoed President Dwight Eisenhower — with the president’s approval — during the inaugural parade in 1953.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

19. Ab Saunders (1851-1883)
> Hometown: Mount Pleasant, Iowa

Ab Saunders was a cowboy and gunman and an associate of Old West luminaries Billy the Kid and Doc Scurlock. Saunders was a member of the Lincoln County Regulators, a deputized posse that was involved in the Lincoln County War, a prolonged dispute between rival business factions in New Mexico in 1878.

Source: Mark Mainz / Getty Images

18. Baxter Black (1945- )
> Hometown: Las Cruces, New Mexico

Baxter Black is a cowboy, philosopher, and poet who has served as a commentator on cowboy culture and rural life on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” He once went on “The Tonight Show” and regaled host Johnny Carson with a poem titled “A Vegetarian’s Nightmare” that humorously suggests that plants feel pain.

Source: Chris Lott / Flickr

17. Casey Tibbs (1929-1990)
> Hometown: Fort Pierre, South Dakota

With so many farm hands off to fight in World War II, Casey Tibbs grabbed the opportunity to augment his family’s income by breaking horses. By the time he was 22, Tibbs was considered to be the best bronc rider in the nation. Tibbs became famous, eventually appearing in movies and making the cover of “Life” magazine. Tibbs lived a flamboyant lifestyle, favoring purple satin shirts and fast cars.

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Source: Courtesy of The American Cowboy Chronicles

16. George Scarborough (1859-1900)
> Hometown: Louisiana

Son of a Baptist preacher, Scarborough became a cowboy when he was old enough to work in Texas. He was later appointed as a county sheriff and also worked as a U.S. Deputy Marshall chasing cattle rustlers. Later in his career, he moved to New Mexico and worked as a gunman for the Grant County Cattlemen’s Association. Scarborough was pursuing some members of the legendary Wild Bunch and got in a gunfight with them. He was shot in the leg and it had be amputated. He died the next day.

Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

15. Ben Johnson (1918-1996)
> Hometown: Foraker, Oklahoma

Ben Johnson was a cowboy before he became an Oscar-winning actor. Johnson was a ranch hand and rodeo performer when movie producer and businessman Howard Hughes hired him to take horses to California. He stayed on in California and became a stuntman, horse wrangler, and a double in westerns. Johnson won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the movie “The Last Picture Show” in 1972.

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Source: Mahanga / Wikimedia Commons

14. Walt Garrison (1944- )
> Hometown: Denton, Texas

Walt Garrison is a Texas cowboy through and through. Older football fans might remember him as a fullback for the Dallas Cowboys. Garrison grew up as a real cowboy, competing in rodeos in high school. After the Cowboys drafted him, he made sure his signing bonus included a two-horse trailer so he could continue to attend rodeos. He was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2018.

Source: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

13. Ty O’Neal McClary (1978- )
> Hometown: Abilene, Texas

McClary is another rodeo veteran who turned to acting. Among his movie credits are “D2: Mighty Ducks” and “Wild Wild West.” McClary is a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

12. Emmett Dalton (1871-1937)
> Hometown: Belton, Missouri

Emmett Dalton of the infamous Dalton Gang was cowboy in the 1880s before he turned to a life of crime. Four members of the gang were killed on Oct. 5, 1892, during attempted bank robberies in Coffeyville, Kansas. Though he was shot more than times, Emmett Dalton survived to serve nearly a decade and a half in prison. Upon his release, he worked as an consultant and actor for western genre films in Hollywood.

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Source: North Fort Worth Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

11. Bill Pickett (1870-1932)
> Hometown: Jenks-Branch, Texas

Bill Pickett, an African American cowboy, serves as a reminder of the important role African Americans played in the culture of the West. Pickett and his brothers started their own horse-breaking and cowboy services company called the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. Pickett invented the art of bulldogging from seeing how bulldogs brought down a steer by clamping down on the animal’s sensitive nose and lip. He would wrestle a steer to the ground then bite and hold the animal’s lip until it held still.

Source: Public Domain / Batjac-Paramount Pictures / Wikimedia Commons

10. Chuck Roberson (1919-1988)
> Hometown: Shannon, Texas

The Texas-born cowhand went to Hollywood and became one the great stuntmen in westerns. He had more than 120 acting and stuntman credits, including “Cat Ballou,” “The Searchers,” “Man of the West,” and “Nevada Smith.” He was a double for John Wayne in many movies.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

9. Tom Ketchum (1863-1901)
> Hometown: San Saba County, Texas

Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum was dealt a poor hand as a youth, losing both parents when he was a child. He and his brother began working as cowboys on various ranches, but they found robbing trains more lucrative. They formed a gang and robbed one train of $20,000. Black Jack’s luck eventually ran out and he was caught and hanged in New Mexico.

Source: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

8. Doc Scurlock (1849-1929)
> Hometown: Tallapoosa County, Alabama

Doc Scurlock studied medicine in New Orleans — hence the nickname — but left Louisiana when he thought he had contracted tuberculosis. He went to Mexico, hoping the change of scenery would cure him. There he developed a reputation as a gunfighter. It would help him survive multiple attacks by Native Americans while he was a cowboy working for Texas cattle baron John Chisum. Later in life, Scurlock was a founding member of the Lincoln County Regulators, a deputized posse that was involved in the Lincoln County War, a prolonged dispute between rival business factions in New Mexico in 1878. As an older man, he gave away his guns and took an interest in literature and writing poetry.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

7. Hank Worden (1901-1992)
> Hometown: Rolfe, Iowa

Hank Worden was a durable character actor in movie westerns. He appeared in more than 100 films such as “Red River” and “The Searchers,” and on television series such as “Bonanza.” Worden was born in Iowa and grew up on a ranch in Montana. He worked as a bronco rider on the rodeo circuit.

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Source: George Frey / Getty Images News via Getty Images

6. Cliven Bundy (1946- )
> Hometown: Las Vegas, Nevada

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy took on the federal government over grazing rights, refusing to recognize the government’s control over U.S. public lands. Bundy refused to pay leasing fees, and when the government demanded he remove his cattle from public land in 2014, he and a group of armed followers confronted federal agents. In a federal case brought against Bundy, a U.S. district judge declared a mistrial in January 2018 and charges were dropped.

Source: Ken Levine / Getty Images

5. Ty Murray (1969- )
> Hometown: Phoenix, Arizona

Ty Murray was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2000. He’s won nine world championships (seven all-around titles and two bull-riding crowns). He’s also won the most money at one rodeo — $124,821 at the 1993 National Finals Rodeo — and the most money in one year, $297,896, also in 1993. Murray is recognized as the most dominant cowboy of his era.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

4. John Wesley Hardin (1853-1895)
> Hometown: Bonham, Texas

Like many of the infamous gunslingers in the West, Hardin also tried his hand at ranching for a Texas rancher in 1871. He was trying to lay low after murdering a Texas state police guard who was transferring him to Waco for a trial. However, his hot temper betrayed him on a cattle drive. Hardin got in a dispute with the man in charge of another cattle herd and shot him through the heart. Hardin is also notorious for apparently shooting a man to death in an adjoining hotel room for snoring too loudly.

Source: The original uploader was Katharina at German Wikipedia/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

3. Annie Oakley (1860-1926)
> Hometown: Darke County, Ohio

Annie Oakley was the most skilled markswoman of her time. Her shooting ability was such that she earned enough money as a teenager to pay off the mortgage on her family’s home. She was a star attraction with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Oakley astonished audiences by shooting a cigarette off her husband’s lips and hitting the edge of a playing card from 30 paces away.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

2. Will Rogers (1879-1935)
> Hometown: Oologah, Oklahoma

Rogers was an American author, actor, and humorist, earning the sobriquet “The Cowboy Philosopher.” Among his famous quotes is, “I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat.” Rogers was part Native American and grew up in a ranching family in Oklahoma. He joined traveling Wild West shows and eventually parlayed his lassoing abilities into a vaudeville act. He was killed in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

1. Billy the Kid (1859-1881)
> Hometown: New York City, New York

We know Billy the Kid, born Henry McCarty, as a ruthless outlaw in the Old West. But for a time he worked as a cowboy for John Tunstall, a rancher in New Mexico. Billy got involved in a dispute between Tunstall and his business partners over Tunstall’s debt. When the local sheriff and his posse attempted to seize Tunstall’s cattle, Tunstall was killed. Billy was a witness, but before the sheriff was arrested, Billy was tossed into jail. Upon release, he embarked on the Old West’s most famous criminal career.

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