Thomson’s Cowboys


A. D. “Cowboy” Kean (with huge hat; front row, center) and a troupe of cowboys. Stuart Thomson photo.

I purchased the image above last week from a friend. It shows a number of men dressed as cowboys. The location of the image, I quickly concluded, was indeterminate; there are no visible landmarks. The photographer was Vancouver professional, Stuart Thomson (as confirmed by his right/bottom corner mark). As for when it was made, I’m inclined to put it in the 19-teens or early 1920s. Thomson began shooting professionally in Vancouver in 1910 and this photo looks to me like one of his earlier ones.

Upon closer inspection of the men shown in the photo, I noticed that the man in the biggest hat greatly resembled Arthur David “Cowboy” Kean (1882-1961). Kean had a life as a rodeo competitor and organizer and he later had a film-making career (followed by a career in radio).

My initial suspicion was that the photograph was made in connection with Kean’s involvement with Range Days, which was a component of the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) in the 1920s. The following clipping from the Vancouver Daily World (August 13, 1923) describes it:


Kean’s role as the organizer of Range Days in 1923, however, got him into trouble with the city folks in Vancouver, some of whom were disturbed by alleged “cruelty” to animals. It isn’t clear to me whether Kean was ever brought to book in conjunction with this, or if the charge was ultimately withdrawn:


I continue to lean toward PNE’s Range Days being the occasion on which my Stuart Thomson image was made.

There is another possibility, however. In 1924, Kean made a silent film titled “Policing the Plains” (based on the book written by R. G. MacBeth). It was shot in Vancouver, the interior of B.C., and Southern Alberta (notably in the Ft. Macleod area). The film had a limited release in 1927, had mixed reviews, and today is considered lost. There is no evidence that I could find that Stuart Thomson shot any of the stills for “Policing the Plains”. There is at least one other cowboy image which was made at a rodeo (probably somewhere in the Vancouver area; possibly at the PNE) in the 1920s. It is the image shown below from the VPL’s collection of historical photographs.


VPL 18159. Cowboys at Rodeo. 192-. Stuart Thomson photo.

More information about the life and careers of “Cowboy” Kean, is available here. There is also a series of still photos made in connection with “Policing the Plains”. There is also an extant silent film made by Kean to help Ft. Macleod celebrate its Jubilee year (during the time he was there filming PTP). (Note especially the “exhibition football played from horseback” by the Mounties in Macleod starting at about 8.42 in this short feature. Worth checking out if only for that segment!)

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2 Responses to Thomson’s Cowboys

  1. bcfilmguy says:

    Hi there:
    I’ve been working for some time on a biography of A. D. “Cowboy” Kean, and your discussion of this photo caught my attention. Without seeing a image of much higher resolution, I can’t confirm that the figure at the centre is ADK. He knew how to wear clothes, and the hat doesn’t seem to fit right, for one thing. However, I have seen photographs and newspaper coverage from the “Range Days” events he staged for the Vancouver Exhibition (in 1914, 1915 and 1923, AFAIK), and the cowboys he recruited from across BC didn’t wear fancy matching outfits. These fellas look more like members of a cowboy band, or a troupe from a wild west show. I would be interested to hear if you’ve learned anything more about the photo.
    Dennis J. Duffy

    • mdm says:

      Thanks for commenting, Dennis. No, I haven’t learned anything more about the Thomson cowboy image since writing this post. I plan to stop into CVA’s office sometime to check this image and at least one other by ST that have question marks around them to see if CVA’s Thomson records can reveal more info. I’ll be in touch if I learn anything from that visit.

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