We all know the gun-slinging Cowboys portrayed in Hollywood are played by white men, well, just like everything else in Hollywood movies; it’s all a lie. This is not how the West really was. Though African-American cowboys don’t play a part in the “popular narrative,” historians say that one in four cowboys were Black. The Western frontier in the late 1800s was as diverse as America is today. While Texas ranchers fought in the war, they needed their slaves to make sure their lands and cattle were taken care of. In doing so, the slaves developed the skills of cattle tending (breaking horses, pulling calves out of mud and releasing longhorns caught in the brush, to name a few) that would render them invaluable to the Texas cattle industry in the post-war era. Barbed wire was not yet invented so when the Ranchers returned from the war, their cattle ran wild. The Emancipation Proclamation left them without the free workers/slaves that they depended desperately on, so they ended up hiring now-free, skilled African-Americans as paid cowhands.
Nat Love, an African American Cowboy, in 1907 wrote an autobiography recalling his time as a cowboy. He was one of the most famous cowboys in the Old West. Love had a skill in breaking horses and had his first paid job working with the Texas Duval Ranch for $30 a month after he broke one of the wildest horses named Good Eye.
He moved massive herds of cattle from one grazing area to another, drank with Billy the Kid and participated in shootouts with Native peoples defending their land on the trails.
Nat Love was a true Cowboy hero that you would see in any western movie, except it wasn’t a movie. When he finally moved to Arizona he worked for the Gallinger Ranch on the Gila River and there he traveled all over the western trails fighting bandits and participating in Indian Battles. They called him the Red River Dick. He then got the name “Deadwood Dick” when he won a roping bridling, saddling and shooting contest with a $200 prize in Deadwood, South Dakota on a cattle run with his crew. Nat Love eventually settled down and had continued to have a great life, moving around and settling in South Carolina. His book, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love: Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” he recalls many stories of his adventurous life as a Black cowboy.
Averaging the stats given by various sources, there were probably around 10,000 Black cowboys and maybe 100,000 Black settlers in the era. Author John Ravage writes in his book Black Pioneers that they may have accounted for up to 3% of the people in the West. Even though these cowboys experienced discrimination in the towns, they worked together with white cowboys on the open range. Some Black cowboys took up careers as rodeo performers or were hired as federal peace officers in Indian Territory. Others owned their own farms and ranches, while a few who followed the Wild West becoming gunfighters and outlaws. Significant numbers of African Americans went on the great cattle drives originating in the
Southwest in the late 1800s. Black cowboys predominated in ranching sections of the Coastal Plain between the Sabine and Guadalupe rivers.
Ben Hodges was another original smooth Mexican/Black cowboy who made Dodge City his home from the 1870s to his death in 1929. Even though he developed a reputation as a swindler, master forger, and cattle thief, people actually liked him. He was said to be a charmer who kept people laughing and he loved to scheme the wealthy.
He was so slick at being a conman he learned of an old Spanish land grant near Dodge City, and he somehow gathered documents and twisted his Mexican ancestry to prove he was the rightful owner of the land. It wasn’t true, but the local people supported him because they thought they stood to win, too, if he succeeded. A bank president who was new to town believed the story and extended to Hodges a line of credit and letter of recommendation. After all of that, he still didn’t get the land. In the end, he was still very popular amongst everyone because of his likeable personality, he literally was able to talk himself out of trouble.
I can’t talk about Black cowboys without talking about the Black ‘cowgirls’ that also were important to our culture. As you know, Black women do it all, so of course we would be naturally great at this. ,Stagecoach Mary,, real name Mary Fields, actually drove a horse-drawn wagon to carry mail on a “star route” out of Cascade, Montana. She was said to have carried two guns with her, drank a lot, wore mens clothing and had a pretty bad attitude.
She was the first African American woman to carry mail. She was born a slave and unfortunately like so many other enslaved people, we do not know her date of birth. Her name wasn’t even in a book, just a number, since slaves were looked at as property, not people. She made her way to Ohio when she was freed after the Civil War and ended up in a convent ( a church where nuns usually reside). She worked as a groundskeeper where her particular attitude brought many complaints from the nuns. It was said that she even told one of the nuns she was ready for “a good cigar and a drink.” They claimed that Fields was difficult and she was particularly even more of a handful if you disrupted the grounds that she kept up with. Fields only had really one friend, Mother Amadeus Dunne, the convents Mother superior, who happened to be the very person she went to help when Dunne went to Montana to do missionary work.
Unfortunately for Fields, not everyone could take her harsh behavior like they did at the convent. The Bishop caught word of her cursing, drinking, smoking and shooting guns as well as her need to wear mens clothing and kicked her out of the convent. Like the strong woman she was, she moved on to bigger and better earning a reputation of liking gunfights and liquor. This led to her contract with the postal service as a star route carrier – a person who carried mail using a stagecoach. She was only the second woman in the United States to take on this role. When she finally retired from her role as a Stagecoach she was so popular that when a law passed barring women from saloons, the local mayor granted Mary an exception and since she didn’t know her birthday, the town celebrated her birth day two times a year!
Mike Searles, a Professor of History at Augusta State University, helping people to better understand the western experience of the Black cowboy says,
“[b]lack cowboys were also chuck wagon cooks, and they were known for being songsters – helping the cattle stay calm.” Searles says his research, which included pouring over interviews with ex-slaves in the 1930s, suggested black cowboys benefited from what he calls “range equality”.
Black cowboys have continued to work in the ranching industry throughout the twentieth century, and African Americans who inherited family-owned ranches have been working on making sure there is recognition to their ancestors contributions. These were only a small amount of great Black cowboys, there are plenty of others such as, James Pierson Beckwourth, John Ware, Jesse Stahl, and even Bass Reeves(the real Lone Ranger).
Mollie Stevenson, a fourth-generation owner of the Taylor-Stevenson Ranch near Houston, founded the American Cowboy Museum to honor Black, Indian, and Mexican-American cowboys hosting weekend rodeos featuring black cowboys. It all started in the late 1940s and still exist until this day thanks to the Negro Cowboys Rodeo Association started by a group of East Texas Black businessmen-ranchers and cowboys.
Even though Hollywood has ignored and continues to ignore the real cowboys of America, we know our ancestors as well as plenty of Black people today have been a huge part of this culture. Black culture.
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