Black Cowboys: The Unknown Man of the West

Bryan Harris

HSTA 160

Mythbusters Paper

Black Cowboys: The Unknown Man of the West

The United States is a country full of history, from the northeast where industrialization started, to the south which was built on slavery. But America is more than just two regions. One cannot have America without the west, its massive expanse, beautiful landscape, and manmade wonders. Above all else, the people, western culture and myths complete the story that is the United States. One of these stories is that of the cowboy. The cowboy brings up specific thoughts, ones of a tough, white, independent man who ruled is environment with great character. While most is true, White cowboys were not the only ones to occupy the cowboy world, African Americans made up a large number of cowboys throughout the West. These men rode, worked, and ran ranches right along with their white counterparts. Born into slavery, many of these men played important roles in the history of the cowboy.

African Americans during this time didn’t come from cowboy stock, many of these men were born into slavery. Hailing from Georgia to Texas, the West provided an opportunity to leave the oppressive lifestyle that plagued so many and offered them a chance at freedom. African Americans first migrated to the West, sometime in the 1800s and according to some historians “cowboy” was a term used to describe slaves and their work with cattle.[1] However, the black cowboy didn’t start in the West. With the outbreak of the Civil War, many of these black slaves took over the daily operations of white ranch hands throughout the South.[2] One can look at the Civil War, its outcomes and how it was tied to the migration of African Americans. Couple this migration with the intense movement of many Americans to settle the West, and it is not surprising that so many African American men took the opportunity to be cowboys. With their previous work and experience with ranches in the south, working with cattle in the West would be second nature to many of these men.

Migration and settlement in the West provided many opportunities for African American cowboys that were completely unavailable to them in their originating regions. African American cowboys made a substantial proportion of the population, some estimates number these men at 35,000 or more, roughly one quarter of the cowboys in the West.[3] The cattle business in Texas and throughout the West was booming, providing countless jobs, adventure and economic stability. Nat Love, one of the more notable African American cowboys, left his home near Nashville, Tennessee in 1869, and moved to Dodge City Kansas looking for work.[4] Love found work with a cowboy outfit that would pay him thirty dollars a month, pretty good pay in those days.[5] While many of these men never made to trail boss or foreman,[6] Love, by the 1870s had risen to chief brand leader, a position that put him in charge in the identification of his company’s livestock. Love however, wasn’t the only black cowboy to rise to such heights. Another cowboy, but most certainly not the only one, Daniel W. Wallace, saved his money from cowboying and purchased a ranch with more than 1200 acres and accumulated upwards of 600 cattle.[7] Bose Ikard, another black cowboy worked for one of the most powerful cattlemen in the West, Charles Goodnight.[8] Ikard, was entrusted with many important daily tasks and helped run the operations on cattle drives, including carry large sums of money that was paid to the outfit for their work.[9] African American Cowboys not only made a decent living, some actually became very successful rising to heights unattainable in most other aspects of society.

Along with stable work, accounts of great success, and most of all freedom, black cowboys had a special, relationship with that of white cowboys, a comradery of sorts that drew them together. During the 1800s a majority of the U.S. had similar feelings towards African Americans: they were discriminated against, had laws written to subdue them, and were not afforded the same opportunities of that of whites. However, in the West, the cowboy culture produced a closeness between African American cowboys and that of whites. When Nat Love first moved to Kansas, he approached a cowboy outfit and asked for work. The head man without question gave him a job and took him to buy a new saddle, revolver, and all the other tools a cowboy needs.[10] Through Nat’s telling, his fellow cowboys showed no ill toward Nat for being black, and were eager and willing to let him work. Cowboys such as Love, experienced greater opportunities for a dignified life than anywhere else in the country.[11]

These men did however, experience prejudice and racism in other parts of society. Many African American cowboys couldn’t stay in most hotels, eat in most restaurants or fraternize with prostitutes.[12] However, this was miniscule compared to the hardships and discrimination these men faced throughout the South and most big cities.[13] Cowboys, both black and white rode together, worked together, slept together, ate together, but most of all fought together. On the prairie, Love and his team held down their camp and fended off a band of Indians.[14] Many times white cowboys would take up for their African American counterparts in the face of discrimination.[15] They came to depend and trust one another when mostly everyone else threw them away.

The American West holds many myths and stories. Cowboys are no exception, from their attire, to the perceived violence, many myths surround these men. However, the truth

[1] Kay S. Gandy “Legacy of the American West: Indian cowboys, Black cowboys and Vaqueros” Social Education 72, (4) 2008: Academic One file.

[2] Ibid

[3] Roger D. Hardaway “African American cowboys on the western frontier” Negro History Bulletin 27, 2001: Academic One file

[4] Nat Love, Life and adventures of Nat Love known in the cattle country as Deadwood Dick (Los Angeles: The Newberry Library, 1907), 40-41.

[5] Ibid, 41.

[6] Gandy.

[7] Teresa Palomo Acosta “Black Cowboys” Handbook of Texas Online” 2010.

[8] Hardaway.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Love, 41.

[11] Hardaway.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Acosta.

[14] Love, 58-59.

[15] Hardaway.

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