Thousands of African-American cowboys from the glory days of the Wild West have been airbrushed out of history. Their faces forgotten. This isn’t a matter of being “woke” – it’s an undeniable truth that I’ll evidence below. Why it was that at the turn of the 20th century, the depiction of cowboys got whiter. A large part of the blame must lie with the nascent movie industry and the racist stereotypes it promoted.
So, let me introduce you to the African-American cowboys who once roamed the Plains. But first – watch my video below and then read on for more fascinating detail!
Civil War creates thousands of African-American cowboys
The American Civil War ended in 1865 with President Abraham Lincoln and the Union triumphant. The pro-slavery Confederate states had lost. Owning black people as property was no longer legal or morally acceptable. But freedom for African-Americans across the reunited United States didn’t mean a guaranteed livelihood and food on the table. So thousands did what many poorer white Americans had already done – packed their bags and headed west.
Along the Chisholm Trail, cattle were herded from ranches in Texas to railroad yards in Kansas from where the beef was shipped east. An estimated five thousand black cowboys worked this trail. Some historians believe nearly a quarter of all the cowboys riding the range were black. A typical trail crew of eight cowboys included two black members.
Pay was the same for all cowboys though African-Americans rarely rose from cowpuncher to trail boss. In places like Dodge City, saloon bars were full of black and white faces drinking and gambling together. The only difference being that the white cowboys had been born as free citizens whereas most of the black cowboys had been born into slavery in the southern states.
DISCOVER: Did Buffalo Bill invent the Wild West?
Faces of the African-American cowboys of the Wild West
So, let’s give the African-American cowboys of the Wild West their identities back. It’s time to meet people long forgotten. We start with Nat Love…
Nat Love (1854-1921)
Nat Love was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1854. Indeed, his surname was that of his master, Robert Love – owner of a plantation in Davidson County. While describing the family’s owner as “kind and indulgent”, Nat also condemned the separation of families and exposure of enslaved women to “the licentious wishes of the men who owned them”. After emancipation, his parents continued to toil in the same place as sharecroppers but his father worked himself to an early grave. Nat resolved there had to be a better life somewhere else.
Looking to make his fortune, he headed out west and ended up in Dodge City, Kansas. Nat got a job as a cowpuncher earning thirty dollars a month and was nicknamed Red River Dick. He got into so many near fatal scrapes that he carried the marks of fourteen bullet wounds on different parts of his body. After an incredible performance at the Deadwood City rodeo in 1876, his new nickname was Deadwood Dick.
In 1877, Nat was rounding up cattle near the Gila river in Arizona when he was attacked by a group of Pima Indians led by a chief called Yellow Dog. Nat was astonished to find that the tribe was – in his words – “composed largely of half breeds” and people of “coloured blood”. Discovering that they had a lot in common, the Pimas invited Nat to join them. Yellow Dog offered his daughter’s hand in marriage plus a hundred ponies. Instead, Nat stole one of the ponies and escaped.
In 1907, he published a biography: The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.
Isom Dart (1858-1900)
Isom Dart was a bad boy of the Wild West. Described by another cowboy as “a superlative rider and roper, a good neighbour, and an expert and industrious cattle thief”. Or as a journalist described Isom, while most African-American cowboys decided to make a “positive contribution” to the Wild West, he “chose the path of equal opportunity thievery”.
Dart became prolific as an outlaw, train robber, snake oil salesman, and deceiver of women. But he was also a damned good cowboy whose horsemanship inspired awe.
As a child, he was a slave before emancipation. When the American Civil War broke out, his master fought for the Confederacy and took Isom along into battle with the Arkansas division. After the Union won and slaves were freed, Isom was at a bit of a loose end. At one point working as a clown in a Texas rodeo. Whatever earned him some money.
Isom drifted into small time rustling, followed by a stint as a copper miner, and then wild horse hunting – in which he excelled. During this happy period, he fell in love with a native American woman, Tickup, but then her furious husband showed up. Isom reverted to crime, joining the Tip Gault Gang in south-east Wyoming – who were contemporaries of Butch Cassidy.
Most of the gang were killed but Isom continued his rustling. However, fed up ranchers were now determined to wipe out the thieves. They hired men like Tom Horn, a Pinkerton detective, paying these bounty hunters to take out known rustlers. Horn was given around $18,000 in today’s money per rustler killed. On October 3, 1900, he carried out the cold-blooded murder of Isom Dart. Three years later, justice would catch up with Horn when he was hanged for killing a fourteen-year-old boy.
Isom Dart – known as The Black Fox and The Calico Cowboy – was buried in a shallow grave on Cold Spring Mountain.
Bill Pickett (1870-1932)
Pickett was described as the “greatest sweat and dirt cowhand that ever lived – bar none”. And he was also the inventor of the cowboy sport called bulldogging. This involved riding after a steer, then leaping out of the horse’s saddle to grab the steer’s horns in each hand. The cowboy then subdued the animal by twisting its head upwards.
According to one account, Bill completed this manoeuvre by sinking his teeth into the steer’s upper lip and then raising his hands in the air. This was to show the spectators that his only grip on the steer was with his teeth. Must have been quite a show! He ended his career owning a 160-acre ranch in Oklahoma but was kicked to death by a horse aged 71.
Other African-American cowboys of the Wild West included larger-than-life characters like Cherokee Bill – part African and Cherokee. He became an outlaw after killing a man in a gunfight. After a robbing and killing spree, he was hanged in 1890.
Mary Fields, a formidably built woman, was a stage driver for the United States Mail Service. She got her start as a driver after killing one of her cowhands in a gunfight. Fields was renowned for her short-temper and fearlessness in a fight. And the mail she delivered got to its destination as Fields warded off thieves, bandits, and wolves with the various firearms kept about her person.
George McJunkin worked the Chisholm Trail, then after a period as a Mustanger breaking wild horses, he made a major archaeological discovery. McJunkin unearthed an ancient bison with an arrowhead lodged in his bones proving a human presence in north America for much longer than anybody had previously realised.
The multi-cultural Wild West?
The picture that emerges from the lives of these African-American cowboys is of a much more racially mixed Wild West than Hollywood would depict for many decades. In fact, the emerging movie industry must carry the can for erasing black faces from the Plains. Not surprising when you consider that the first major feature film out of Hollywood was The Birth of a Nation in 1915 which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and depicted African-Americans in the most grotesque, racist terms.
What surprises me is the amount of mixing between native Americans and African-Americans with Nat Love’s account of discovering that the Pima Indians, who took him captive, were essentially mixed race. And characters like Cherokee Bill who were part Indian and part African.
Many frontier areas in the Wild West were more or less a third black, a third Hispanic, and a third white. Then layer on top of that the native American tribes who had been there before everybody else.
Up until the 1840s, Spain and then Mexico governed most of the south and western United States. the clue is in the names of cities like San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Anglo-Americans were more recent arrivals seeking a living through prospecting for gold or herding cattle. And alongside them – African-Americans now freed from slavery but left to make their own way with little help from the authorities.
In the 1974 comic take on the western, Blazing Saddles, it’s seen as hilarious and incongruous when a black man is made sheriff of a redneck town. But actually, African-Americans were sent west as US cavalry officers and deputies during the Indian Wars. It was seen as too provocative after the Civil War to assign black officers and law enforcement to the defeated southern states. So, the west was a better alternative.
Yet all of this has disappeared. And attempts to depict the Wild West as it truly was with thousands of African-American cowboys is met with the usual howls of “woke”. But this isn’t a matter of being woke – it’s actually about historical veracity.