The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys
In his 1907 autobiography, cowboy Nat Love recounts stories from his life on the frontier so cliché, they read like scenes from a John Wayne film. He describes Dodge City, Kansas, a town smattered with the romanticized institutions of the frontier: “a great many saloons, dance halls, and gambling houses, and very little of anything else.” 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. And when not, as he put it, “engaged in fighting Indians,” he amused himself with activities like “dare-devil riding, shooting, roping and such sports.”
Though Love’s tales from the frontier seem typical for a 19th-century cowboy, they come from a source rarely associated with the Wild West. Love was African-American, born into slavery near Nashville, Tennessee.
Few images embody the spirit of the American West as well as the trailblazing, sharpshooting, horseback-riding cowboy of American lore. And though African-American cowboys don’t play a part in the popular narrative, historians estimate that one in four cowboys were black.
The cowboy lifestyle came into its own in Texas, which had been cattle country since it was colonized by Spain in the 1500s. But cattle farming did not become the bountiful economic and cultural phenomenon recognized today until the late 1800s, when millions of cattle grazed in Texas.
White Americans seeking cheap land—and sometimes evading debt in the United States—began moving to the Spanish (and, later, Mexican) territory of Texas during the first half of the 19th century. Though the Mexican government opposed slavery, Americans brought slaves with them as they settled the frontier and established cotton farms and cattle ranches. By 1825, slaves accounted for nearly 25 percent of the Texas settler population. By 1860, fifteen years after it became part of the Union, that number had risen to over 30 percent—that year’s census reported 182,566 slaves living in Texas. As an increasingly significant new slave state, Texas joined the Confederacy in 1861. Though the Civil War hardly reached Texas soil, many white Texans took up arms to fight alongside their brethren in the East.
While Texas ranchers fought in the war, they depended on their slaves to maintain their land and cattle herds. 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.
But with a combination of a lack of effective containment— barbed wire was not yet invented—and too few cowhands, the cattle population ran wild. Ranchers returning from the war discovered that their herds were lost or out of control. They tried to round up the cattle and rebuild their herds with slave labor, but eventually the Emancipation Proclamation left them without the free workers on which they were so dependent. Desperate for help rounding up maverick cattle, ranchers were compelled to hire now-free, skilled African-Americans as paid cowhands.
“Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations,” says William Loren Katz, a scholar of African-American history and the author of 40 books on the topic, including The Black West.
Freed blacks skilled in herding cattle found themselves in even greater demand when ranchers began selling their livestock in northern states, where beef was nearly ten times more valuable than it was in cattle-inundated Texas. The lack of significant railroads in the state meant that enormous herds of cattle needed to be physically moved to shipping points in Kansas, Colorado and Missouri. Rounding up herds on horseback, cowboys traversed unforgiving trails fraught with harsh environmental conditions and attacks from Native Americans defending their lands.
African-American cowboys faced discrimination in the towns they passed through—they were barred from eating at certain restaurants or staying in certain hotels, for example—but within their crews, they found respect and a level of equality unknown to other African-Americans of the era.
Love recalled the camaraderie of cowboys with admiration. “A braver, truer set of men never lived than these wild sons of the plains whose home was in the saddle and their couch, mother earth, with the sky for a covering,” he wrote. “They were always ready to share their blanket and their last ration with a less fortunate fellow companion and always assisted each other in the many trying situations that were continually coming up in a cowboy's life.”
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(Source: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lesser-known-history-african-american-cowboys-180962144/ )