Black Cowboys


Black history month is widely recognized and respected by all Americans, but Black history celebrated in February is the blood relative of African Americans living in America. I know the prevailing thought among many in urban areas is that the government has strategically orchestrated it to be in February because it’s the shortest and coldest month of the year.
There were epic sacrifices on behalf of generations of African Slaves, the immeasurable lives lost, blood, sweat, relinquishment of self-worth, family, language and even our original religion. I do think as young black men and women it is our duty to know the truth about our contribution to American history as we’ve come from slave ships to the Presidency of the Free World.
Understand that the birth of black history month in 1926 came from the shadows of the Harlem Renaissance. In February 1926 Carter G. Woodson began the celebration of “Negro History Week”. It began in the second week of the month. Woodson was a product of the time when black pride was in the light of black achievement. He founded “The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History” which also published the “Journal of Negro History”. This publication was intended for the many professional class of the African Americans whom were becoming frequent in America. But, for those whom struggles were greater and education was not a priority, Woodson began the “Negro History Bulletin”. The Association remained through the Great Depression and beyond into the 1970’s. The name was changed to “The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History”.
The extreme hardships of the past demands the truth. As a young black writer I feel it’s my obligation to preserve the purity of our history and to mentally elevate above the myths and fabrications. So we shall explore those lesser known, yet monumental in their contribution to American history as well as the true credit to American history.
Right here in the North West has walked Black American history. The mass exodus from the South and the element of slaves that were already in states like Texas and Arkansas was more than just a migration to the North. Many traveled to the West – understand the attraction it had to newly freed or runaway slaves. A man had the rare opportunity to go to the untamed West where to some extent he could control his destiny. Free to roam on the open range, some of these men became cowboys.
Cowboys have been idolized in movies, television, books and in folk tales. The lure of cowboys, outlaws and famous lawmen are a part of American history. Yet the landscape of the Wild West was more diverse than the main historical account. There were of course Native Americans, but also Chinese, Mexican, and African Americans entwined into this raw culture. So, on this historical month, let us take a look at the overlooked Black cowboys of the West. Black men and women were very much a part of the Wild West. Over 5,000 Black men were cowboys at the conclusion of this time.
To those who are less than familiar with the term “cowboy”, the very term conjures up the images of the gun toting outlaws. But, actually it was a very respectful job title during its time. A cowboy referred to men who drove herds of cattle from one ranch to another. Yet more often it was a crew of 10 to 12 cowboys that drove cattle from West ranchlands to North stockyards. The cowboys had to travel hundreds of miles over rough and dangerous terrain. At least two or three of these cowboys were African American. To redirect a previous point, the most direct way these African Americans came to be amongst communities of the West was through slavery. During the ending of Southern slavery many owners relocated to the West, Texas and other states (territories). Texas landowners imported slave labor. The fertile lands of Texas and other Western states (territories) was in stark contrast to the over worked soil of the South. The product remained still cotton, tobacco and many others. By the time the Civil War was upon America, ranching in Texas had become the dominant industry. Black cowboys experienced far less discrimination then other masses of relocating slaves. The reason for this treatment was attributed to being in any dire or dangerous occupation, the very lives of these crews depended upon each other regardless of race, creed or religion affliction. Plus there was the added incentive of profits. The brutal conditions of the West and the range was more than enough to develop respect. A respect for humanity.
Amongst this culture there were Black outlaws and lawmen as well but the occupation of a cowboy was most overwhelming. One such outlaw was Isom Dart (1849 – 1900). His birth name was Ned Huddleston, born a slave in Arkansas. He was known as a rider, roper and bronco buster extraordinaire. He earned the nicknames “Black Fox” and “The Calico Cowboy”. He straddled both sides of the law. He became a feared Wyoming Territory outlaw and in 1875, joined the Tip Gault Gang. On the opposite spectrum of that outlaw lifestyle was one of the greatest law men of the Wild West. His name was Bass Reeves (1838 – 1910). Reeves was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshall for the Western district of Arkansas. In addition to being an excellent marks men with a rifle or pistol, Reeves also developed ingenious detective techniques. He is reported to have arrested over 300 felons and was said to have shot 14 outlaws in defense of his own life. You may be surprised to know that Reeves was portrayed on radio and later in film. He was the inspiration for the character The Lone Ranger. Although that is a little misleading considering Reeves was often alone persuing dangerous outlaws. But, he did have a Native American counter-part that was referred to in the movies as Tonto. In reality, his name has been lost in the record of the past but his contribution has not. Reeves was an expert in Native American culture and utilized some of these lessons while he formed some of his detective skills – traditions and tactics that he was taught by his Native American peers. He would use and white or grey horse to make himself appear smaller but, in the movies The Lone Ranger had a white horse and used silver bullets. In reality, Reeves gave out silver dollars as his calling card.
But as Black cowboys go, there were none better than Nat Love (1854 – 1921). Nicknamed “Deadwood Dick”, he was known as a true cowboy for his superior cattle roping skills. His dedication to his craft over shadowed his color. Love demanded and often got top dollar for himself and his crew and was one of the very few black trail chiefs. Most cowboy crews consisted of one wrangler whom took care of the horses, one cook, eight cowboys and one trail chief.
Although the word cowboy invokes the imagery of lawless gunslingers, most cowboys either black or white were law abiding citizens. Tough, for sure, they had to be. This is true history. So, as we celebrate Mr. Cater G. Woodson’s vision I hope you find a gold mine in these lines.

– Simply KJS

Black Cowboys