African American or Black Cowboys in the Western Frontier
There were a lot of Black or African Americans on the American frontier. Of these a lot were cowboys. When I took a course in twentieth-century history some time ago, the professor said that some good things did come out of the 1960s. One of these was the discovery that there were women, and Indians and black people in American history. History texts do seem to overlook these groups.
Popular culture has misled us about the Black population on the frontier and those working as cowboys. Until the sixties, Black Culture was separate from white culture. Music, for example, had Black audiences and Black performers. The movie industry made movies for white audiences, and some movies were made separately for Black audiences. Mainstream westerns showed cowboys as white heroes. I saw a documentary, probably on the History Channel about Westerns with Black actors and Black cowboys for the Black audience.
Blacks also worked at a variety of other jobs in the west, store clerks, farmers, and railroad workers. The Negro Cowboys estimates at least five thousand black cowboys in the last part of the nineteenth century. According to Hardaway Kenneth Wiggins Porter, a University of Oregon history professor, there were closer to eight thousand, maybe nine thousand. That would be about 25 percent of the 35,000 cowboys in the frontier cattle industry.
Conditions for Black cowboys were not perfect, but they were probably better off socially and economically, according to Porter, than that in the South. There was still prejudice and restrictions of the Blacks in the west as well as elsewhere. They did, however, get the same pay as the other cowboys, they shared bunkhouses with the white cowboys, and they worked and ate together, according to Durham and Jones. “ usually two or three members of a trail crew of a total of eleven would be Black. A few but not many became ranch and trail bosses. Many African American cowboys have become well known to historians of the subject.
In other words, it was not idyllic, but it was not too bad either.
In addition to working as cowboys, African Americans were miners, farmers, soldiers, and many other frontier occupations. Also, some were outlaws In the Children’s book Negroes In the Early West, author olive W. Burt has chapters on:
- Mountain Men
- Founders of Cities
- Business Men
The question comes to mind as to why Blacks are so lacking in Western History and Fiction.
Although there were more African American cowboys than any other minority, they are absent from the Western Mythology. In the preface to The Negro Cowboys, the authors say they found “…an unimagined number of Negro cowboys, who had been dropped from the history of the West.” Since both authors are professors of literature, they approach their research though in terms of memoirs of men who knew the west. In their Epilogue, they write about the West in fiction.
Blacks rarely appear in Western fiction they note. Western fiction, they contend started in 1902 with Owen Wister’s’ The Virginian. Wister, the feel, was a romantic and presented a romanticized picture of the West. There are romanticized cattlemen in the novel but no African Americans. Wister visited the west, but he went fishing and hunting with cattlemen or guides. “He saw cowboys at leisure, but rarely at work.”
The authors think that Wister shared the racial prejudice of his times. Wister’s work, they feel, shows an admiration for the Anglo–Saxon, the conquering white man.
“…Wister’s novel was the great archetype that established the western as a distinct genre of popular fiction. “…Contained all the essential elements: a strong, simple and thoroughly good hero; a villain who was incarnate evil; a heroine who was pure and beautiful as well as stupid or stubborn enough to distrust the hero for at least half the story…”
Oddly these observations are much like what my history teacher said about TV and movie westerns, at least as regards women. Generally, the women, instead of helping the hero were there to be rescued, or they just got in the way somehow.
The popular culture of Wister’s time was the same as Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (1905) the book upon which the movie The Birth of a Nation was based.
The Virginian set the pattern for a genre of fiction in books, short stories, movies, and television.
Since World War II there has been some change in the biases. The authors cite a Saturday Evening Post story of 1950: “Stampede! By Allan R. Bosworth. The Black Cowboy is portrayed much as real blacks were treated on actual drives. Stories by Ernest Haycox, Clay Fisher and Jack Shafer.
Another reason that Black Cowboys may not have been portrayed is the image of the cowboy as a mythical hero. He couldn’t be any kind of minority ethnically or culturally. WASP is the old word: White, Anglo-Saxon-Protestant.
In summation, there were a lot of African Americans on the frontier, and many were cowboys. For a variety of reasons, they have not been noted in our histories or popular literature. They are slowly getting recognition.
The Negro Cowboys 1965 by Phillip Durham and Everett L. Jones
Negroes in the early west 1969 by Olive W. Burt
African American Cowboys by Roger D. Hardaway reprinted in part on Texas Ranch House.
Texas Ranch House link
Did you know there were a large number of Black Cowboys in the Old West?
© 2011 Don A. Hoglund