Black Outlaws, Cowboys, and Lawmen of the Old Wild West
The Black West
When you hear about black outlaws and cowboys of the Old West, you might be sitting there scratching your head: “Why that’s an oxymoron! I’ve never heard of such a thing!”
Yeah, I know you haven’t because they were literally “whitewashed” (pun intended) out of Old West history. Oh, I know you may have heard of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” but that was only part of the story. According to historians, about a third of all the cowboys were African Americans. Bet you never saw that in the movies when you were growing up did you? Neither did I!
The doctrine of white supremacy and the inferiority of blacks and other non-whites permeated the air during the old west and after that. So, the exploits of black cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws in the storied history of the Old West wasn’t deemed important or worthy enough of inclusion in the annals of Old West history. This was reserved for white men only.
I mentioned black lawmen, and you probably thought "black lawmen?" while scratching your head at the same time. I thought the same thing when I first started researching the true history of the Old West.
One such lawman was Bass Reeves (1838-1910). He was born in Arkansas territory but also lived in Lamar and Grayson counties Texas.
Reeves was born a slave and was owned by Col. George R. Reeves, who eventually became the speaker of the house of Texas. Reeves adopted his owner’s last name as many enslaved blacks did. To obtain his freedom, Reeves escaped to Indian Territory and served with the Union Indian Home Guard Regiments during the Civil War.
After the war ended, he moved to Van Buren, Arkansas and became a farmer. Reeves sometimes found employment as a guide for deputy U.S. marshals working out of the Federal court in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
He bragged that he knew Indian Territory “Like a cook knows her kitchen.” Because of his knowledge and skill as a tracker, Judge Isaac C. Parker, the so-called “hanging judge” because of the many men he sent to the gallows, made Reeves a deputy U.S. marshal in 1875, quite an accomplishment for a black man, especially during those times.
Reeves was one of the earliest, if not the very first black man to be commissioned as a deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. He served as a deputy Marshal for thirty-two years and was very successful in performing his duties. He was a celebrated lawman during his life. (Amazing and we’ve never heard of him.)
It's said that Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie Hang em High was based on Reeves life.
Ned Huddleston AKA Isom Dart
Another famous black outlaw and rustler was Ned Huddleston (also known as Isom Dart) who was born a slave in Arkansas in 1849. He earned a reputation as a rider, roper, and bronco-buster and was called the “Black Fox” and the “Calico Cowboy.” He was also a notorious Wyoming Territory outlaw.
In 1861 twelve-year-old, Huddleston accompanied his owner, a Confederate officer, to Texas during the Civil War. Huddleston was freed at the end of the war and took off for the Southern Texas/Mexico border region where he found work at a rodeo as a stunt rider and became a master horseman.
He joined a notorious band of rustlers called The Tip Gualt Gang, and changed his name to Isom Dart. He trained horses for the Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s gang, and was a successful rustler.
He tried many times to give up his rustler’s life and go straight, but the call of the wild was too strong for him, and he kept going back to it. This would be his downfall. On August 3, 1900, as he came out of the front door of his ranch, the notorious range detective Tom Horn, who had been hired by local ranchers to rid the area of rustlers, shot him dead.
William (Bill) Pickett
This legendary cowboy invented bulldogging, which is still popular in rodeos to this day. His name was William (Bill) Pickett. Pickett was born December 5, 1870, in Texas. He died April 2, 1932.
Pickett’s bulldogging was a lot different than the way it’s done today. Pickett would leap off his horse grab the steer’s head, twist it toward him, and bite its upper lip, and hold it with his teeth to control the steer while raising his hands in the air in victory.
Amazingly, Pickett started cowboying after completing the fifth grade. He became so skillful at roping, riding, and bulldogging, that he put on exhibitions, passing a hat to collect donations.
During his career Pickett toured the U.S., Canada, Mexico, South America, and England, and was the first black cowboy movie star. Unfortunately, as in major league sports, he wasn’t allowed to compete against white rodeo performers or he probably would have been known as the greatest performer in rodeo history.
Pickett died in 1932 after being kicked in the head by a horse, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he was finally inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. In 1989, he was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy. In 1994 a U.S. postage stamp honored his memory. During his lifetime (as with other blacks and minorities), Bill Pickett never received the glory and respect he so justly deserved.
Last but not least, is the notorious black outlaw, Cherokee Bill, who was said to be far worst than Billy The Kid.
Cherokee Bill's real name was Crawford Goldsby, and his father was black and served with the Buffalo Soldiers. His mother was part black and Native American. He was born on February 8, 1876, in Fort Concho, Texas, one of St. George and Ellen Goldsby's four children.
In July 1894 Cherokee Bill was involved in a host of robberies and murders as part of the notorious Cook gang headed up by brothers, Bill, and Jim Cook. He and the Cook gang ran havoc over the Indian Territory for over two years.
On November 8, 1894, Cherokee Bill and the cook gang robbed the Shufeldt & Son General Store, during the robbery Cherokee shot and killed Ernest Melton, an innocent bystander, who had the misfortune of entering the store as it was being robbed.
Cherokee was said to have such a bad temper that when he and his brother-in-law, Mose Brown, got in a dispute about some hogs. Cherokee shot and killed him. Cherokee Bill was responsible for the murders of at least seven men during his lifetime.
Cherokee Bill's career as an outlaw come to an end in 1896, when he was captured, tried, and sentenced to hang for the murders he committed by the so-called "hanging judge" Isaac Parker.
When the noose was placed around his neck he was asked if he had any last words, he said, "I came here to die, not make a speech." And the notorious career of Crawford "Cherokee Bill" Goldsby, had come to an end.
This was just a short synopsis of the subject to get you started on a more thorough look at the topic. Other African-American old Westerners you may want to look-up are, Addison Jones, Bob Leavitt, Bose Ikard, Bronco Sam, Charley Willis, Nat Love (Deadwood Dick), One Horse Charley and George Glenn, Stagecoach Mary Fields, to name a few.
© 2012 VC L Veasey