The Black Cowboys

Updated on August 17, 2019
harrynielsen profile image

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Black Men on Horseback

Men on horseback at the Negro State Fair in Bonham, Texas, early 20th century
Men on horseback at the Negro State Fair in Bonham, Texas, early 20th century | Source

Slavery on the Ranch

Though the Old South is most known for its long history of slavery, this historical tradition existed in other parts of the United States as well. In Texas and a few other Western states, slavery was common on the ranch and existed right up to and into the Civil War.

As a result, after the war, many of the former slaves made the transition from western ranch hand to free cowpuncher, horse breaker and cattle herder in the new era that began with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.


Sam Houston after the Battle of San Jacinto

This 1886 painting of the surrender by Sana Ana to Sam Houston was done by William Henry Huddle and hangs in the Texas State Capital in Austin
This 1886 painting of the surrender by Sana Ana to Sam Houston was done by William Henry Huddle and hangs in the Texas State Capital in Austin

The War Changed Everything

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Sam Houston, the Governor of Texas, was opposed to leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy. Keep in mind here that Texas had been an independent country for almost a decade, before joining the U.S. in 1845. Not only was Houston's unique position unpopular among Southern governors, but it was not well received in Texas either. So when Texas succeeded from the Union and joined the Confederacy, many Texans were more than happy to join the fight. For better or worse, this meant many long years away from home, while the war played out in the Union's favor.

The New Reality After the War

Texan soldiers returning home from the War Between the States faced a new reality. While on one hand they did not have to face the physical destruction and grim economic reality of the Eastern states, there still was the process of rebuilding the financial health of the ranches and businesses that had been hit hard by the economic burdens of the war.

Another complication for many ranchers and other Texans was the Emancipation Proclamation, which thus stated that it was against the law to own slaves. For the former slave owners, the solution was simple, put their ex-slaves back to work.

Railroading in the Old West

Railroading in the Old West was often a real adventure
Railroading in the Old West was often a real adventure | Source

Railroads Create New Markets

During the War, the Union had benefited greatly from the existing rail network, for they had been able to destroy the Southern tracks, while maintaining their own train lines, which they used effectively to resupply soldiers in the field. After 1865, the railroads, became an economic boom for everybody, as the new transportation system opened up new and better markets.

For the western rancher, this meant that cattle herds could be driven to the nearest rail terminal, where the range-fed livestock could be herded into rail cars and transported to urban slaughterhouses, like Kansas City and Chicago. So began the great cattle drives that have over the years become such a heralded piece of American history.

Source

The Beginning of the Great Cattle Drives

Once the Civil War had ended, the great cattle drives began in earnest. Not only did this new economic arrangement greatly benefit the Western rancher, but it also provided some of the best-paying jobs for the newly freed black man.

Most jobs available to ex-slaves during the Reconstruction Era were only slight variations on slavery, but for the black cowboy there was adventure on the western range. By some estimates, one in four of the men who worked on the cattle drives were former slaves of African-American descent.

Portait of Deadwood Dick

In 1907, Nat Love a book about his own adventures, working as a cowpuncher in the Old West.
In 1907, Nat Love a book about his own adventures, working as a cowpuncher in the Old West.

The Life and Times of Nat Love

Not every black cowboy became as well known as Nat Love (a.k.a. Deadwood Dick), but still in many ways the strange and colorful life of this Arizona ranch hand is very typical of what the person-of-color experienced, as he rode the range.

Nat Love was born a slave on a Tennessee farm.Yet after the Civil War, he was able to find his way west, where he gained employment on an Arizona ranch.

During his lifetime he went on to earn a nickname, Deadwood Dick, that would follow him for the rest of his life. He gained this colorful handle, after winning a cowboying contest in Deadwood, South Dakota.

During his western days, Nat Love drove cattle herds, fought off Indians and even hung out in Wild West towns like Dodge City after the drive was over. His story verifies much of which we see in our books and movies, just minus the black faces.

The Adventures of Deadwood Dick

Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick," by Himself: A True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great ... Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author
Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick," by Himself: A True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great ... Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author

Follow Nat Love from his birth as a slave in Tennessee, to his employment as an Arizona ranch hand, to his earning the nickname of Deadwood Dick. This autobiographical account from an African-American point-of-view does not differ significantly from the general consensus that we find in the movies, novels and short stories from the "Wild West".

 

Dueling Videos

Within a year of each other, The Fugees and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers put out competing videos on the Black Cowboy. The Fugees put out the first music story, in which they portray the black cowboy in a gangster/rapster mode.

Shortly thereafter, Ziggy Marley came out with a slightly different spin to the story.

The Cowboys

Everybody Wants To Be the Cowboy

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Harry Nielsen

    Comments

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      • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

        Harry Nielsen 

        6 weeks ago from Durango, Colorado

        I was fascinated by the story of Nat Love, who eventually acquired the colorful handle of Deadwood Dick.

      • justthemessenger profile image

        James C Moore 

        6 weeks ago from The Great Midwest

        This is an enlightening hub. I knew of black cowboys, but I didn't know that nearly 1 in 4 cowboys were black. Also, the links led to very informative web sites.

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