Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Black History Month:African American Cowboys of the Old West by Andrea Downing

A friend and I were recently discussing the fact that between one quarter and one third of all cowboys in the old west were African American.  It’s not a fact widely known, of course, because at the time that television evolved presenting us with a host of westerns and thereby making the history of the Old West something of interest to the general public, segregation and its accompanying prejudices were still in place. It was the money of white Americans that advertisers were after and so, to appease the audience, a whole section of this post Civil War history was neglected. Likewise with the written word; westerns were written by whites for whites. For instance, The Lone Ranger is said to have been inspired by black lawman Bass Reeves.  Alan Le May’s book, The Searchers, was at least partly inspired by the life of African American Britt Johnson, whose family was kidnapped by Comanche.
Britt Johnson
It’s therefore somewhat contrary that
 the Library of Congress saw fit to note the subsequent John Wayne/John Ford film as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” with its all-white cast. Since it is Black History Month, I thought I’d take this opportunity to have a brief look at the contributions made by black cowboys.
African American men, like their white counterparts, sought to depart a South decimated by war. Indeed, they had even more reason to want to migrate:  the Black Code laws put in place by the southern states limited their new-found freedoms, and subsequent Jim Crow laws instilled even further restrictions. They couldn’t own land in many places and jobs were ill-paid for these former slaves. The so-called Exodusters—African Americans who were now free—began migrating to Colorado, Oklahoma, and most especially Kansas in 1879 (see )  As slaves, many of these men, however, had handled cattle and horses while others had worked as cooks and could therefore continue to serve in those capacities on the trail rides from Texas to the north.
While there was a certain amount of equality on the range since men had to be both independent—going out on the range for days at a time without any overseer as they would have done as slaves—but also dependent on each other in times of trouble, racism was still present. African American men were given the most menial jobs and the worst horses, apparently often being the ones to break broncos.  At branding, they were the ones to hold down the calf—a dusty, dirty job—while it was a white man who did the actual branding. African Americans were not permitted in the bordellos, although welcome to gamble. And when rodeos began, there were separate rodeos for blacks and whites, as well as separate state fairs; blacks often did not perform in front of a white audience. The term ‘cowboy’ purportedly was originally used for the black men only, as a pejorative term; they had been called ‘boy’ throughout their slavery years and so it continued.  White men were called ranch hands or cow hands, and cowpunchers were the men who prodded the cattle onto the trains.  Eventually, of course, all these terms became more or less interchangeable.
Bass Reeves
Yet, this did not stop these men from being good at what they did and accomplishing great things. The aforementioned Bass Reeves (1838-1910), originally from AR but later living in TX, escaped his master and lived with Native Americans, learning several of their languages, until the end of the Civil War. He was recruited as the first African American deputy marshal in AR where he later lived.  He also served in Indian Territory and through his career was never wounded, bringing in a purported 3,000 felons and shooting fourteen outlaws in the process. When OK became a state, he served in the police department until he retired. (also see by Zina Abbott)
Jesse Stahl (1879-1935) was a legendary rodeo star as a saddle bronc rider.  He also
Jesse Stahl
invented the rodeo technique of ‘hoolihanding’—leaping from a horse onto the back of a bull, taking hold of its horns, and wrestling it to the ground! This stunt eventually was banned and gave way to steer wrestling, but that wasn’t the end of Stahl.
  He and fellow rodeo star, Ty Stokes, would headline at rodeos for riding a bucking horse back-to-back. Stahl was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1979.
Another inductee was Bill Pickett (1860-1932) who reputedly ‘invented’ bulldogging, or steer wrestling, with the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show. This involves leaping from your galloping horse onto the steer, twisting its head so that you can bite its upper lip, and wrestling it to the ground.
Nat Love
Nat Love (1854-1921) taught himself how to read and write and wrote his own exploit-filled autobiography. He fought cattle rustlers in Dodge City, KS, and met both Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as well as Bat Masterson. At a Deadwood, SD, rodeo, he won six of the contests and became known as Deadwood Dick after a character in a story. Eventually, Love moved to CA and became a Pullman porter and subsequently a security guard.
These are but a few of the men who have been long neglected in the history of the west. Hopefully, with changing times will come a change in the presentation of the American West in both cinema and literature.

Photo of Britt Johnson from BBC Magazine, original source unknown.  All other photos public domain via WikiMedia


Julie Lence said...

Fascinating post, Andrea. And some great photos! Thank you so much for sharing. I never knew the birth of the term 'cowboy'.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thank you for posting this! It's important to remember. When I was researching the evolution of the Wild West Shows, I read that many of the "actors" were African American as was an accurate representation of the population at the time. But the white show-goers weren't too happy about that, so the black cowboys were written out of the shows...and then didn't make the transition to the subsequent westerns in movies and TV. Great post!

Paty Jager said...

Andrea, I'm looking for books about African-American settlers, any suggestions? My next book in the Silver Dollar Saloon series will have an African-American heroine. Great post!

Andrea Downing said...

Julie, you're very welcome. My research discovered this business about the term 'cowboy' but I do say in the post "purportedly"--Like all things historical, I'm thinking there are differing opinions on that!

Andrea Downing said...

Thanks for that additional bit of info, Patti. I think with early television, as I say, the commercials were after the money and the money was in the hands of white Americans. African Americans were sort of relegated to the realms of 'Amos and Andy' and 'Mammy'--pretty disgusting when you think of it. Thank goodness we've moved on!

Andrea Downing said...

Paty, I'm glad to hear about your forthcoming book. If you go to Amazon (where else, lord help us!) and put 'Exodusters' in the search box, a whole bunch of relevant books come up. The term comes from Exodus. Hope that helps.

Andrew McBride said...

Excellent post, Andrea. Regarding the black man's role in Old West history I think mention should also be made of 'The Buffalo Soldiers,' the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry U.S. army units comprised of black enlisted men and white officers. As historian ROBERT UTLEY states: ‘The black regiments endured discrimination in both the quantity and quality of supplies, equipment and horses, and for 25 years they remained without relief in the most disagreeable sectors of the frontier.’As this is a literary site, I'd also mention the great novel about them, THE BUFFALO SOLDIERS, by JOHN PREBBLE.

Andrea Downing said...

Andrew, thanks so much for bringing up the Buffalo Soldiers. they've been pointed out to me elsewhere and, as I said then, I was really concentrating on 'cowboys', although Bass Reeves was more strictly a lawman. But I'm very glad to have this info and feel I should have at least given them a passing nod. thanks again!

Alethea Williams said...

Thanks for this, Andrea. Here's an interesting history from early-day Wyoming of black settlers for Paty:

Andrea Downing said...

Thank you very much for that, Alethea. I would also reiterate that Angela Bates' piece on my own web site regarding Nicodemus in KS, now a National Park ( ) is worth a visit. Angela is a descendent of one of the original families of Nicodemus and gives an insiders' view.

Paty Jager said...

Thank you, Althea!