Black Cowboys, legendary African American figures who drove great cattle herds across the early West. Idealized in motion pictures, television, and books, the cowboy serves as the great American icon, representing courage, hardiness, and independence.
Yet images of black cowboys have been scarce in popular culture, giving the false impression that African Americans were not among the men and women who settled the West. In fact, by the time the huge cattle drives of cowboy legend ended, at least 5,000 black men had worked as cowboys. The word cowboy refers to the men who drove herds of cattle from ranchland in Texas over hundreds of miles of rough and dangerous terrain to the stockyards in the North, a trip taking two to three months. A typical crew consisted of one trail chief, eight cowboys, a wrangler to take care of the horses, and a cook. One historian estimates that an average crew would have included two or three black cowboys.
African Americans came to cattle country most often as slaves, brought by white landowners who hoped to take advantage of the fertile Texas soil to grow cotton (see Slavery in the United States). Once there, many whites began ranching, often selling or trading their slaves for livestock. By the start of the American Civil War in 1861, Texas had over 180,000 black inhabitants and close to four million head of cattle. When the war ended four years later, ranching, with its dependence on cowboys, became the dominant industry.
Although black cowboys seldom became trail chiefs or owned their own stock—although some did, usually those who had been free men before the war—they encountered less discrimination along the cattle trail than in most other occupations at the time. While riding herd, black and white cowboys depended upon each other. They lived, ate, and slept together.
The demands of the trail, which included dangerous snakes and wolves, treacherous rivers and mountains, and the threat of attack from Native Americans, made most cowboys transcend their prejudices. One black cowboy, Nat Love (also known as Deadwood Dick), summed up the cowboy code, "There a man’s work was to be done, and a man’s life to be lived, and when death was to be met, he met it like a man."
If life on the trail was arduous, life in the cattle market towns, like Dodge City, Kansas, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, was wide open and lawless. Despite the efforts of marshals such as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, thieves, rustlers, and gunslingers were abundant. Although the majority of black cowboys, like the majority of whites, were tough but law-abiding, there were a few famous black outlaws. One, known as Cherokee Bill, was as bloodthirsty as Billy the Kid and was hanged before his 20th birthday.
By around 1890 the cowboy’s world had changed. Railroad lines had rendered long drives unnecessary, and barbed-wire fences now blocked the legendary Chisholm and Western trails. Some old cowboys, like Love, found work as Pullman porters. Others continued to work on ranches as broncobusters who tamed wild mustangs. Still others, like Bill Pickett, put their riding, roping, or shooting skills to use on the rodeo and vaudeville circuits.
Image Source: Black cowboy and horse [between 1890 and 1920?] Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.