Home | Love Story | The Adventures of Deadwood Dick
African-American Cowboys | Buffalo Soldiers | Looking for Love

African-American Cowboys


The first image that comes to mind when we hear the word cowboy is usually something out of a western.  Whether the word cowboy conjures up visions of the Lone Ranger, Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne, it seldom brings to mind African-Americans.  We see cowboys as gunslingers and outlaws, but in reality, cowboys were simply underpaid, hard working men who were skilled at herding cattle and performing other arduous tasks in the great cattle drives which took place from the late 1860s to the mid 1890s.

It is estimated that 1/3 of all cowboys were either of Hispanic or African-American heritage.  Following the Civil War, freed slaves left their masters and plantations to make a new life for themselves. Many African Americans moved out to the west in hopes of buying land and settling down, and some even set up all-black communities such as Allensworth, California, Nicodemus, Kansas, and Dearfield Colorado.  Many also  found work as riders, farm hands, ranch hands, and cooks, and when the time came to round up and move the herds up the cattle trails from southern Texas to shipping points and other important trading centers of the cattle industry. 

However difficult and financially unrewarding it was to be a cowhand, for the former slaves it meant something entirely different.  There, men could build up a sense of self, earn wages to support their families, and realize their full potential as free men.  As one would imagine, some of the ranchers who employed African-Americans did not pay them as much as they paid white workers, and it is also obvious who the worst chores went to.  However, no amount of racial discrimination could discourage these men from earning the respect they deserved, whether it be because of their skills, or their courage.

One of the most impressive displays of skill and courage, and part of what gave cowboys their mystique, was their use of a lasso for roping calves and horses, and their talent at "breaking" these wild animals so they could be herded and put into the service of man.  Nowadays, such skills are still put on display at the various rodeos which take place in the American and Canadian west, while remaining part of the duties of those who own and operate ranches.  In the late 1800s, black cowboys such as Nat Love would gain much respect and admiration for displaying such skills, and sometimes, their talent would even spare them from those who "disagreed" with emancipation. 

One could say the cattle drives offered the very first opportunity for bonding between the whites and blacks, as they labored and endured hardships side by side, forming some sort of mutual admiration society, away from the unwritten rules of 19th century society.

Excerpts from the electronic edition of The 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 Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the "Wild and Woolly" West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author, are the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The full electronic edition, which also includes original illustrations of this text may be viewed here. All other text and graphics on this website are 2002 http://www.natlove.com Send mail to webmaster@natlove.com
Last modified: October 18, 2002