The True American Cowboy
As the twentieth century approached, America was experiencing a time of considerable expansion. All eyes were looking for ways to make the United States a larger, more powerful, and more efficient country. Because of this wave in American society, there was no movement given more devotion than the settling of the West. The range-cattle industry in its various aspects, and in its importance to the United States and particularly to the Great Plains, has been a subject of focus to Americans since its origin in the mid 1800’s. This industry was rendered possible by such factors as vast sections of fertile land, the rise of heavy industry involving the great demand for beef, and projected commercial tributaries, such as railroad lines across the frontier. The West was turning toward the future – A future that held industrial promises of high monetary rewards as well as a valuable addition to a growing America. However, like any other industry, the West needed a labor force. Workers with special skills and qualities were necessary to support a booming new frontier. Previously untaught skills such as riding, roping, and branding could not simply be acquired by the average American. Athletic, rugged men were needed to settle the West. However, these men also needed inborn courage and quick thinking to utilize these skills effectively. The general public, however, under the influence of decades of “Western” movies and television shows have created an imagery of these “men of the west” or “cowboys” that is extremely inaccurate. American society has come to regard these settlers as the purest and noblest Anglo-Saxons. In reality, a great portion of the work contributed towards the settling of the western frontier was performed by minorities, largely consisting of African Americans.
Kenneth W. Porter has devoted his life to researching the truths about African-Americans in the West. He chronicles his findings in his book, The Negro on the American Frontier. Porter proves that the role of the black man during the settling of the of the land west of the Mississippi River that stretched from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border was crucial not only to the cattle industry, but to the entire country. In his findings, Porter reveals that the West was one of America’s first non-segregated territories, both physically and morally. This integration was a crucial step towards physical productivity as well as social productivity.
During the great expansion of the West between 1866-1900 it is authoritatively estimated by General George W. Saunders of the Texas Trail Drivers Association that of the 50,000-75,000 cowboys who helped to created the West, 25 percent were black (Porter, 1971). However, to merely state that there were 13,000-19,000 Black cowboys is inaccurate simply because the American definition of a cowboy has become distorted. To understand the role of the blacks in the West, one must first comprehend what the cattle-industry workers or cowboys truly did.
To move a herd of cattle men do not simply jump on horses and scream and hit until the herd moves. Contrary to common thought, there was a very systematic hierarchy of jobs involved in being a frontiersman. The group together was referred to as the trail herd outfit. This outfit usually consisted of about a dozed men, each with an individual responsibility. As in any group, there was a leader, second in command, and then three levels of workers. Negroes occupied all positions of the cattle-industry employees, from the usually low wrangler through ordinary hand to top hand and lofty cook. However, it would never be tolerated to give the distinguished honor of ranch or trail boss to a man with colored skin.
Although the Black cowboys seem to have been treated much more fairly than their relatives in other regions of the country, it must be understood that at this point in history the United States was rebounding from a traumatic Civil War. This left a bitter taste in the mouth of many Americans and hostile feelings towards Negroes were still inundating the country. These conflicts could be seen the West. These feelings were simply blurred by the other hardships that accompanied the settling of the new frontier. African-American men were not simply handed important jobs out of pity, they were there for a reason. While, there were plenty of white men willing to work for the same extremely low wages, the hostile attitudes held by whites were generally overlooked in compensation for the more than adequate work performed by blacks. Black cowboys, whether on ranch or trail, were generally regarded as good workers, who got along well with others and who took pride in their work. One white Texan, a former cowboy and rancher, even went so far as to say, “There was no better cowman on Earth than the Negro” (Porter, 1971).
This testimonial, as well as other claims of near racial equality is directly rebutted by Nat Love in his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as Dead Wood Dick. This recollection by a Black cowboy gives a firsthand look at life as an African-American in the West through personal stories and anecdotes. Nat Love claims that although it was probably the most integrated aspect of American culture during the late 1800’s, true injustices arose when the outfit was alone together for weeks at a time. He alleges, “It was the Negro hand who usually tried out the swimming water when a trailing herd came to a swollen stream – either because of his superior ability or because he was regarded as expendable” (Love, 1968).
Although everyone in an outfit had to be a skillful rider and roper, a certain degree of outstandingness was regarded by the title of “bronco buster”. Numerous references suggest that Negroes were widely regarded as the largest group of “bronco busters” in the West. Blacks maintained and even advanced a reputation of the most skilled cowboys on the frontier (Porter, 1971).
Nat Love was just one of these “bronco busters” and almost admits that he saw the West differently than that experienced by the lower Black cowboys. Love was a prestigious man, known around the West for his great skills and illustrated lifestyle. He was given the name Dead Wood Dick by the people of Deadwood, South Dakota, because he won their distinguished roping contest (Love, 1968). There were also many other famous Black cowboys that had notable reputations around the West. Some of these men were Ab Blocker’s Frank, Jess Pickett, Isom Dart, Nigger Jim Kelly, and Jim Perry. Although they still faced many prejudices due to their skin color, they lived a life much more exorbitant lifestyles than the average African-American cowboy (Porter, 1971).
Although there were many Black cowboys who were epitomized by their peers, there was a much greater number of Negroes who were treated relatively close to their slave relatives. According to one estimate, 65% of all Negro cowboys worked in the bottom two tiers of rank and 45% of them worked in the bottom level of the outfit occupying the job of wrangler’s assistant. With living on a ranch or in an outfit comes grotesque and inhumane jobs. When it came time to scrub manure, the black man was usually called. When it came time to chop off a calf’s head, the black man was usually called. The Black cowboys were made to do the jobs that no one else would do. They were the cleaners of everything, they were the last to eat (if at all), they had responsibilities of far less stature than those who were of equal talent but had white skin. However, this was only one sector of black life in the West. They were still respected, and most of the time they were expecting the harsh treatment due to the fact that they were used to much more severe treatment (Porter, 1971).
Blacks had another important role in the West, aside from either being a “bronco buster”, a helpful hand, or a wrangler’s assistant. High in the hierarchy of cow-country employees was the ranch or trail cook, who ranked next to the foreman or trail boss. The cook ruled supreme over an area of sixty feet around the chuckwagon when an outfit was in camp. In addition to having to be able to prepare a meal for twelve hungry men in a blizzard, cloudburst, or high winds, the cook had to be skilled in muleskinning and capable of driving two or three yoke of oxen attached to a chuckwagon over treacherous terrain or sometimes even through flooded rivers. The cook had a responsibility to make everyone else’s life pleasant. Many cowboys selected an outfit on the reputation of its cook alone (Porter, 1971).
Like any other Western imagery, the African-Americans were left out of the typical description of the frontier cook. The picture regularly portrayed is the rugged, bad tempered, hard featured, aged, and grumpy man who was always eating and always seemed to be hostile towards waiting for the cowboys. This is how many people picture the driver of a chuckwagon because these attributes are not falsehoods. This is primarily how the white cooks behaved. The black cooks, however, were referred to as passive, and likable characters, who took pride in their work and loved to please the cowboys. Negro cooks were the exact opposite of the hard charactered white cooks. This was extremely well accepted by cowboys of all races. After a tough day of work, they did not want to deal with aggressive white cooks. One trail boss wrote, “For cooks I always prefer darkies” (Porter, 1971).
However, Nat Love claims that there have been many scenarios when the black cook possessed too much control over the outfit. Love writes, “Some bosses preferred a native white cook…some Negroes were good cooks but usually too submissive, and too, white cowboys refused to take orders from them” (Love, 1968). This is only Love’s comments on the truths that he came into contact with. There were thousands of other outfits which he did not see. In most of these outfits the African-American was adored as the cook and essential to the outfit’s success.
The black cowboy’s life was hard, tedious, and lonely with very few luxuries. Despite these hardships, the African-American frontiersmen lived a somewhat dignified life. They were not burdened with the constraints placed upon many other blacks throughout the country. This was especially crucial to those who were previously living in the South and trying to survive as sharecroppers during the enactment of the Jim Crow laws. Instead of remaining prone to harsh treatment, they worked on the ranches, herding and branding cattle.
The real cowboys were black, white, brown, and red. They ate together, did the same jobs, spent weeks with each other, and shared the same dangers. Together cowboys rode out of Texas along many notorious trails, such as the Chisholm, Western, and Goodnight-Loving trails that went northward towards Kansas, the Dakotas, Colorado, and Wyoming. Many of these rugged outdoorsmen were killed in stampedes, frozen to death, exhausted from the heat, or even drowned. Some remained on the northern plains, while some migrated back South, and some, like Nat Love, ended up somewhere in the middle (Porter, 1971).
Unfortunately, today the true history of the West has become a nothing more than a myth. History was replaced by fiction, and these falsehoods are perceived by today’s society as facts. The true American cowboy, white or black, no longer exists in the minds of Americans.It is only as one delves deeper into the facts that the unperceived truth arises. The success of settling the West can be contributed to men such as Nat Love, but one can certainly not omit the hardworking cowboys who did not live such a glamorous life. The Negro cowboys of this era played a crucial role in facilitating any work on America’s new frontier. The Black cowboys were essential to the United States during the late 1800’s, in a time when any Negro needed great perseverance against prejudice. For their valiant efforts the Black cowboys should be given great honor and prestige.
Love, Nat, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as
Dead Wood Dick, New York; Arno Press, 1968.
Porter, Kenneth W., The Negro on the American Frontier, New York; Arno Press,