This guest post was authored by 2020 Junior Fellow Sophia Southard, University of Kansas Graduate, B.A. in History. This is another in a series looking African Americans in business and the sciences.
“I eventually brought up at Dodge City, Kansas, which at that time was a typical frontier city, with a great many saloons, dance halls, and gambling houses, and very little of anything else.” – The Life and Adventures of Nat Love
This is perhaps one of the more infamous lines from The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Nat Love’s autobiography, in which he depicts his life as an African American cowboy living on the western frontier.
As with Chinese immigrants who found themselves in a variety of occupations in the West, both free and enslaved African Americans also found themselves utilizing their skills in various trades during the 19th century. Some worked as miners, while others became farmers, soldiers, housewives, newspaper publishers, hotel owners, restaurateurs, and barbers.
In the 1860 Census, Texas, a slave state, had a total of 182,566 enslaved African Americans and only 355 free African Americans. Texas, of course, would go on to become the center of the cattle frontier industry. However, even in 1860, whites held a number of occupations in this industry, including “cattle dealers,” “wild horse catchers,” “horse dealers,” “harness makers,” and “herdsmen.” It is highly probable that African American slaves were also involved in work related to the cattle industry, as a result of being forced to assist with their slave masters’ cattle on their ranches.
However, as in Nat Love’s case, possibly the most fabled occupation was becoming a cowboy. In The Negro Cowboys, published in 1965, Phillip Durham and Everett L. Jones believed at least five thousand black cowhands worked in the West during the late nineteenth-century. However, only four short years later, Kenneth Wiggins Porter, as quoted in the Negro History Bulletin (v.64, n. 1-4, 2001, p. 28), “argued that the number was closer to eight thousand or nine thousand—about 25 per cent—of the 35,000 or so cowboys who worked in the frontier cattle industry.”
These cowboys traveled all over the Western United States alongside their white counterparts via the Sedalia, Chisholm, Great Western, and Goodnight-Loving trails. After retiring from the profession of cowboying, the retired African American cowboys became store clerks, farmers, railroad employees, and cooks. In the case of Nat Love, after retiring from his life as a cowboy, he worked on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad as a Pullman porter for a time before becoming a bank guard in Los Angeles.
“The name of Deadwood Dick was given to me by the people of Deadwood, South Dakota, July 4, 1876, after I had proven myself worthy to carry it, and after I had defeated all comers in riding, roping, and shooting, and I have always carried the name with honor since that time.” – The Life and Adventures of Nat Love
Several other African American cowboys besides Nat Love made their mark on the Western frontier.
Born into slavery in Mississippi in 1847, Bose Ikard worked with Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight. Goodnight was one of the most well-known ranchers of his time, sometimes referred to as the “father of the Texas Panhandle,” on cattle drives. The famed Goodnight-Loving trail is named after the two ranchers. Rumor has it that Ikard was such a valued employee that he was “often being entrusted to carry the large sums of money the cattle baron collected at the end of the trail.”
Ned Huddleston, aka “Isom Dart”
Huddleston’s life is summarized in Roger D. Hardaway’s article, “African American Cowboys on the Western Frontier,” in the Negro History Bulletin (v.64, n. 1-4, 2001, pp. 29-30). Like Ikard, Huddleston was also born into slavery in Arkansas in 1849. Unlike Ikard, though, Huddleston was part of a group of thieves who, in 1875, “rustled cattle and horses in southeastern Wyoming.” In 1875, after a fatal shootout in which his partners were shot to death, Huddleston adopted the pseudonym “Isom Dart” and headed out to Nevada. However, beginning in the mid-1880s, Huddleston continued with his practice of rustling, and in 1900, he died from a fatal gunshot wound.
Born in 1870 in Texas, Bill Pickett, of black and Cherokee Indian descent, rode his way into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame with his inventive new way of wrestling steers, known as “bulldogging.” However, before he became a household name, at the age of 18, Pickett and his brothers opened Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association, a horse-breaking and “cowboy” service. In 1905, Pickett reached stardom via the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, but in 1935, he died of a head injury after a horse kicked him in the skull.
Today, African American cowboys participate in groups such as The Compton Cowboys and they also participate in rodeo events, including the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo and Martin Luther King, Jr., African-American Heritage Rodeo.
To learn more:
- The Civil Rights History Project: Survey of Collections and Repositories: African American cowboys
- View the photo collection “African-American Heritage Rodeo” via the library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Search the Library’s website to find material related to cowboys, including ones like The Trail Drivers of Texas, Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys and Their Experiences on the Range and on the Trail during the Days that Tried Men’s Souls and other sources.
- View the 1860 Census for Texas.
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