This is a guest post by Maria Peña, a public relations strategist in the Library’s Office of Communications.
Black men were among the first cowboys in the U.S. They roped, branded and saddled up for cattle drives. Some gained fame, such as Bill Pickett and Nat Love.
“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,” wrote Love, who was born enslaved in Tennessee, in his 1907 autobiography, “The Live and Adventures of Nat Love.”
Pickett, credited with creating the bulldogging technique of bringing a young steer to the ground in a rodeo, was featured in a silent film, “The Bull-Dogger” in 1921.
But mostly, as time passed, pop culture erased Black cowboys from the Western milieu, creating a misleading image of the Old West as peopled by white men on horseback, riding the lonely grasslands.
The Library’s collections help document a more accurate picture of what cowboy culture, and life in the Western U.S., actually looked like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the cowboy heyday. They include resource guides, newspaper archives, an American Folklife resource project, a 2020 concert of old Black cowboy songs, books, magazines, photographs and posters that document the role African Americans played, particularly in the 1870s, when many newly freed Black people headed west.
“The myth of the cowboy is only one of many myths that have shaped our view of the West in the late 19th century,” reads the Library’s introduction to “The American West, 1865-1900” resource timeline. “The stereotype of the heroic white cowboy is far from true, however.”
One quick example: The origins of “Home on the Range,” the unofficial anthem of the West, are famously muddled, but it’s not disputed that the first recording was by a Black saloon keeper and former cowboy in San Antonio, who performed it for folklorist John Lomax in 1908.
In fact, Lomax’s influential publication of 1910, “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads,” traced several standards to Black cowboys, including “Git Along Little Dogies.” (The Lomax Family Collection is housed at the Library as John and his son, Alan, worked directly with the Library for more than a decade in recording and archiving American folk songs.)
But, as much as film stars John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry come to mind when “cowboy” is mentioned, the first actual cowboys in the Americas were Spanish vaqueros who introduced cattle to Mexico in the 1500s. Early Spanish missionaries played a major role in establishing cattle country in the West and training Native Americans as cattle herders.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 sent White settlers west of the Mississippi, driven by a sense of “continentalism,” later known as “manifest destiny,” the belief that white Americans should control a vast section of North America from coast to coast. The War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War in the 1840s were fueled by this belief, with settlers marching further west, warring with Native Americans.
In these vast swathes of open terrain, where law enforcement was most often nonexistent, cattle were a source of wealth. There was no adequate fencing to pen them in, however. This left cowhands to fend for themselves in open country, keep up with their cattle by horseback and protect themselves from rustlers and bandits.
Thus, the romantic legend of the cowboy was born: A quiet man, capable, tough, honest, respectful of ladies and possessed of a poetic respect for the land (and his horse). In the hugely popular Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill in the late 19th century, the cowboy novels of Zane Grey in the early 20th century, then the Western films and television shows in the midcentury, those cowboys were almost always white.
It was only part of the picture, though. No history of cowboy culture would be complete without contextualized narratives about the role that Native Americans, African Americans and Mexicans played.
No one knows exactly how many cowboys there were (or exactly how that title was defined). But a number of estimates by historians, including Kenneth Porter, estimate that of the 35,000 or so cowboys of the era, about 6,000 to 9,000 were Black. They worked as ropers, trail cooks, wranglers and bronco busters. Some hunted game, sang, played an instrument on the trail or performed other duties for white cattlemen. In Texas, where enslaved Black people had been more than a quarter of the population before the Civil War, as many as one in four cowhands was Black.
For Black cowboys, it wasn’t paradise, but it was often better than the harsh racism east of the Mississippi. Eleise Clark, a volunteer with the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center in Denver, said in a recent interview that the West was so vast and difficult that “racism took a backseat to survival sometimes. It’s hard to be prejudiced when you’re hungry and you’re thirsty.”
Even in film history, Black cowboys were around, if behind the scenes. James Arthur Walker invented the “Hollywood Hop,” where a rider jumps off to the side of a walking or running horse, lands on the ground and bounces back into the saddle.
Today, younger African Americans have been leading efforts to promote and protect the legacy of early Black cowboys in the American West by forming riding groups in many states, organizing parades or competing in national rodeos.
The Black Cowboy Parade has been a popular annual event in Oakland, California, for the last 74 years. New York Times reporter Walter Thompson-Hernandez wrote a book about cowboys in Los Angeles County last year, “The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland.”
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, which celebrates African American men and women who are keeping the cowboy tradition alive, has entertained over 5, 5 million people since its launch in 1984.
Black cowboys, it would appear, didn’t disappear with the Old West
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