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Black Cowboys at “Home on the Range”

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Black and white studio portrait of a cowboy in full work attire, holding a rifle in one hand
Nat Love, one of the most famous Black cowboys of the Old West. Photo: Unknown. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

Colorized print of a Black man in cowboy gear, with a bright red shirt and a yellow kerchief.
Bill Pickett in a detail from a poster for “The Bull-Dogger.” Print: Ritchie Lith. Corp. 1923. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

A cowboy competing in the  Martin Luther King, Jr., African-American Heritage Rodeo in Colorado in 2016. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division.

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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Comments (12)

  1. Loved the article, always good to include diversity in US history!

  2. Great article! The poster “portrait” of Bill Pickett is fabulous. I also like how the article demonstrates that the library’s myriad collections can really give you a well-rounded look at a historical subject!

  3. Always fascinating to read about the African American history and influence on the western frontier.

  4. There are many areas where black Americans were erased from history. They served in the senate and in congress after the civil war. They owned land, including plantations. Some black Americans were born free. Why aren’t our chdren taught this diverse history? Perhaps it might help them realize they aren’t all decendents of slaves. There is a lot hidden from them.

  5. Thank you so much for the resources and tips on how to use them. I learned a lot from this post.

  6. Wonderful collection . I really like it. It’s very helpful for everyone. Very Amazing and Interesting blog . Thanks for sharing.

  7. I wish we didn’t have to continuously dwell on equality and racism. I don’t like whites who are racist and I don’t like victimized blacks or the pitches to make up for past racism. I liked the part where they basically didn’t care about racism because survival is more important. Today our national leaders want to keep that racism alive. They divide and conquer. We need to unify even more today for our survival as Americans, not black, white, spainish or asian Americans, but as honest, brave and proud Americans of the US!

  8. It is pitiful that even today people like Florida’s Gov Desantis are still erasing black teaching from schools and banning books about the true history of America.

  9. My GreatGrandfather Ben Kinchlow was a West Texas Cowboy. He’s listed in the US Library of Congress. I recently moved back to California from San Antonio Texas, there I was able to engage with my family history.
    Grandpa Ben also rode on the Chisholm Trail, and with Texas Rangers. His Grandson who went by the name Ben Kinchlow, was a well know television Evangelist with the 700 Club Co-hosting with Pat Robertson. Ben Kinchlow was my maternal Great Grandfather, his son Lawrence Ben Kinchlow was my Grandfather, my Mother Bennie D. Kinchlow-Spruell was (LB’s) Lawrence Ben Kinchlow’s daughter. My Mom was from Uvalde Texas where Grandpa Ben Kinchlow lived his final years.

  10. Actually, 1 in 4 cow boys were not black. 4 in 4 cow boys were black. White men called themselves cow hands. There is a historical reference song called ‘An old cowhand from tge Rio Grande’ that lends credit to this fact. Black men were called cowboys. This was first done as an insult to them as men and to show the supremacy of white men. But the mastery with which thoseblack men handled there daily duties led many of the White male population to adopt the term themselves as honor and great professionalism was brought to the term. This became the accepted term by White men in the west. They later called black men by a different term. That term was also not a good term, and it was never adopted by whites or Mexicans. This is common information. I don’t know why this author gave this percentage of 1 in 4 cowboys being black. The history is pretty cut and dry concerning this. I can understand if he’s picking up history from a point in time where after the adoptation of the term applied to white men then he can clearly make that case as many of the African American population moved out of the west towards the North by that time and laws were passed to ensure that they did not and could not possess firearms until much later and without written permission from local authorities.

  11. I really like this website i know more about black history then I did before this really taught me a lot more about black history I love studying about black history it makes me happy

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