By Dr. Richard W. Slatta, the Cowboy Professor at North Carolina State University
Black slaves had tended cattle, usually on foot, in the colonial Old South. Black jockeys, trainers, and grooms handled the expensive quarter horses raised and raced by the southern gentry. During the early days of ranching (the 1830s and 1840s) on the south Texas coast. Anglo slave owners brought their slaves to Texas from other southern states. In 1845, Texas had an estimated 100,000 whites and 35,000 slaves. By 1861 the state had 430,000 whites and 182,000 slaves.
While slavery still existed, some odd reverse discrimination occurred.
Because of their value as property, slaves were sometimes treated differently.
Abel "Shanghai" Pierce recalled breaking horses in Texas in 1853. Several
slaves assisted. A superior ordered Pierce to break the most dangerous
mounts. The slave owner did not want to risk injuring slaves, because
"those Negroes are worth a thousand dollars a piece."
Conditions worsened for southern blacks when Reconstruction ended in 1877. Tens of thousands of ex-slaves migrated from southern states to Kansas from late 1877 through 1879. Unfortunately, they found bleak prospects, a harsh climate, and barren land. Only an estimated one-third of the "exodusters" stayed.
the Civil War, ranches east of the Trinity River often had all-black
crews. West of the Nueces River, ranchers employed vaqueros more often
than black cowboys. Far fewer blacks populated the northern ranges.
Montana censuses counted only 183 blacks in 1870 and 346 in 1880.
Frontier regions lack the extensive documentation typical of cities. The lack of documents makes it difficult to compute the number of cowboys or their ethnicity. According to the highest estimate, the trail drives north from Texas (1866 to 1895) employed about 63 percent white, 25 percent black, and 12 percent Mexican or Mexican-American cowboys. Unfortunately, most black and Hispanic cowboys faced social and economic discrimination in the West as they did elsewhere in the country.
Famous African-American Cowboys:
A few black cowboys gained some notoriety. Few people would have known about Bose Ikard, had it not been for the television mini-series, "Lonesome Dove." Ikard was born a slave in Mississippi in 1847. Five years later his master brought Ikard to Texas. As a youth, he the cowboy trade on a ranch near Weatherford. Freed by the Civil War, Ikard went to work for Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. In 1866 he helped them blaze the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Goodnight had many words of praise for his trusted hand. "He surpassed any man I had in endurance and stamina." Ikard and Goodnight both died in 1929.
The life of Isom Dart (born Ned Huddleston) took a very different direction
from Ikard's. He was born a slave in Arkansas in 1849. After Emancipation,
he went to west to Texas. Huddleston soon began stealing Mexican horses
and swimming them across the Rio Grande for sale in Texas. He moved
to northwest Colorado and became involved in gambling and fights. After
brushes with the law, he took work as a bronc buster. Although a great
horseman, Huddleston could not keep to the straight-and-narrow. He joined
a gang of rustlers in 1875. A rancher and his cowboys ambushed and killed
the entire gang, except for Huddleston.
At that point, he changed his name to Isom Dart and again tried to go straight. After additional brushes with the law, Dart turned to hunting and breaking wild horses. He then bought his own ranch. Tom Horn, the bounty hunter, did not accept Dart's turn to lawful life. Horn shot and killed Dart, who died at age fifty-one.
A mass of myth and legend surrounds many westerners. The character of "Deadwood Dick" is yet another example of art influencing life. Edward L. Wheeler's first pulp novel starring "Deadwood Dick" appeared in 1877. He wrote more than thirty more until his death in 1885. Many men, including Nat Love, claimed to be the real Deadwood Dick. Love was born a slave in Tennessee in 1854 (Some sources give the birthplace as Ohio.)
In 1907 he published The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick". Love relates his supposed adventures is typical western tall-tale fashion. His life story reads much like a pulp novel, with brave, heroic deeds at every turn. He claimed to have acquired his nickname by winning a roping contest in 1876 in Deadwood, South Dakota. Exactly where fact left off and fancy took over will never be known. But Love certainly became one of the most successful cowboy self-promoters of his day.
somewhat sounder historical data on Willie M. "Bill Pickett," (circa
1870-1932) the Texas-born cowboy credited with the invention of bulldogging
(steer wrestling). Pickett performed as "The Dusky Demon " with the
Miller Brother's 101 Ranch Wild West Show and rodeos for several decades.
One of thirteen children, he was born in Travis County, Texas, thirty
miles northwest of Austin.
Pickett worked on central Texas ranches during the late 1880s and 1890s. He
married Maggie Turner in 1890 and together they would raise nine children. In
partnershp with his brothers, he started the "Pickett Brothers Broncho Busters and Rough
Riders Association" in Taylor, Texas. According to their ads: "We ride and break all wild
horses with much care. Catching and taming wild cattle a specialty."
the 1900s Pickett bulldogged steers with his teeth at county fairs and
other gatherings thoughout the West. In 1904 he performed at Cheyenne
Frontier Days and won the admiration of a Wyoming Tribune reporter.
Pickett would "attack a fiery, wild-eyed and powerful steer, dash
under the broad breast of the great brute, turn and sink his strong
ivory teeth into the upper lip of the animal, and throwing his shoulder
against the neck of the steer, strain and twist until the animal, with
its head drawn one way under the controlling influence of those merciless
teeth and its body forced another, until the brute, under the strain
of slowly bending neck, quivered, trembled and then sank to the ground."
athletic, compact (5'7", 145 pounds), and mustachioed, he dressed like a Spanish
bullfighter. In the 1920s Pickett retired from competitive bulldogging but continued to give
exhibitions. He also starred in a few black western movies that showcased his rodeo
feats. Pickett returned to work for Zack Miller and continued to break horses. He would die at the 101 Ranch on April 2, 1932, after
being kicked by a horse. Miller eulogized Pickett as the "greatest sweat and dirt cowhand
that ever lived-- bar none." Pickett became the first black cowboy admitted to the
National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1971.
Like other cowboys, African-American cowboys are still very much alive. The National Black Cowboys Association claims more than 20,000 members. Most members compete in amateur rodeo or otherwise enjoy life on horseback. The Black West Museum in Denver offers a glimpse at the regional history and culture of African-Americans.
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