Despite what Hollywood portrays on the big screen, not all cowboys were white. As a matter of fact, about one quarter of cowboys in the American West were African American.
As the United States emerged from the Civil War, freed and former slaves entered a world with new opportunities and limitations alike. The experiences of famous African American cowboys, and those of lesser-known status, highlight the diversity of the Wild West.
As hard-working cowhands, well-respected lawmen, and troublesome outlaws, African Americans on the frontier shaped the development of the American West. Men like Bass Reeves, Bill Pickett, and Nat Love found adventure and excitement out west, and they also experienced levels of independence and notoriety unknown to their counterparts in other parts of the developing nation.
Slaves were initially brought West by wealthy settlers to work on ranches and plantations. As the cattle and cotton demand grew, the number of enslaved people in places like Texas grew exponentially. In 1836, there were about 5,000 enslaved people in Texas. By 1860, there were more than 180,000.
Slaves who worked on ranches wrangled cattle, broke horses, and went on long cattle drives, developing skills that were essential on the frontier. Charlie Willis was born to enslaved parents in 1847 in Texas, and spent his youth in servitude in Milam, TX. He was 18 when the Civil War ended and once free, earned a reputation as one of the best cowhands and horse-breakers in Texas.
As white settlers made their way into Texas, they took with them enslaved people to work on vast swaths of land full of wandering cattle. George McJunkin, for example, was born to enslaved parents in Midland, TX in 1851. His blacksmith father was saving up money to purchase the family’s freedom when, in 1865, he learned slaves had been emancipated.
McJunkin became a cowboy in 1868, buying his first pair of cowboy boots in anticipation of working as a cattle wrangler. Over time, he learned roping skills and became known for his ability to wrangle horses. He grew into a well-respected ranch foreman in New Mexico where he discovered the Folsom Ice Age bones in 1908, which decades later provided evidence of a human presence in the Americas as early as the Pleistocene epoch.
Nat Love, expert cowboy and rodeo man who came to be known as “Deadwood Dick,” recalled his youth as a slave in Tennessee where his father was a plantation foreman. Love was ten years old when the Civil War broke out and remembered attempts to play out the war with his friends.
According to Love, “Not one of the boys wanted to be a rebel,” so they waged war against a nest of yellow jackets instead. He noted that while there were no casualties, many young men were injured.
Prior to the end of the Civil War, freed and fugitive Black folks took low-paying jobs in the North, where they faced discrimination and were often undermined by whites. Earning a living after the Civil War was even more difficult for former slaves.
Ex enslaved people’s choices for work were incredibly limited, especially in the South. Freed slaves could become wage earners for their former owners or they could work menial service jobs.
The desire for a new life propelled a mass exodus from the South, with many former slaves heading to places like Kansas and Texas, where being a cowboy was yet another option. Nat Love went in west 1869, and he was soon followed by thousands of others in search of a new opportunities. Freed slaves who were already in states like Texas stayed on to work as professional cowhands.
African American cowboy George Martin recalled when his father moved the family to Texas in 1865. According to Martin, his father, "labored at any kind of work he could get to do when we first lit in Dallas. The Civil War sort of tore things up for father back in Atlanta, so he came to Texas calculating on getting a new start. Soon as I was able to go on my own, I lit out to find a job and dragged up to Denton County, which contained a tolerable lot of small cattle ranches back in those days."
African American women were active on the American Frontier, but little has been done to study their activities. Mary Fields, for example, was known for her skill with a gun, something that ultimately cost her a job with the Montana nuns for whom she hauled freight. She drank, smoked cigars, and later delivered mail, but never worked on a ranch.
Johana July, a Black Seminole woman, worked on a ranch in Texas, having learned the skills of a vaquero from her father. She raised livestock and broke horses throughout her life, navigating through three marriages and four children while maintaining close connections with her extended family.