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Borderlands: Black Cowboys Rode the Trails, Too 21 (2002-2003)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Black Cowboys Rode the Trails, Too

Article first published in Vol. 21, 2002.

By Socorro Garcia, Ramon Gomez and Desireé Crawford

You won't find them in Hollywood's old Western movies, except maybe as slaves or comics. You won't find them in history books either. They are the black cowboys of the late 1800s. From the plantations of the South to the plains of Texas, black cowboys made their mark on the cattle industry and rodeos of our nation.


Image caption: A black cowboy poses at a 1920s rodeo.   Photo courtesy of the Aultman Collection. El Paso Public Library

In 1825, the Mexican government began giving land grants to colonists promising to raise cattle on the land. Plantation owners were enticed to come to East Texas in hopes of becoming wealthy. These immigrants came with their wives, children and slaves.

Many of the slaves had come from African countries like Ghana and Gambia where they had herded cattle. Plantation owners with large herds of cattle often preferred these slaves because they already possessed skills in herding animals. Slaves worked cattle in the tall grass, pine barrens and marshes of South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and other parts of the South into southeastern Texas. A few of these slaves worked on horseback, but most used dogs, bullwhips and salt to control the cattle.

When the American Civil War began, Texas ranchers went off to war. They left their slaves to run the ranches while they were away. The slaves learned every aspect of the cattle ranching business. Since barbed wire hadn't been invented yet, they had a hard time keeping the cattle on their land. Subsequently, they became excellent riders and ropers as they rounded up the cattle.

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After the Emancipation, former slaves were free to find other employment. Because of racial oppression and the shortage of jobs among black men back East, many who had cared for cattle began to move westward.

Some found work as ranch hands. As demand for beef grew, so did the demand for cowboys to drive Texas cattle north to the nearest train depot. Cowboys drove more than five million head of cattle north and east from Texas between 1866 and 1885, according to Gina De Angelis, author of the 1998 book  Black Cowboys.

Between 5,000 and 8,000 black cowboys, mostly ex-slaves, are believed to have ridden the cattle trails between 1866-1896, about a fourth of the total number of cowboys.

On the trails, the men shared the same risks, from harsh weather to stampedes, snakes and confrontations with outlaws and Indians. Black and white cowboys often received the same salary and ate the same food. Sleeping arrangements often found ranch owner, trail boss, black and white cowboys in the same shack or under the stars in the same camp.

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In cattle driving and ranch work, skill counted more than skin color. De Angelis explains, "The great distance between the cattle trails and civilization also cut white cowboys off from the racist ideologies gaining ground in the east." These factors brought the cowboys together, giving the black cowboy an opportunity to be judged by his talents and hard work.

Kenneth W. Porter writes that while blacks certainly were not complete equals, except at hard work and risk taking, black cowboys probably suffered less discrimination than those in most other occupations open to all races.

However, when they sought rest and recreation from the hardships on the cattle drive, black cowboys did not have the same liberties as white cowboys did in towns. The saloon owners made them sit at one end of the bar; they were not allowed to solicit white prostitutes, and whites called them derogatory names.

On the cattle drive, these cowboys had to work harder and longer than anyone else to gain respect from the rest of the cowhands. Blacks were usually called upon to do the hardest work around an outfit, such as bronco busting. Blacks knew if there was an outlaw horse to be broken or an extra night watch, it was their job. Gina De Angelis explains that other cowboys recognized the able force of muscle, stamina and dependability that black cowboys brought to a drive.

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Out on the drive, black cowboys were likely to be the horse wrangler or the cook, the two jobs with the least recognition. The horse wrangler had the hardest work to do. Every morning he had to prepare fresh horses for all the cowboys and find new grazing spots every evening. Sometimes he had to care for sixty horses in an outfit.

Retired black cowboys who could no longer ride twelve hours a day on horseback often became cooks. The rest of the cowboys, for fear of finding their coffee bitter or their beans cold the next day, respected an outfit's cook. He had many chores besides cooking, from keeping a good supply of food to loading all the bedrolls every morning and storing them in the chuck wagon for the day. He also doubled as the doctor for the cowboys who were sick or injured.

Even though the black cowboys had respect and enjoyed freedom on the range, it was rare that they moved up to a position as foreman or trail boss. But some black cowboys achieved enviable reputations. Among these men was Bose Ikard who worked for Charles Goodnight, prominent Texas rancher. Goodnight and Oliver Loving opened up one of the most heavily traveled cattle trails from Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

A close friendship developed between Bose Ikard and Goodnight who trusted his friend "farther than any living man." Goodnight said, "He was my detective, banker, and everything else in Colorado, New Mexico, and the other wild country I was in."

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When Ikard died, Goodnight honored him with a granite marker in Weatherford, Texas, where he was buried. The epitaph read: Bose Ikard served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked a duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches, splendid behavior.

Another outstanding black cowboy was Addison "Add" Jones. He was known for the technique he developed in the art of roping and bringing a horse to the ground. Sara Massey writes that Jones became a legend in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico, and earned the tribute "the most noted Negro cowboy that ever topped off a horse." 

Other former cowboys became outstanding Wild West Rodeo performers, such as Bill Pickett. The Texas-born Pickett became known as the "Dusky Demon," the daredevil who invented "bulldogging." He would down and hold wild steers with his strong teeth. Some people say he had learned his maneuver in steer wrestling from his cattle dog when he saw the dog holding a cow still while biting its lip and nose.

Pickett joined the 101 Ranch Wild West Show based in Oklahoma. Writer Cecil Johnson says that during 1912 alone, Pickett traveled more than 17,000 miles through 22 states, putting on more than 400 shows. He also toured Mexico, England, Canada and Argentina, enjoying a long career as a star, despite the fact that early on he had been barred from many rodeos because of his race.

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Born a slave in Tennessee, Nat Love went to work on a ranch after becoming a free man. He earned five cents a piece to break colts. This job prepared him for what he would do in the future as a rodeo performer. After he won three awards in a rodeo held in Deadwood, South Dakota, he was nicknamed "Deadwood Dick."

Nat Love retired from the cattle industry in 1889 and later wrote a highly romanticized autobiography. Apparently he was the only black cowboy of the cattle drive period to write any kind of memoir.

By the end of the late 19th century, barbed wire had closed up the range and the arrival of the railroad in the West had changed the cattle industry. Although history books have recorded the cattle drives, many historians, artists, photographers and moviemakers have excluded the subject of black cowboys.

Over a century after they rode the trails and entertained in rodeos, black cowboys are just now getting the recognition they deserve. In 1972, Bill Pickett was inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, the first black honoree. The Black American West Museum in Denver chronicles the culture of blacks in the region.

In Houston, the American Cowboy Museum was founded to honor black, American Indian, and Mexican-American cowboys. More than 20,000 members of the National Black Cowboys Association enjoy rodeo events or other horseback activities. New books, articles and Web sites are now documenting the thousands of black cowboys who helped mold the cattle industry and the life of the cowboy in the West.

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