Know Your History
Did You Know that One in Four Cowboys was Black?
In celebration of Black History Month, we’re highlighting some stories of lesser-known African- American historical heroes along with some lesser-known facts because, before we can address our legacy as a people and a nation, we must first tell the truth about our history of racial injustice.
Given our location, a good place to begin is by digging into the history—and the myths—surrounding the American West. One of the most well-known is that of the “Lone Ranger,” a white man with a white hat astride a white horse, all of which combine to create a powerful image of white men taming the wild west. That is until you learn the character was likely inspired by Bass Reeves, an African-American who was born a slave but escaped to the West during the Civil War, where he lived in what was then known as Indian Territory. Reeves would eventually become a Deputy U.S. Marshal, and was known to be a master of disguise, an expert marksman, ride a silver horse, and also have a Native American companion.
In the 19th century, the Wild West drew thousands of enslaved Blacks with the hope of freedom and wages. The cowboy lifestyle came into its own in Texas, which had been cattle country since it was colonized by Spain in the 1500s. But cattle farming did not become an economic and cultural phenomenon until the late 1800s, when cattle grazed across the state.
While Texas ranchers fought in the Civil War, slaves maintained the land and cattle herds. In doing so, slaves developed a variety of skills, from breaking horses to pulling calves out of mud and releasing longhorns caught in the brush, all of which would render them invaluable to the Texas cattle industry in the post-war era.
However, with barbed wire yet to be invented and cowhands too few, cattle ran wild. Ranchers returning from the war tried to round up the cattle and rebuild their herds with slave labor, but eventually the Emancipation Proclamation left them without the free workers on which they were so dependent. Desperate for help rounding up maverick cattle, ranchers were compelled to hire now-free, skilled African-Americans as paid cowhands.
These skilled freedmen made up at least a quarter of the legendary cowboys who faced down weather, rattlesnakes, and outlaws while sleeping under the stars and driving cattle herds to market. While that entailed a great deal of personal freedom, Black cowboys were often expected to do more of the work and the roughest jobs compared to their white counterparts. That meant Black cowboys were typically responsible for breaking the horses and being the first ones to cross flooded streams during cattle drives. In fact, it’s believed that the term “cowboy” originated as a derogatory term used to describe Black “cowhands.”
By the turn of the century, railroads became more prominent, barbed wire was invented, and Native Americans were relegated to reservations, all of which decreased the need for cowboys on ranches and effectively ended cattle drives. This left many cowboys, particularly African-Americans who could not easily purchase land, strangers in a strange new land.
However, while opportunities to become a working cowboy were on the decline, the public’s fascination with the cowboy lifestyle prevailed, making way for the popularity of Wild West shows and rodeos. But that’s another story.