In our last piece on important Black History, Buffalo Soldiers: America’s Complicated Heroes, we shared that previously enslaved Black men and women were given the chance at a new life after the eradication of the transatlantic slave trade. Many became cowboys – in fact, it’s estimated that some 25 percent of working cowboys were Black.
It made sense. From their time in slavery, many had worked as ranch hands and cattle drivers in the Southern states. The ability to work with and manage livestock was vital when they migrated westward after the Civil War in 1866 to seek employment and liberation in the Western territories.
The emergence of what we know today as “cowboys”, (defined as animal herders who tend cattle on ranches), was not only born out of the necessity to tame the West and commercialize its booming agricultural development. Black cowboys would find purpose and identity after enslavement.
The huge and growing demand for skilled cattle workers in the West presented Black Americans with unprecedented opportunities. Early on, these cowboys found work on cattle ranches as ropers, trail cooks, wranglers, and drovers, driving herds of cattle across long distances to markets or railheads.
Being a cowboy already came with its share of challenges. it was common to experience physical injuries (falls, or being kicked or trampled by animals), harsh environmental conditions (heatwaves or hypothermia), limited access or rations of food and water, and confrontations with trespassers, but Black cowboys also faced racism from white counterparts (or segregation).
Famous Black Cowboys
Despite these challenges, eventually, Black cowboys gained notoriety for their skills and achievements. One of the most renowned black cowboys was Nat Love, (at left) also known as “Deadwood Dick”. Love was born into slavery in Tennessee but later became a skilled cowboy, participating in cattle drives, rodeos, and ranching activities. His exploits and life were documented in his autobiography, “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love,” published in 1907…and you can read the whole book here.
Bill Pickett, a cowboy remembered for his techniques, was credited with inventing the rodeo sport of bulldogging, now known as steer wrestling. He is commemorated by the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, a series of Black Rodeo events. (Information and schedule is here.)
But men weren’t the only ones leading the charge. Black cowgirls like Sylvia Bishop (a beloved horse trainer), Johanna July (an incredible horse tamer who developed her own method of taming horses), and Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary, (at right), who protected stagecoaches out West, were leading the charge.
The popularity of Western-themed entertainment, such as rodeos and Wild West shows, would take off and bring additional opportunities for black cowboys and cowgirls outside of the ranch. Because of this, cowboys could often find work performing in traveling shows alongside white performers, showcasing their riding, roping, and trick-riding skills to a variety of audiences.
In modern times, cowboys are becoming less stereotypically portrayed as White men defending their ranch from Indigenous groups. In reality, Black and Native Americans comprised a notable percentage of these cowboy groups. There’s also been a thirst to challenge past narratives and a growing recognition of the significant role played by black cowboys and cowgirls in Western history. Efforts have been made to highlight their contributions and preserve their stories. Organizations like the Black Cowboy Museum, the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center, and rodeo associations like the Black Professional Cowboy and Cowgirl Association, work to document and share the history of black cowboys and cowgirls, minimize human-wildlife conflict, promote accessibility to equestrianism to Black communities, and ensure these stories are not mistaken, let alone forgotten.
NaBeela Washington, an emerging Black writer, holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University and Bachelor’s in Visual Advertising from The University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has been published in Eater, The Cincinnati Review, and others. Learn more at nabeelawashington.com.