first image that comes to mind when we hear the word cowboy is usually
something out of a western. Whether the word cowboy conjures up
visions of the Lone Ranger, Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne, it seldom
brings to mind African-Americans. We see cowboys as gunslingers and
outlaws, but in reality, cowboys were simply underpaid, hard working men
who were skilled at herding cattle and performing other arduous tasks in
cattle drives which took place from the late 1860s to the mid 1890s.
It is estimated that 1/3 of all
cowboys were either of Hispanic or African-American heritage.
Following the Civil War,
freed slaves left their masters and plantations to make a new life for
themselves. Many African Americans moved out to the west in hopes of
buying land and settling down, and some even set up all-black communities
such as Allensworth, California, Nicodemus, Kansas, and Dearfield
Colorado. Many also found work as riders, farm hands, ranch
hands, and cooks, and when the time came to round up and move the herds up
the cattle trails from southern Texas to shipping points and other
important trading centers of the cattle industry.
However difficult and financially
unrewarding it was to be a cowhand, for the former slaves it meant
something entirely different. There, men could build up a sense of
self, earn wages to support their families, and realize their full
potential as free men. As one would imagine, some of the ranchers
who employed African-Americans did not pay them as much as they paid white
workers, and it is also obvious who the worst chores went to.
However, no amount of racial discrimination could discourage these men
from earning the respect they deserved, whether it be because of their
skills, or their courage.
One of the most impressive
displays of skill and courage, and part of what gave cowboys their
mystique, was their use of a lasso for roping calves and horses, and their
talent at "breaking" these wild animals so they could be herded and put
into the service of man. Nowadays, such skills are still put on
display at the various rodeos which take place in the American and
Canadian west, while remaining part of the duties of those who own and
operate ranches. In the late 1800s, black cowboys such as Nat Love
would gain much respect and admiration for displaying such skills, and
sometimes, their talent would even spare them from those who "disagreed"
One could say the cattle drives
offered the very first opportunity for bonding between the whites and
blacks, as they labored and endured hardships side by side, forming some
sort of mutual admiration society, away from the unwritten rules of 19th