Former slaves made history as famous Black cowboys

Time Before Now, February 1869Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant had overwhelmingly won the presidency the past November and the first African-American, John Menard of Louisiana, had been elected to Congress, as well.  Louisa May Alcott’s first novel, “Little Women,” was the new best-seller and Harper’s Weekly put whiskers on Uncle Sam for the first time.  It stuck.  Uncle Sam has had whiskers ever since.

February 10, 1869

On this day, Nat Love began his Western odyssey from slavery to one of the country’s most storied Black cowboys. He was just one of a number of former slaves who became legends on the frontier.

In addition to Love, (right) the roster of storied Westerners includes Bose Ikard, immortalized as Josh Deets in Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning classic, “Lonesome Dove,” Canadian folk hero, rancher John Ware, rodeo hall-of-famer, Bill Pickett and George McJunkin, famous as the finder of rare bones.

Nat (pronounced Nate) Love may have had a slight advantage over many other enslaved people. Born sometime around 1854 on Robert Love’s Tennessee plantation, his father, Sampson, was the field hands “foreman,”  and his mother oversaw the plantation kitchen.  Following the Civil War, Sampson remained, working as a sharecropper but died just a few years later.

Young Nat got a ticket out of sharecropping, however, when he won an unruly horse in a raffle.  He broke the horse and sold it back to the owner for $50.  Landing in Dodge City, Kansas, his nest egg running low, he found work as a drover for the Texas Duval Ranch.  It was the start of a 20-year career as a cowboy.

Love chronicled his time on the range in a two-fisted tale, “Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’, by Himself.” Like the era’s other promotional autobiographies of derring-do by the likes of Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill, it is tough to tell what percentage is fact and fiction in this otherwise well-writes account.

He proved he was a real-deal cowboy, however.  After arriving in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, with a herd of cattle in 1876, he cleaned up on the prize money at the town’s Fourth of July rodeo, winning nearly all the events.  It earned him his “Deadwood Dick” moniker, inspired by the popular Western adventure books created by Edward Lytton Wheeler.

Deadwood in 1876 or 1877

Nat may have been the first title-holder but he was not the last. The “Deadwood Dick’s” of the period could fill a small school bus.  The lengthy roster included gambler Frank Palmer, a stage-coach driver named Richard Cole, a handful of actors, several impersonators and a burly bullion guard  and fast draw specialist employed by the Homestake Mine, “Cornishman Richard “Dick” Bullock.

While Love produced a colorful selfie, Bose Ikard proved his metal in perhaps the world’s toughest cowboy venue, the Texas trail boss.  Born a slave, he  grew proficient as a tracker and ranch hand when the Ikards moved west from Mississippi  He served as legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight’s second-in-command.   Author McMurtry’s Josh Deets character in “Lonesome Dove” was based on real-life Ikard and portrayed in the television mini-series by Danny Glover. (Right)

Goodnight’s tribute to his trusted trail mate appears on the marker on Ikard’s grave in Weatherford, Texas. “Bose Ikard (1859–1928) (right) Served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches, splendid behavior.” 

Another of America’s noteworthy Black cowboys, more or less went north instead of west.  John Ware, born a slave in North Carolina in about 1845, also honed his ranching skills in Texas.  Entrusted with a herd of longhorns from the Rio Grande to Montana and on to Canada, he found work in Alberta and never looked back. 

Ware (right) became a Canadian folk hero who could outshoot and outride the best of them and is credited with popularizing the steer wrestling event which started as a centerpiece of the Calgary Stampede. 

Notable founder of Canada’s ranch culture, he was buried there September 11, 1905 at age 72.  The cowboy who’d never been bucked off a bronco ironically died when his horse stepped in a badger hole and he was crushed in the fall.  

A trio of landmarks near his ranch are named in his honor; John Ware Ridge, Ware Creek, Mount Ware, as well as Calgary’s John Ware Junior High School and outhern Alberta Institute of Technology’s John Ware building in Calgary.

Bill Pickett took a bit the same path, making a name for himself bulldogging steers, a harrowing rodeo event he invented.  

Technically born just after the end of slavery, he was the son of recently freed parents.  Luckily, he had four talented brothers and together they formed The Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association, first appearing in county fairs.  In 1905, he joined the “101 Ranch Wild West Show,” produced by heirs to Colonel George Miller’s 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, appearing with the elderly Buffalo Bill,  rodeo performer turned actor, Tom Mix and Annie Oakley rival, Lillian Smith.   

Not long after retiring, he too fell victim to an accident by horse.  Kicked in the head by a bronco, he died of his injuries at 61 after lingering in a coma.  

One of the nation’s best known African-American rodeo stars, he was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1971, the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1989, the Texas Trail of Fame in 1997 and 2003 National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame.

Most recently, Pickett was named to Jim Thorpe Association’s Oklahoma Sport Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 2018.

On the flip side of Pickett’s celebrity, was George McJunkin. (Left) A quick study with a curious intellect, he taught himself to read, to speak fluent Spanish, and to play both the fiddle and the guitar.  Most importantly, however, he was an amateur archaeologist and historian.  While fixing fence on New Mexico’s Crowfoot Ranch following a flood, he discovered a number of bones and a stone tool at the bottom of an arroyo.

Recognizing his find was unique, he carefully removed several small samples and tried for a number of years to interest scientists in the site.  His patience finally paid off.  After contacting Denver’s Museum of Natural History in 1918, paleontologist Harold Cook finally took note. 

Folsom site, 1908.  Unidentified man may be George McJunkin

What McJunkin had found were bones of a giant bison, extinct by the end of the Ice Age, and a stone point, proof of human activity more than 7,000 years earlier than previously thought.  Known as the Fulsom Site, McJunkin’s discovery changed New World archeology forever.  Regrettably, complete excavation the site was not begun until after McJunkin’s death in 1926.

Lest he go down in history as simply a science nerd, McJunkin was said to be a peerless bronc rider and one of the best ropers in New Mexico.  He was inducted into Oklahoma City’s Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 2019. 

Black cowboys, circa 1870

One estimate calculates that during the cattle boom of the 1870s ad 80s, fully a quarter of the of the working cowboys were Black.  America’s movie makers have been trying to catch up ever since.   The 1938 “ Two Gun Man from Harlem,” was considered the first Black Western.   It was set in, you guessed it, New York’s Harlem.  It’s entree into Western filmdom  apparently was due to the fact the main character was a cowboy who goes East to clear his name for a crime he didn’t commit.

Cast of “The Bronze Buckaroo,” the first western Western

The first kinda Black western Western was the 1939, “The Bronze Buckaroo” starring Herbert Jeffrey.  According to research from Ebony magazine, however, Jeffrey wasn’t Black at all.  Actually Irish and Italian he chose to fake his identify to help his career as a jazz singer.  The rest of the cast, however, was  African-American.   And it was a musical!

The National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum, 2029 North Main Street, Fort Worth, Texas, highlights the contributions to the cowboy culture of Hispanic, Native Americans, European and African-Americans.  Formerly The National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame, it records their stories with journals, photographs and other historical artifacts. 

Founded in 2001 by Jim and Gloria Austin, the facility relocated to its present 8,000-square-foot facility in the Fort Worth Stockyards and Exchange area. Open from noon to 4, Wednesday through Saturday.  Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID and children under 5 are free, according to the most recent available information.  Special rates apply for groups of 10 or more and for veterans.  For more information go to, e-mail gaustin@cowboys http://cowboysofcolor.orgof or call (817), 534-8801.

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.