By R. Eric Thomas
It’s a quintessential American story.
The year is 1869.
Nat Love is 15 years old and he’s about to leave his family and hitchhike his way to Kansas. Having been born into slavery and struggling to survive as a sharecropper, he strikes out for new vistas and opportunities.
“It was in the west, and it was the great west I wanted to see,” Love would later write in his autobiography, Life and Adventure of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” by Himself. One of the first black cowboys, Love worked for years as a ranch hand, making a name for himself wrangling cattle and, by his own account, escaping death on many occasions during altercations with white cattle thieves and Pima Indians.
“It was hard to think of leaving, but freedom is sweet.”
Love eventually settled in Denver, working as a pullman porter for Denver and Rio Grande railroads after an illustrious career brushing elbows with the likes of Buffalo Bill and Jesse James.
An illustration from Love’s book.
Though he is probably the most famous black cowboy, he certainly wasn’t the only one. Indeed, black cowboys outnumbered their white counterparts three-to-one in the late 19th and early 20th century.
“In the south, as black folks were manumitted, escaped slavery and moved west, or moved west when slavery ended, this was a way to earn a ‘living’” says Terri Gentry, a board member and volunteer Docent at Denver’s Black American West Museum and Heritage Center.
Located inside an unassuming Victorian home in a residential neighborhood minutes from 5 Points, the museum was founded in 1971 to document the untold stories of black American life in the west.
It starts with a haircut
Paul Stewart, the museum’s founder, was in Denver visiting his cousin when he encountered a black man on the street dressed in cowboy boots, a vest, bolero and hat. His interest piqued, he found out the man owned a ranch north of the city. When Stewart returned to Denver a few years later and set up a barbershop on East 34th and Elizabeth Street, he took to asking patrons about their families’ histories, looking for other signs of black cowboy life.
Playing “cowboys and Indians” as a child, Stewart had been told he had to be an “Indian” as “there were no black cowboys.” The lives and tales of his barbershop patrons told a different story, however. Soon, people were bringing in artifacts and souvenirs and, in 1971, Stewart opened the museum doors, providing a permanent home to a story nearly lost to time.
Man to boy
Life for black cowboys wasn’t easy. Like Nat Love, they often started with few possessions and had to brave harsh conditions, manage herds and survive the Wild West lifestyle, while also dealing with racial discrimination.
Indeed, even the term “cowboy”—now ubiquitous shorthand for a rugged, horse-riding Westerner—has a fraught racial history. “The term ‘cowboy’ was used to denigrate black and Latino men,” Gentry says. “Boy instead of man.” White cowboys were more commonly known as cowhands until the 30s when films about the West changed the popular understanding of the word cowboy.
“There was so much more of the world than what I had seen.”
Despite the challenges, black cowhands like Nat Love, Edward Cheatum, “Stagecoach” Mary Fields and thousands more made their way out Western in the years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Though the numbers have diminished in the 150 years since Love first set out, the culture remains today.
Like so many who have found their way out west since the early years of this country, black cowhands came seeking the promise of a new life and ready to face the manifold challenges that that life brought.
Love writes, “I wanted to make more of the opportunity and my life than I could see possible around home… It was hard to think of leaving… but freedom is sweet.”