African American Cowboys on the Western Frontier

Article excerpt

Chronicling the African American presence on the western frontier of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is a small but important--and growing--area of historical inquiry. Unfortunately, western history books fail to give attention to black pioneers, and African American histories seldom mention those blacks who left the South not for the North but for the West. Yet many black people, who worked as miners, farmers, soldiers, housewives, prostitutes, newspaper publishers, hotel owners, restauranteurs, barbers, and even politicians, lived on the western frontier. Several thousand of these African American, western migrants were cowboys. (1)

During the heyday of the western cattle industry in the 1870s and 1880s, thousands of cowboys worked on ranches and rode the dusty trails north from Texas to the towns on the railroads where cattle were shipped east to feed a growing nation. In the process, the cowboy became a uniquely American romantic hero immortalized in story and song. Later when stories with frontier themes--known as "westerns"--became a staple in movie theaters and on primetime television, the myth of the noble cowboy was continued in a new medium. In reality, of course, the life of a cowboy was far different from the idealized version portrayed in story, song, and film. The work was hard, the pay was low, and life in the saddle was lonely. But perhaps the biggest discrepancy between the myth and the reality of the cowboy legend was that the black cowboys were almost totally ignored by the mythmakers of the eastern publishing houses and the Hollywood movie sets. (2)

Just how many African American cowboys participated in the frontier cattle industry is unknown, but it was surely several thousand. The cattle kingdom was centered in Texas, a former slave state with a large black population. Thus, many ex-slaves as well as black men born after emancipation worked for Texas cattle companies, riding north to the so-called cattle towns or railheads--settlements that developed at the points where the cattle trails and the railroads met. (3)

Many African American cowboys rode through the states and territories of the West on the Sedalia, Chisholm, Great Western, and Goodnight-Loving trails. Often, as black cowboys grew older and decided to trade the semi-nomadic life of the ranch and/or trail hand for a more stable existence, they settled in the West where they became store clerks, farmers, railroad employees, cooks, or worked in any number of other jobs. Some, however, died with their boots on--like Oklahoma's Bill Pickett who was kicked in the head by a horse while working on the largest ranch in the Sooner State. (4)

An early journal article on the subject, published in 1955, lamented the absence of black cowboys in western fiction. The author argued that publishers of books and magazines left African Americans out of their stories to appease white readers. Publishers had to print what their readers would buy; and since most readers were white, almost all fictional cowboys were also. Later, of course, African American cowboys were virtually ignored by those who made movies and television shows. All of this served to convince white consumers of mass-market media that there were no blacks involved in the frontier cattle industry in the American West. (5)

The two best general works on African American cowboys, however, explode the myth that there were no (or almost no) blacks on the western ranches, ranges, and cattle trails. In 1965 two University of California at Los Angeles English professors, Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones, published a book called The Negro Cowboys. They estimated that there were at least five thousand black cowhands in the late nineteenth-century American West. Four years later, University of Oregon history professor, Kenneth Wiggins Porter, argued that the number was closer to eight thousand or nine thousand--about 25 per cent--of the 35,000 or so cowboys who worked in the frontier cattle industry. …