Black Pioneers Helped Settle the American Frontier

By Doyle, Eva M. | The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), February 5, 2012 | Go to article overview

Black Pioneers Helped Settle the American Frontier


Doyle, Eva M., The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)


There were many black pioneers of the Old West. These included both men and women. One of the best-known black cowboys was Nat Love, sometimes known as Deadwood Dick. He was born a slave in Tennessee in 1854, and headed West at the age of 15. He arrived in Dodge City and soon landed a job as a cowpuncher. He wrote his biography in 1907 and told of meeting some of the bad men of the Old West, including Billie the Kid and Frank and Jesse James.

However, his claim to fame came when he entered the rodeo at Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory on July 4, 1876. He could rope, saddle and ride a wild mustang better than any man. He became known for his rodeo skills. An excellent series on Nat Love and the black cowboys can be found in the Robert Miller books.

Many people probably remember the cowboy television shows of the past featuring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickok. I grew up watching these shows, but I did not see any about black cowboys. I can still remember Roy Rogers in his white hat, with his beloved horse, Trigger, at his side. He was one of the singing cowboys of the time.

However, there was a black singing cowboy in the early days of film. His name was Herb Jeffries. One of the movies he made in 1939 was called "The Bronze Buckaroo." There were several other black Westerns made, but they were not shown to a wide audience. Images are powerful. This is one reason why it is important to show African-Americans in a variety of roles, because the images that you grow up with can stay in your mind forever.

Black women also played many important roles in the Old West. One who comes to mind is Mary Fields, also known as Black Mary. She was born in 1832. In the town of Cascade, Mont., Fields had no equal. She was 6 feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. She was good with her fists and always carried a six-shooter.

When I think of the great history of the U.S. Postal Service, I think of Fields. She was the second female to ever drive a U.S. mail coach. She got the job through the influence of a nun named Mother Amadeus. The folks around Cascade knew her as a freight hauler, laundress, restaurant owner and the driver of a mail coach. She delivered the mail seated on top of the mail coach for eight years without missing a day. She was known as Stagecoach Mary.

Fields also helped the nuns in Cascade build a school. She worked hard through the harsh winters and did most of the tough work. …

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