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Black Cowboys of the Old West

Did you know that there were Black cowboys in the Old West? Almost from the earliest days of Texas ranching, cattle drives and cowboys, there were cowboys of African origin who worked the cattle. In honor of the Black History Month, here are a few historical tidbits about that era and a few names you can drop when conversation turns to Black cowboys of the Old West.

Photo by Simeon Jacobson

Although African-America cowboys don't play much of a part in the popular Old West lore, historians estimated that one in four early cowboys were black. During the Civil War, while Texas ranchers fought in the East, their homes, land, cattle, and family lives depended on their slaves. While maintaining the land and cattle herds, slaves learned the skills of cattle tending that would make them worth their weight in gold in the post-war era.

After the war ended and Emancipation Proclamation was issued, slave owner ranchers were desperate for skilled ranch hands, so they hired now free African-Americans as paid cowhands. With very few other jobs open to freed African-American men at the time, being a cowboy become very appealing. Demand even increased in the wake of cattle drives, although Black cowboys faced a lot of discrimination in the towns and settlements they passed through on those drives. Still, within their crews, they experienced the level of respect and equality unknown to freed slaves in any other occupation at the time.

A few of these African-American cowboys became well known. One of them is Bose Ikard, who worked on the Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving cattle drives in the late 19th century. There was even a character on the famous Lonesome Dove series that was based on Ikard's life. Another one is Nat Love, who published an autobiography in 1907 in which he recounts his cowboy days in Dodge City, Kansas and elsewhere on the frontier. There were also black cowgirls, but their numbers are unknown because at that time, income was not provided to an individual woman but to a common household.

By the turn of the century, cattle drives ended as railroads expanded, and many of the African-American cowboys went looking for employment elsewhere. But rodeo and Wild West shows were gaining in popularity. That was the time when Bill Pickett, born to former slaves in Texas, become one of the most famous early rodeo stars. Matter of fact, it's safe to say that Pickett invented the sport of bulldogging or steer wrestling. In 1972, 40 years after his death, Pickett became the first African-American cowboy inducted in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. This was the beginning of the long tradition of African-American rodeo cowboys.

Cleo Hearn was the first African-American cowboy to win a calf roping event at a major rodeo. He was also the first African-American to portray the famous Marlboro Man, and the first African-American to enter college on a rodeo scholarship. In 1971, Hearn began producing rodeos for African-American cowboys. His Cowboys of Color Rodeo eventually became very famous and began recruiting cowboys and cowgirls from diverse racial backgrounds.

So, fellow Old West lover, now you know the truth about Black cowboys. Next time someone mentions Billie Holiday or Langston Hughes during the month of February and dismisses you as a hillbilly, ask them if they've heard of Bose Ikard and Bill Pickett. Then, educate them about the African-American cowboys of the Old West. Here's to the cowboys of every color under the sun!

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