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African American Cowboys by Roger D. Hardaway
A bronc buster
Read about the lives of four famous black cowboys
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 5,000 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 8,000 or 9,000 -- about 25 per cent -- of the 35,000 or so cowboys who worked in the frontier cattle industry. 6

Moreover, Porter argued that the conditions black cowboys experienced on western ranches and cattle drives were -- from economic and social standpoints -- much better than those of blacks in the South. He wrote that "[d]uring the halcyon days of the cattle range, Negroes there frequently enjoyed greater opportunities for a dignified life than anywhere else in the United States.... The skilled and handy Negro probably had a more enjoyable, if a rougher, existence as a cowhand then [sic] he would have had as a sharecropper or laborer in the South." Certainly, however, racial discrimination occurred on the cattle frontier. Blacks could not stay in white hotels, eat in white restaurants, or patronize white prostitutes. Blacks were almost required to avoid trouble with whites because prejudice might lead to more violent confrontations than would be the case if race were not a factor. Moreover, blacks were rarely promoted to the exalted position of trail boss. Nevertheless, wages for blacks and whites were generally equal, the two groups of cowhands shared bunkhouses, and they worked and ate side-by-side. 7

Other authors also have maintained that there was little prejudice among cowboys because ranch and trail crews stuck together. And, certainly, it was often the case that blacks and whites worked together in the western cattle industry. White cowboys would often defend their black co-workers from other whites who tried to start trouble. Because most cattle herds rarely exceeded 2,500 in number, only a few drovers were needed to get them to market. According to Durham and Jones, "an average crew contained about 11 men: the trail boss, eight cowboys, a wrangler, and a cook." The boss was almost always white, but two or three of the cowboys, the wrangler, and the cook might typically be black. A few blacks, however, did become ranch and trail bosses. Moreover, several African American cowboys -- whether bosses or not -- have become fairly well known to historians of the subject. 8

The men profiled here [See Famous African American Cowboys] serve as reminders that African Americans were cowboys on the western frontier of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and that they contributed to the growth and development of the American West. As in so many areas of American life, however, history has not given them their due. Consequently, those few of us working in this field must search out their stories and tell them to all who will listen so that this facet of African American history will not be neglected any longer.

NOTES:

1 The best general histories of African Americans in the frontier West are W. Sherman Savage, Blacks in the West (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1976), and Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1998). See also William Loren Katz, The Black West, 4th ed., (New York: Touchstone Books, 1996); Roger D, Hardaway, A Narrative Bibliography of the African American Frontier: Blacks in the Rocky Mountain West, 1535-1912 (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995); and Monroe Lee Billington and Roger D. Hardaway, eds., African Americans on the Western Frontier (Niwot, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1998).
2 Philip Durham, "The Negro Cowboy," American Quarterly 7 (1955): 291-301; and John H. Harmon, "Black Cowboys Are Real," Crisis 47 (1940): 280-81, 301-02.
3 Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones, "Slaves on Horseback," Pacific Historical Review 33 (1964): 405-09.
4 An entertaining autobiography of an African American who settled in the West after his cowboy days were over is Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick" (Los Angeles: By the Author, 1907; reprinted, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995). On Bill Pickett, see Bailey C. Hanes, Bill Pickett, Bulldogger: The Biography of a Black Cowboy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977).
5 Durham, "The Negro Cowboy."
6 Durham and Jones, The Negro Cowboys (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1955; reprinted, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), and Kenneth Wiggins Porter, "Negro Labor in the Western Cattle Industry, 1866-1900," Labor History 10 (1969): 346-74.
7 Porter, "Negro Labor in the Western Cattle Industry," 373-74.
8 See, for example, John M. Hendrix, "Tribute Paid to Negro Cowboys," Cattleman 22 (February 1936): 24-26, and Durham and Jones, The Negro Cowboys, 37.

Roger D. Hardaway, Ph.D. is an associate professor of history at Northwestern Oklahoma State University (Alva, Oklahoma.)

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