Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home
Texas Ranch House -- Black Cowboys


Nat Love Nat Love

One of the most famous western black cowboys -- because he wrote his memoirs -- was Nat Love. Born a slave in Tennessee in 1854, Love headed west at the age of 14 to seek adventure. He found it as a cowboy working for large cattle operations in Texas and Arizona. Love drove cattle and horses all over the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains and even down into Mexico. His autobiography recalls many trail drives to Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota that took him through such states as New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. In addition, he mentions many exciting experiences he lived through on the cattle frontier of the late-nineteenth century. He recounts being captured by Indians, surviving storms and Indian attacks, participating in and witnessing gunfights, and meeting many famous western characters like Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James, and Kit Carson. Written with an air of braggadocio, Love's story is, in places, of questionable veracity. Nevertheless, it is a charming first-hand account of the life of one cowboy that emphasizes the necessity of cooperation and camaraderie in the performance of work on the trails, ranges, and ranches of the cattle kingdom. In 1890 Love, who had married the year before, quit the cowboy business, moved to Colorado, and became a Pullman porter on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. He later worked as a bank guard before his death in 1921 in Los Angeles, California. 1


Bose Ikard Bose Ikard

Another early-day black cowboy was Bose Ikard. He was born a slave in Mississippi in 1847 and grew up in Texas. After the Civil War, he worked with Charles Goodnight on several cattle drives on the trail Goodnight and Oliver Loving carved from Texas through New Mexico and Colorado to Wyoming and Montana. He was one of Goodnight's most valuable employees for years, often being entrusted to carry the large sums of money the cattle baron collected at the end of the trail. 2


Isom Dart Isom Dart

Not all black cowboys, however, were productive citizens; some were on the wrong side of the law. One such outlaw was Isom Dart whose original name was Ned Huddleston. Born a slave in Arkansas in 1849, he went west after the Civil War. In 1875, Dart was one of a coterie of five thieves rustling cattle and horses in southeastern Wyoming. A rancher whose horses had been stolen by the gang gathered some of his cowboys together and pursued the culprits. In the ensuing shootout, only Huddleston survived. He changed his name to "Isom Dart" and relocated to Nevada. In the mid-1880s, however, he was once again rustling in Wyoming. This time he operated out of Brown's Hole (or Brown's Park) in the southwestern part of the territory, near the Colorado and Utah borders. One author has described this rugged region of mountains, canyons, caves, and arroyos as "one vast maze of hideouts made to order for law-breakers." Eventually, Dart bought a ranch and tried to settle into a life of legitimate work. Inevitably, however, his past caught up with him. In 1900 he was shot to death by famed bounty hunter Tom Horn who apparently had a contract to murder Dart issued by ranchers whose livestock had been stolen. 3


Bill Pickett

Finally, there is Bill Pickett. He was born too late -- in 1871 -- to ride the cattle trails but he was a ranch hand who made a reputation for himself as a performer in rodeos and Wild West shows in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Pickett's claim to fame is that he invented a new way to wrestle steers that changed the way rodeos were conducted and that people paid to see because of its novelty. While a child in his native Texas, Pickett observed a bulldog subdue a wild steer by grabbing the larger animal's upper lip in a vise-like bite. The pain the steer felt froze it in place waiting for the dog to release its grip. Pickett adapted this process to steer wrestling on nearby ranches and became a local celebrity. While forcing a steer to the ground, Pickett would, like the bulldog, bite the bovine's upper lip and finish his task without using his hands. Eventually, this evolved into the rodeo event of "bulldogging," and Pickett performed the stunt until shortly before his death in 1932. Not surprisingly, he lost several of his teeth practicing his unique method of steer wrestling. Often competing in Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming as well as other western states, he was a world champion rodeo bulldogger for several years. As a performer in Wild West shows he went to Canada, Mexico, South America, England, and all over the United States. Several years before his death, Pickett's innovation was outlawed in competitive rodeos. Moreover, some people began complaining that biting a steer's lip in an exhibition was inhumane treatment, and Pickett's attempts to teach his craft to others was largely unsuccessful. Thus, his biographer concludes that, by 1916 or so, "the bite-'em bulldog hold that Pickett had invented was fading from the scene under the pressure of the humane society and the fact that most cowboys were repulsed at the thought of taking the snotty upper lip of a steer in their mouths." 4

Notes: 1. Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love; see also Harold W. Felton, Nat Love: Negro Cowboy (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1969). 2. William Loren Katz, "Bose Ikard: Faithful Cowhand on the Goodnight-Loving Trail," chap. in Black People Who Made the Old West (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1977). 3. Katz, "Isom Dart: He Tried Mightily to Go Straight," chap. in Black People Who Made the Old West; and John Rolfe Burroughs, "Some Bad Men" and "Hair Brands and Hard Cases," chaps, in Where the Old West Stayed Young (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1962), 101. 4. Walker D. Wyman and John D. Hart, "The Legend of Charlie Glass," Colorado Magazine 46 (1969): 40-54. (14) Hanes, Bill Pickett, Bulldogger, 146.

Photos: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Denver Public Library


close window

Nat Love Bose Ikard Isom Dart Bill Pickett