A Brief History of Black Cowboys

By Pamilerin Thompson

In this blog post, I look at famous Black cowboys and the influence they had on ‘cowboy culture’ in the US. I also explore the vital relevance Black cowboys have in our community today: including the sense of self-worth cultivated and developed by contemporary Black cowboy programmes.

Let’s get into it!

History of the Term ‘Cowboy’
Nat Love – Kansas Historical Society

So, who were Black cowboys? Black cowboys were typically formerly enslaved people in the American south and west. David Goldstein-Shirley’s 1997 paper “Black Cowboys in the American West: An Historiographical Review” unearths the origin of the term “cowboy” as being the derogatory appellation of the Black men working in ranches, whereas their white counterparts were called “cowhands”. 
According to LeRoi Jones and Philip Durham’s seminal book from 1965 “The Negro Cowboys”, roughly 1 in every 4 cowboys (more than 5000 people) were Black during the height of the West. Yet, we seldom see them represented in cultural depictions of the “Wild West”. The presence and cultural contributions of African-Americans to the West has been downplayed, and until recently – erased.

Nat Love – Most Famous Black Cowboy
Film still from Concrete Cowboy

The most famous of all Black cowboys was Nat Love. He was also known as ‘Deadwood Dick’. Nat Love was born into enslavement in 1854 in Davidson County Tennessee. Nat Love became a cowboy when he was approached during breakfast by a trail boss who offered him a job. The trail boss gave young Nat Love the responsibility of breaking the wildest horse in the outfit named Good Eye. Nat would later go on to say it was the toughest ride he had ever done. He successfully trained the horse and got a job that paid $30 a month at the Duval Ranch. Today that would be equivalent to $995.72 US dollars per month (roughly £730).
Did you also know that Nat Love’s memoir the “Life and Adventures of Nat Love” is one of the only firsthand accounts of an African-American cowhand in the western United States from this period.

Film & Cowboys: History Rewritten

Cowboys in popular old western films in which all-white casts and representations of cowboy culture that centers whiteness, is a gross misrepresentation of the true history of cowboy culture in the US.  Unfortunately, this has occurred for a few reasons. The first is that generally in cinema and media there is a visual scarcity of Black faces due to the long and exclusionary history of the media industry. Secondly, American historians for a long time have neglected, omitted, and written out the history of Black cowboys. Lastly, history regularly is re-written to exclude and push forward narratives that uplift whiteness and erase accountability of historical and ongoing white villainy. 

Nevertheless, recent films such as Django Unchained, Concrete Cowboy, The Magnificent Seven, and the recently released The Harder They Fall. These films  uniquely and creatively capture and show that Black cowboys existed and that cowboy culture was influenced by Black and Indigenous communities. Some of these films also offer  a notable cross-over between Afrofuturism and the restoration of representation of Black cowboys in science-fiction films such as Cowboy Bebop which features a Black lead in a  dystopian future. Another notable film is the 1999 Wild Wild West featuring Will Smith, which also has a great rap song associated with the film! We of course cannot forget the recent banger and ultimate #YeehawAgenda song Old Town Road by Lil Nas X.

Contemporary Cowboy Community Groups
This is the story of The Compton Cowboys and Keiara Wade, the group’s solo cowgirl. Together on June 7th, 2020, they led a peace ride through their hometown in the name of Black lives. It was a community defining moment and America took notice; the Compton Cowboys were searched on Google more than ever before. To read more about Keiara’s story visit https://g.co/comptoncowboys.

The Broken Arrow Horseback Riding Club and The Compton Cowboys are a few of the last remaining private equestrian clubs trying to reconnect the hidden Black history of horsemanship. These groups aim to redefine contemporary understandings and representations of cowboy culture. The Compton Cowboys aim to develop a new generation of cowboys in America’s ‘urban heartland’. They believe that horseback riding and working with livestock offers an opportunity for strong bonds to be made between young Black people who diligently care for horses.  The Compton Cowboys were the inspiration and influence for the movie ‘Concrete Cowboys’. “Concrete Cowboys” is a coming-of-age journey of a young Black teen who endeavors to find positive influences through bonding with and training horses as he is faced with the difficult challenges of his reality.

The relevance this has on today’s community cannot be overstated. Events like the Kentucky Derby or the Royal Ascots which feature prominent white equestrians and attendees are arguably the exception and not the rule when you look at the history of cowboys and horseback riding. For example, in the 1870s Silver Walker was one of the most talented horse racers of his time. In fact, the winning jockey of the first Kentucky Derby was Black. Until the early 1900s, there were many Black jockey winners, such as  Ike Murphy, who won the Kentucky Derby three times. Revisiting the history of Black cowboys improves the racial esteem of Black communities and works to subvert the idea that farming, horse training, and other related activities are somehow exclusively white-only activities. 

Hopefully, you walk away understanding the key role that Black cowboys have played in shaping that history and challenging white narratives of the Wild West! If you want to learn more about Black cowboys check out our podcast episode about Black cowboys!

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