Though they rarely make it to the history books, black men and women helped shape the Old West.
Thanks to Hollywood, tales of America’s western frontier are among the most popular in the world. Close your eyes and think “Old West”: What do you see? Cowboys and Indians, sheriffs and outlaws, wagon trains and the “Iron Horse,” frontier forts and one-horse towns, shoot-outs in seedy saloons, and stampeding cattle out on the range?
The Old West was certainly all of that and more. But the “palefaces and redskins” of Hollywood movies and old history books were not the only people who shaped life on the western frontier.
African-Americans (along with Mexicans and Asians) were the “other pioneers” of the American West. They made their mark as explorers, trappers, cowboys, ranchers, farmers, gold miners, stagecoach drivers, scouts, cavalrymen, outlaws, lawmen, schoolteachers, saloonkeepers, and just about everything else a person could be in the “Wild West” of the mid- to late-1800s.
Take Nat Love, for instance.
CHAMPION ROPER OF THE WESTERN CATTLE COUNTRY
Among cowboys, Nat Love was one of the best. He rode hard, shot straight, could rope the toughest bull, and tame the roughest bronco.
Love was born a slave in 1854. His family was set free after the Civil War. When Nat was 15, he left home and followed his dreams westward to where he had heard a man could ride free. He got a job herding cattle and worked hard to perfect his cowboy skills. It didn’t take him long. When Love was 22, he took part in a Fourth of July rodeo in the town of Deadwood, in Dakota Territory. He outroped and outshot other cowboys to become the “hero of Deadwood.” “The assembled crowd,” Love wrote, “named me ‘Deadwood Dick’ and proclaimed me champion roper of the Western cattle country.” Love was proud of the nickname, and used it till the end of his life. (The original “Deadwood Dick” was the hero of a popular series of novels about the Old West.)
Love later wrote a book called “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as Deadwood Dick.” The book is full of both tall tales and true adventures; sometimes, it is hard to tell which is which. But there is no doubt that Love lived a full life during the heyday of the Western frontier. He herded cattle, survived stampedes, had his share of card games and gunfights, encountered Indians as both friend and foe, and weathered the rain, snow, sleet, dust storms, and merciless sun of the open prairie.
In 1889, Love hung up his spurs. In 1890, he went to work on the “Iron Horse” instead as a Pullman porter on the railroads that were spreading across the West and pushing “the frontier” to the Pacific. By the time Nat Love died in 1921, the “Wild West” was no more.
STAKING THEIR CLAIMS
Nat Love was not the only African-American to make a living as a cowboy. About one-fourth of all cowboys on the western frontier were black. Like Love, most had headed west at the end of the Civil War, seeking a better life and the kind of freedom they had never known, whether slave or free, when they lived back East.
Blacks also headed west to stake claims to farm and ranch land. They even founded all-black towns on the frontier, such as Nicodemus, Kansas; Dearfield, Colorado; Langston City and Boley, Oklahoma; and Allensworth, California. Black farmers, like their white counterparts, settled on the Great Plains, building sod houses and working the land.
African-Americans also caught “gold fever.” They headed west with pickaxes to dig ore out of remote hillsides and panned for gold in wild, rushing rivers.
Life on the frontier was hard for everyone, but blacks often faced the extra burden of racism. Even if a black miner hit pay dirt, in some places he was not allowed to keep it. An 1860 Supreme Court ruling the Dred Scott decision said that blacks descended from slaves had no rights as U.S. citizens. Some whites used that ruling to confiscate (take over) stakes that black miners had worked and made pay off.
Black cowboys perhaps knew greater acceptance than other frontier blacks. Nat Love said that, in town, he and other black cowboys were treated pretty much the same as whites “as long as our money lasted.” Out on the open range, the same usually held true as long as a black man had proven his skills in roping, riding, and shooting and was never made foreman or trail boss over white men.
THEY CALLED HER STAGECOACH MARY
Black women had to work just as hard as black men to make their way out West. Mary Fields, born a slave in a log cabin in Tennessee, went west in 1884, when she was 52 years old. She ended up in Cascade, Montana, with the nuns for whom she worked. Fields was a towering figure on the Western frontier. She was “six feet tall, weighed more than 200 pounds, wore men’s clothes, and puffed thick black cigars.” A powerful woman made strong by years of heavy slave work, Fields refused to put up with ill treatment from anyone. She lost her job with the nuns when she got into a gunfight with another hired hand. But Fields was tough enough to make her own way on the frontier. She carried the U.S. mail, ran a restaurant, and drove a stagecoach which earned her the nickname “Stagecoach Mary.”
In her old age, Fields ran a laundry. Even at age 70, she could hold her own: When a man tried to skip out without paying his laundry bill, Fields followed him, tapped on his shoulder, and when he turned around socked him on the jaw. He went down and Fields went back to work, declaring, “His bill’s been paid in full.”
THE LONG ARM OF THE LAW
Bass Reeves also knew a thing or two about laying down the law. Reeves, a deputy U.S. marshal, was one of many black law officers, sheriffs, deputies, and judges who helped keep law and order alive in the “Wild West.”
Reeves spent 30 years in the perilous job of a deputy U.S. marshal in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. A crack shot, he won 14 shoot-outs with men who all drew on him firstwithout suffering a single wound. But what made him one of the best in the West was his smarts. Reeves could not read or write, but he was a skilled detective, a master of disguise, and an expert tracker. Of all the outlaws Reeves went after in his long career, only one ever escaped his iron grasp.
In the late 1800s, one inescapable fact of life on the Great Plains was the clash between the U.S. Army and the Native Americans. Among the army units sent to serve in “Indian Country” were four all-black units: two infantry (foot soldiers) and two cavalry (horsemen).
The Civil War had been the first time in the nation’s history that African-Americans had been allowed to serve in the U.S. military. After the war, many newly freed blacks joined the army. They fought the same battles as other frontier soldiers usually against Indians or Mexicans.
The courage and skill of the all-black Plains units soon won them recognition and respect. In fact, the Native Americans so respected their African-American foes that they nicknamed the black units “the Buffalo Soldiers.” That was a great compliment, because the Indians held the buffalo in the highest esteem.
HIT THE TRAIL
Close your eyes and think “Old West” again. Has the picture changed at all?
There are many, many stories to be told about life on the frontier of the American West many with African-Americans as key players. February Black History Month is a great time to do some westward exploring of your own. How many tales of blacks on the frontier can you track down? You may be in for a few surprises.
1. What made life on the frontier so hard? What extra burden did African-Americans face?
2. Why do you suppose black cowboys were not tolerated as foremen or trail bosses?
3. Had you heard of any of these people before reading this article? If not, why do you suppose that is?