The African Cowboys-missing in action




scene from the Wild Bunch

I can remember as a pre-teen and teen in Jamaica during the ‘60’s – long before African nationalism and radicalism swamped me – how the cinematic culture of the gun became ingrained in our young lives. With respect to Public Enemy, Elvis may not have meant shit to them, but our heroes where John Wayne, Audy Murphy, the Lone Ranger, Lash Laroo and countless parade of imaginary “mans man” of rugged individualism and the bad boy ”me against the world” mentality as it entrenched itself into the lexicon and DNA of my peers. The cowboy, which evolved into the gangster culture, culminating in perhaps the greatest most influential made in Jamaica film of all time The Harder They Come, was pure entertainment, but also Anglo-Saxon cultural indoctrination, expansion and exportation of the so called American culture.  

Our infantile social maturity and post-holocaust experience, sans limited connection to Africa created in the minds of the trauma victims in Jamaica, an attachment to the abusers/enslavers of our body and psyche. Today we applauded the cowboy jingoism of George Bush II; remember older heads as they reminisce about that Anti-African John Wayne. We have Reggae Cowboy on the music circuit…, and we still have evidence of the old Cowboy mentality in the gangstas of today in the Caribbean, the North American Union and even in Africa if you want to believe it.

scene from the Movie Shane

Aaah! So romantic, so pure, so…American idealistic. Today the culture of the cowboy is the best symbolism of the long gone days when men where men, and so where the women (no not in that way). When an “American can shoot another and not worry about nonsense like jail and compensation.  When “White” was more right than at any time and the PC police where taken out to the back and strung up, like… like… like Niggers!

     What is a Cowboy?            

The dictionary defines a cowboy as:

1: one who tends cattle or horses; especially: a usually mounted cattle-ranch hand2: a rodeo performer    

The American Heritage Dictionary wades in by describing the cowboy as:

  1. A hired man, especially in the western United States, who tends cattle and performs many of his duties on horseback. Also called cowman, cowpoke, and cowpuncher, also called regionally buckaroo, vaquero, and waddy.

    2. An adventurous hero (see… an adventurous hero)

A cowboy is man with guts and a horse”.

— will James 

Finally, I turn to the epitome of the cowboy icon and he who made things right by the fist or gun, long before Clint Eastwood went to Italy to become an “American” Star. “They were simple, direct men .They believed in things like liberty and minding their own business. When the first cowboys were herding longhorns up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas they were a pretty tough lot, but they had to be. It was a rough era in our history.

There was no room for nuance or no time for luxury. Out of the lives of these cowboys have come all sorts of stories and legends, some true and some fiction. But the most authentic and dependable evidence of what the cowboys really were has come from the artists who pictured them in their true environment, risking their lives in stampedes, freezing or sweating, under the stars, by lonely campfires, rowdying in saloons, fighting, branding and whooping it up around the chuck wagons.”—John Wayne about old time cowboys 

The Original Cowboys  

A cowboy (Spanish: vaquero) tends cattle and horses on cattle ranches in North and South America. The cowboy is normally an animal herder most commonly in charge of the horses and/or cattle, whereas the wrangler’s work is more specific to horses. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work in and participate in rodeos, and many cowboys work only in the rodeo. The word cowboy came from several earlier terms that referred to both age and to cattle or cattle-tending work. The word “cowboy” first appeared in the English language about 1715–1725, as a direct English translation of vaquero, a Spanish word for an individual who managed cattle while mounted on horseback. It derived from vaca, meaning “cow.”

This Spanish word also came out of the Latin word vaca cowboy or buckaroo, is also akin to the Arabic word bakara or bakhara, also meaning “heifer” or “young cow.” Knowing my-story and his-story of Spain we realize that the Spanish language contains a number of words based on Arabic, most originating with Africa Muslim or Moors who had a powerful influence on Spanish history beginning with the conquest of Hispania in the 8th century and the Andalusian society they established. Beyond simply being a translation from Spanish and because of the time and physical ability needed to develop necessary skills. 

 The cow “boy,” often begins his career as a pre-teen (often as young as 12 or 13), earning wages as soon as he had enough skill to be hired, and who, if not crippled by injury, might handle cattle or horses for the rest of his working life. A few women also took on the tasks of ranching and learned the necessary skills, though the “cowgirl” did not become widely recognized or acknowledged until the close of the 19th century. The English word “cowherd” (similar to “shepherd,” a sheep herder) was used to describe a cattle herder, and often referred to a preadolescent or early adolescent boy, who usually worked on foot.  

(Equestrianism required skills and an investment in horses and equipment rarely available to or entrusted to a child, though in some cultures boys rode a donkey while going to and from pasture) This word is very old in the English language, originating prior to the year 1000.

In Antiquity, herding of sheep, cattle and goats was often the job of minors, and still is a task for young people in various first world cultures. Today, use of the term “boy” refers to hired help and older terms such as “hand,” “ranch hand” or “hired hand” is used to refer to ranch workers in general, which in America Inc. was mainly enslaved Africans or Africans or other ethnic groups doing menial labour.  As the American west opened up, it was a tremendous opportunity to thousands of people craving a fresh start, and a chance for a future on their own. Not only young Anglo-Saxon males (and some families) feeling crowded in the East, but countless non-Anglos, too.

It has been estimated that at least 1/6 and perhaps as high as 1/3 of all the emigrants to the West were African-American, and/or mixed blood individuals. Some traced their citizenship / freedom to colonial times, others bought themselves from their enslavers, some were freed by law or proclamation, and others “purchased” their freedom with their feet.  

nate love-deadwooddick

The African Cowboys missing in Action 

The cowboy is and was idealized in motion pictures, television, and books; the cowboy serves as the great American icon, representing courage, hardiness, and independence. Yet images of black cowboys have been whitened out of popular culture, giving the false impression that African in America Inc. was not among the men and women who settled the West. In fact, by the time the huge cattle drives of cowboy legend ended, at least 5,000 African men had worked as cowboys. 

Outside of popular culture, the “Black” Cowboys were legendary figures who drove great cattle herds across the early West.  Cowboys often drove herds of cattle from ranch land in Texas over hundreds of miles of rough and dangerous terrain to the stockyards in the North, a trip taking two to three months. A typical crew consisted of one trail chief, eight cowboys, a wrangler to take care of the horses, and a cook. It was also estimates that an average crew would have included two or three black cowboys. Africans often came to cattle country most often as enslaved people, brought by Anglo-Saxon landowners who hoped to take advantage of the fertile Texas soil to grow cotton.  

Once there, many Anglos began ranching, often selling or trading their enslaved livestock for four legged livestock. By the start of the American tribal War in 1861, Texas had over 180,000 African inhabitants and close to four million head of cattle. When the war ended four years later, ranching, with its dependence on cowboys, became the dominant industry. African cowboys seldom became trail chiefs or owned their own stock—although some did, usually those who had been free men before the war—they encountered less discrimination along the cattle trail than in most other occupations at the time.

While riding herd, African and Anglo cowboys depended upon each other. They lived, ate, and slept together.  The demands of the trail, which included dangerous snakes and wolves, treacherous rivers and mountains, and the threat of attack from First Nation peoples, made most cowboys transcend their ethnic prejudices. One famous African cowboy, Nat Love (also known as Deadwood Dick), summed up the cowboy code, “There a man’s work was to be done, and a man’s life to be lived, and when death was to be met, he met it like a man.” 

If life on the trail was arduous, life in the cattle market towns, like Dodge City, Kansas, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, was wide open and lawless. Despite the efforts of marshals such as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, thieves, rustlers, and gunslingers were abundant. Although the majority of African cowboys, like the majority of Anglo, were tough but law-abiding, there were a few famous African outlaws. One, known as Cherokee Bill, was as bloodthirsty as Billy the Kid and was hanged before his 20th birthday.

By around 1890 the cowboy’s world had changed.  Railroad lines had rendered long drives unnecessary, and barbed-wire fences now blocked the legendary Chisholm and Western trails. Some old cowboys, like Nat Love, found work as Pullman porters. Others continued to work on ranches as broncobusters who tamed wild mustangs. Still others, like Bill Pickett, put their riding, roping, or shooting skills to use on the rodeo and vaudeville circuits, with Buffalo Bill. Kenneth W. Porter writes that “while blacks certainly were not complete equals, except at hard work and risk taking, black cowboys probably suffered less discrimination than those in most other occupations open to all races.  

However, when they sought rest and recreation from the hardships on the cattle drive, black cowboys did not have the same liberties as white cowboys did in towns. The saloon owners made them sit at one end of the bar; they were not allowed to solicit white prostitutes, and whites called them derogatory names.” On the cattle drive, these cowboys had to work harder and longer than anyone else to gain respect from the rest of the cowhands.  The Africans were usually called upon to do the hardest work around an outfit, such as bronco busting. They knew if there was an outlaw horse to be broken or an extra night watch, it was their job. Gina De Angelis explains that other cowboys recognized the able force of muscle, stamina and dependability that black cowboys brought to a drive.

This was also why Africans were the first jockeys, from back when “slavery” was a thriving industry. Out on the drive, the African cowboys were likely to be the horse wrangler or the cook, the two jobs with the least recognition. The horse wrangler had the hardest work to do.  Every morning he had to prepare fresh horses for all the cowboys and find new grazing spots every evening. Sometimes he had to care for sixty horses in an outfit. Retired black cowboys who could no longer ride twelve hours a day on horseback often became cooks.

The rest of the cowboys, for fear of finding their coffee bitter or their beans cold the next day, respected an outfit’s cook. He had many chores besides cooking, from keeping a good supply of food to loading all the bedrolls every morning and storing them in the chuck wagon for the day.  He also doubled as the doctor for the cowboys who were sick or injured. Even though the black cowboys had respect and enjoyed freedom on the range, it was rare that they moved up to a position as foreman or trail boss.

But some black cowboys achieved enviable reputations. Black slaves had tended cattle, usually on foot, in the colonial Old South. Black jockeys, trainers, and grooms handled the expensive quarter horses raised and raced by the southern gentry. During the early days of ranching (the 1830s and 1840s) on the south Texas coast. Anglo slave owners brought their slaves to Texas from other southern states. In 1845, Texas had an estimated 100,000 whites and 35,000 slaves. By 1861 the state had 430,000 whites and 182,000 slaves.

After the Civil War, ranches east of the Trinity River often had all-black crews. West of the Nueces River, ranchers employed vaqueros more often than black cowboys. Far fewer blacks populated the northern ranges. Montana censuses counted only 183 blacks in 1870 and 346 in 1880.


The Buffalo Soldier

Famous African-American Cowboys:  

A few black cowboys gained some notoriety. Few people would have known about Bose Ikard, had it not been for the television mini-series, “Lonesome Dove.” Ikard was born a slave in Mississippi in 1847. Five years later his master brought Ikard to Texas. As a youth, he the cowboy trade on a ranch near Weatherford. Freed by the Civil War, Ikard went to work for Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. In 1866 he helped them blaze the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Goodnight had many words of praise for his trusted hand.

“He surpassed any man I had in endurance and stamina.” Ikard and Goodnight both died in 1929.   The life of Isom Dart (born Ned Huddleston) took a very different direction from Ikard’s. He was born a slave in Arkansas in 1849. After Emancipation, he went to west to Texas. Huddleston soon began stealing Mexican horses and swimming them across the Rio Grande for sale in Texas. He moved to northwest Colorado and became involved in gambling and fights.

After brushes with the law, he took work as a bronco buster. Although a great horseman, Huddleston could not keep to the straight-and-narrow. He joined a gang of rustlers in 1875. A rancher and his cowboys ambushed and killed the entire gang, except for Huddleston. At that point, he changed his name to Isom Dart and again tried to go straight. After additional brushes with the law, Dart turned to hunting and breaking wild horses.

He then bought his own ranch. Tom Horn, the bounty hunter, did not accept Dart’s turn to lawful life. Horn shot and killed Dart, who died at age fifty-one.    In 1907 he published The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick”. Love relates his supposed adventures are typical western tall-tale fashion. His life story reads much like a pulp novel, with brave, heroic deeds at every turn. He claimed to have acquired his nickname by winning a roping contest in 1876 in Deadwood, South Dakota. Exactly where fact left off and fancy took over will never be known.  

But Love certainly became one of the most successful cowboy self-promoters of his day.  We have somewhat sounder historical data on Willie M. “Bill Pickett,” (circa 1870-1932) the Texas-born cowboy credited with the invention of bulldogging (steer wrestling). Pickett performed as “The Dusky Demon” with the Miller Brother’s 101 Ranch Wild West Show and rodeos for several decades. One of thirteen children, he was born in Travis County, Texas, thirty miles northwest of Austin.  Pickett worked on central Texas ranches during the late 1880s and 1890s.

He married Maggie Turner in 1890 and together they would raise nine children. In partnership with his brothers, he started the “Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association” in Taylor, Texas. According to their ads: “We ride and break all wild horses with much care. Catching and taming wild cattle a specialty.”  By the 1900s Pickett bulldogged steers with his teeth at county fairs and other gatherings though out the West. In 1904 he performed at Cheyenne Frontier Days and won the admiration of a Wyoming Tribune reporter.  

Pickett would “attack a fiery, wild-eyed and powerful steer, dash under the broad breast of the great brute, turn and sink his strong ivory teeth into the upper lip of the animal, and throwing his shoulder against the neck of the steer, strain and twist until the animal, with its head drawn one way under the controlling influence of those merciless teeth and its body forced another, until the brute, under the strain of slowly bending neck, quivered, trembled and then sank to the ground.”   Strong, athletic, compact (5’7″, 145 pounds), and moustachioed, he dressed like a Spanish bullfighter. In the 1920s Pickett retired from competitive bulldogging but continued to give exhibitions. He also starred in a few black western movies that showcased his rodeo feats.

 Pickett returned to work for Zack Miller and continued to break horses. He would die at the 101 Ranch on April 2, 1932, after being kicked by a horse. Miller eulogized Pickett as the “greatest sweat and dirt cowhand that ever lived– bar none.” Pickett became the first black cowboy admitted to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1971.  

 Like other cowboys, African-American cowboys are still very much alive. The National Black Cowboys Association claims more than 20,000 members. Most members compete in amateur rodeo or otherwise enjoy life on horseback. The Black West Museum in Denver offers a glimpse at the regional history and culture of African-Americans.

 Other notable African cowboys: 

Addison Jones,
Range Boss
Bob Leavitt
Bronco Sam – not afraid of anything
Charley Willis – Singing Cowboy
George Glenn – rode the Chisholm Trail in 1870
Jesse Stahl – once rode a bronco backwards with a suitcase in hand
John Ware – a highly respected rancher
Mary Fields – Mary Fields ran a stage coach and mail route
The Moses Speese family moved west in 1888 to Westerville,
Nebraska”One Horse Charlie” – rode with the Shoshone Indians

Cowboy Wisdom     

1.      Never miss a chance to rest your horse
2. If you get to thinkin’ you’re a person of some influence, try orderin’ somebody else’s dog around.
3. Don’t worry about bitin’ off more’n you can chew; your mouth is probably a whole lot bigger’n you think.
4. Only cows know why they stampede.
5. Always drink upstream from the herd.
6. If you’re ridin’ ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then, to make sure it’s still there with ya.
7.  Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes from bad judgment.
8.  There are two theories to arguin’ with a woman. Neither one works.
9.  All I know is what I read in the papers.
10.  Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.
11.  I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.
12.  Never miss a good chance to shut up.
13.  Don’t name a cow you plan to eat.
14.  Life is not about how fast you run, or how high you climb, but how well you bounce.
15.  Keep skunks, lawyers, developers, and bankers at a distance.
16.  Life is simpler when you plough around the stump.
17.  A bee is faster than a John Deere tractor.
18.  Meanness don’t happen overnight.
19.  Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads.
20.  Don’t sell your mule to buy a plough.
21.  Don’t corner something meaner than you.
22.  It don’t take a very big person to carry a grudge.
23.  Every trail has some puddles.
24.  When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.
25.  Most of the stuff people worry about never happens.
26.  Don’t squat with your spurs on.
27.  Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
28.  Don’t interfere with something that ain’t botherin’ you none.
29.  Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.
30.  It’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.
31.  If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin’.
32.  It don’t take a genius to spot a goat in a flock of sheep.  

  Cowboy His-story 

The Spanish developed what we now consider the cowboy tradition, beginning with the hacienda system of medieval Spain. This style of cattle ranching spread throughout much of the Iberian Peninsula and later, was imported to the Americas. Both regions possessed a dry climate with sparse grass, and thus large herds of cattle required vast amounts of land in order to obtain sufficient forage.   The need to cover distances greater than a person on foot could manage gave rise to the development of the horseback-mounted vaquero. During the 16th century, the Conquistadors and other Spanish settlers brought their traditions of Spain and cattle-raising traditions as well as their horses and cattle to the “Americas”, originally Mexico (New Spain) and Florida.

In turn, the land and people of the Americas also saw dramatic changes due to Spanish influence.The arrival of horses was particularly significant, as equines had been extinct in the Americas since the end of the prehistoric ice age. However, horses quickly multiplied in America and became crucial to the success of the Spanish and later settlers from other nations.  The earliest horses were originally of Andalusian, Barbary and Arabian ancestry, but a number of uniquely American horse breeds developed in North and South America through selective breeding and by natural selection of animals that escaped to the wild.

The Mustang and other colonial horse breeds are now called “wild,” but in reality are descendants of domesticated animals. As English-speaking traders and settlers moved into the Western United States, English and Spanish traditions, language and culture merged to some degree, with the vaquero tradition providing the foundation of the American cowboy. Before the Mexican-American War in 1848, New England merchants who traveled by ship to California encountered both hacendados and vaqueros, trading manufactured goods for the hides and tallow produced from vast cattle ranches.  American traders along what later became known as the Santa Fe Trail had similar contacts with vaquero life.

Starting with these early encounters, the lifestyle and lingo of the vaquero began a transformation which merged with English cultural traditions and produced what became known in American culture as the “cowboy”. Much has been written about the racial mix of the cowboys in the American West, One writer states that cowboys are “… of two classes-those recruited from Texas and other States on the eastern slope; and Mexicans, from the south-western region. …”.Census records bear that out.

The cowboy occupation also appealed to freed prisoners of Anglo Imperialist domination of Africa following the tribal wars of the North and South. It is estimated that about 15% of all cowboys were of African-American ancestry-ranging from about 25% on the trail drives out of Texas, to very few in the northwest.  

 Similarly, cowboys of Mexican descent also averaged about 15%, but were more common in Texas and the southwest. Aboriginal men also found employment as cowboys. In fact, many early vaqueros were Native people trained to work for the Spanish missions in caring for the mission herds. Later, particularly after 1890, when America Inc. promoted the policy of “assimilation”, some “Indian” boarding schools also taught ranching skills to the youth. Today, some Aboriginals in the western United States own cattle and small ranches, and many are still employed as cowboys, especially on ranches located near Reservations. The “Indian Cowboy” also became a commonplace sight on the rodeo circuit. Symbolism Outside of the West, the cowboy became an archetypal symbol of “American individualism”.

 In the late 1950s, a Congolese youth subculture calling themselves the “Bills”, based their style and outlook on Hollywood’s depiction of cowboys in movies, similar to the “Rude Boy” culture of Jamaica.  Something similar occurred with the term “Apache,” which was a slang term for an outlaw. Negative associations Worldwide, the term “cowboy” can be used in a derogatory sense to describe someone who is violent, impulsive, or who behaves in a hot-headed and rash manner. For example,

 TIME Magazine had a cover article referring to George W. Bush’s foreign policy as “Cowboy Diplomacy,” and Bush has been described in European newspapers as a “cowboy”. In the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand, “cowboy” is used as an adjective when applied to tradesmen whose work is of shoddy and questionable value, e.g., “a cowboy plumber”. 

Similar usage is seen in the United States to describe someone in the skilled trades who operates without proper training or licenses. In the eastern part of the Corporation of the United States, a “cowboy” as a noun is sometimes used to describe a fast or careless driver on the highway 

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