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Who were the black cowboys? They were drovers, foremen, fiddlers, cowpunchers, cattle rustlers, cooks, and singers. They worked as wranglers, riders, ropers, bulldoggers, and bronc busters. They came from varied backgrounds—some grew up in slavery, while free blacks often got their start in Texas and Mexico. Most who joined the long trail drives were men, but black women also rode and worked on western ranches and farms.

The first overview of the subject in more than fifty years, Black Cowboys in the American West surveys the life and work of these cattle drivers from the years before the Civil War through the turn of the twentieth century. Including both classic, previously published articles and exciting new research, this collection also features select accounts of twentieth-century rodeos, music, people, and films. Arranged in three sections—“Cowboys on the Range,” “Performing Cowboys,” and “Outriders of the Black Cowboys”—the thirteen chapters illuminate the great diversity of the black cowboy experience.

Like all ranch hands and riders, African American cowboys lived hard, dangerous lives. But black drovers were expected to do the roughest, most dangerous work—and to do it without complaint. They faced discrimination out west, albeit less than in the South, which many had left in search of autonomy and freedom. As cowboys, they could escape the brutal violence visited on African Americans in many southern communities and northern cities.

Black cowhands remain an integral part of life in the West, the descendants of African Americans who ventured west and helped settle and establish black communities. This long-overdue examination of nineteenth- and twentieth-century black cowboys ensures that they, and their many stories and experiences, will continue to be known and told.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806154060
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/22/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 227,294
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bruce A. Glasrud, Professor Emeritus at California State University, East Bay, and retired Arts and Sciences Dean, Sul Ross State University, is the author or editor of more than thirty books.

Michael N. Searles is Emeritus Professor of History at Augusta University.  Searles is a contributor to Black Cowboys of Texas and, with Bruce Glasrud, coeditor of Buffalo Soldiers in the American West: A Black Soldiers Anthology.

Albert S. Broussard is Professor of History at Texas A&M University and author of numerous books, including Expectations of Equality: A History of Black Westerners.

Read an Excerpt

Black Cowboys in the American West

On the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge

By Bruce A. Glasrud, Michael N. Searles


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5406-0


Before Emancipation

Black Cowboys and the Livestock Industry


In this chapter, University of North Texas historian Deborah M. Liles argues that enslaved African Americans were used and trained in the livestock industry years before they rode up the trails as freedmen. This use of antebellum black labor is one that is generally overlooked, but it is important when considering the history of black cowboys. Liles has authored another significant piece on this topic, "Slavery and Cattle in the East and West," for the East Texas Historical Journal. She is also working on a critical and exhaustive study titled Southern Roots, Western Foundations: The Peculiar Institution and the Livestock Industry on the Northwestern Frontier of Texas, 1846–1864, forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press.

* * *

Had historians paid more attention to the cattle industry of the cis-Mississippi [trans-Appalachia] West, nothing would have appeared more logical [than black cowboys]. Mounted slaves, in their roles as "cattle hunters," displayed considerable skill as horsemen on the Carolina frontier, and generations of their descendants watched over cattle as the culture of their masters spread across the Deep South until it crossed the Sabine.

As historian John D. W. Guice stated so well, many enslaved African Americans were known for their abilities as cowhands. This happened throughout the Old South and Indian Territory, not just in cattle-rich Texas. Some early scholars have discounted the ability of slaves in the livestock industry, but others have acknowledged the significant evidence that confirms the use of their labor. Slave narratives, letters, and journals preserve a history of slaves hunting, tending, rounding up, and branding cattle. These sources describe a use of chattel labor distinct from cash-crop agriculture and illustrate how those men, women, and children used these valuable skills after emancipation in the era of the great cattle drives. The years of bondage are not traditionally thought of as the foundational era of black cowboys in North America, but they were integral for many black Americans who went up the trails in the years after the Civil War.

When writing about overseers, owners, and their herders, Terry Jordan made the interesting observation that they were all "variously called 'cowpen-keepers,' 'cowkeepers,' ... 'hands,' 'rangers,' and, in the case of African slaves, perhaps even 'cowboys.'" Historian Peter H. Wood wrote that the unique knowledge slaves brought with them from Africa was a necessary component in the success of the industry in the Carolinas. He also observed that many white settlers requested slaves from the Gambia River area of Africa, for they were valued for their knowledge and ability to handle cattle. Even when their owners were present, "the care of their livestock often fell to a black. The slave would build a small 'cowpen' in some remote region, attend the calves, and guard the grazing stock at night." Guice made many observations about slaves being used in the livestock industry, not least of all that "a 1770 regulation concerning land grants in Louisiana leaves little doubt concerning the use of slaves in this capacity. In order to become a grantee, applicants had to be 'the possessor of one hundred head of tame cattle, some horses and sheep, and two slaves to look after them.'" Historian Edward Pearson noted that male slaves were generally used as ranch hands in the South Carolina low country when settlers realized the value of the livestock industry, and cattle owners such as James Joyner and Bernard Schenkingh used their slaves to manage several hundred head; other owners sold their livestock with slaves to new speculators. This is just a smattering of the many examples by noteworthy academics that show black slaves participating in the livestock industry throughout the South.

"Cowboy" is a word that immediately conjures up an image, but one that may not be historically accurate. William W. Savage Jr. wrote that progress was being made back in 1979, when people were finally realizing that "cowboys came in colors other than white," but the word seldom rouses images of black heritage. During slavery, and even today, however, the word "boy" was used to demean black men. Wood suggested that "cowboy" was originated by absentee cattlemen referring to slaves who had been left in charge of the herds in the Carolinas. An added footnote makes the astute observation, "Might not the continued predominance of 'cowboy' over alternative terms such as 'cattleman' represent a strange holdover reflective of early and persistent black involvement in the cattle trade?" Along with that is the comment that "young Negroes with livestock responsibilities were still being designated as 'cow boys' (two words) in the plantation records of the Southeast" in 1865. It must also be said that white men who worked cattle referred to themselves as drovers, traders, or stock raisers and keepers, as did census takers.

Despite the work of these fine scholars, the notion that cattlemen who owned slaves were overwhelmingly more successful than those who did not has been overlooked until recently. Rather than examine the successful connection between stock raisers and low numbers of slaves in frontier counties, historians have erroneously concluded that the presence of a few slaves represented a lack of support or need for the institution west of the 98th meridian. Additionally, it is not uncommon to see variations of Eugene D. Genovese's opinion that slaves were inept cattle handlers who abused or neglected their masters' stock. The two most repeated incidents in Texas support the incompatibility. One concerns Joe, Samuel Maverick's slave who neglected to brand the cattle, which led to people calling unbranded cattle mavericks. The second example — which tells that Shanghai Pierce, a white cowboy, should ride the bad horses, because "those Negroes are worth a thousand dollars apiece [and] one might get killed!" — implies that slaves were far too expensive, and perhaps unskilled, to use for breaking horses.

Although the frontier is most commonly associated with the livestock trade, it was not the only location where horses, cattle, sheep, and swine were kept. Plantation owners were not in the habit of keeping large herds, but some did. James Boyd Hawkins, whose various holdings of 40–105 slaves produced sugar, molasses, and cotton in Matagorda County, Texas, reported one thousand head of cattle in his 1853 property taxes, up from a total of one hundred in 1847. Historian Kenneth Stamp wrote that most planters relied on drovers to supply meat, since they used their land for their cash crops. This claim is supported with statistics gathered by Randolph B. Campbell from the 1850 and 1860 agricultural censuses, which show that slaves who lived in groups of ten to forty-nine resided on farms where the least amount of cattle was slaughtered, whereas the category that contained groups of nine or fewer slaves recorded the highest. Though Campbell's statistics support the generalization for most of the plantations, Hawkins's property tax records show that the cattle trade held a universal appeal. By using his slaves to tend his cattle, raise cotton and sugar, produce molasses, and run a mill, Hawkins demonstrated the multiple ways in which diversification of slave labor was beneficial to slaveholders. And he was by no means the only planter who raised and sold livestock as well as grew a cash crop. Guice noted that cattle supplied funds when cash crops did not provide adequate money, and that enough evidence "suggests that southern historians must reassess the planter's role as stockman and determine the interrelationship between planters and herdsmen, decade by decade, throughout the antebellum period."

It is safe to say that slaves on plantations experienced different living conditions from those who worked with owners who mainly participated in the livestock industry. Testimonies of ex-slaves in the Works Progress Administration's Slave Narratives project confirm the different lifestyles many slaves experienced. Many whose masters were involved in the livestock industry noted that they were well fed and seldom lacked for beef or bacon, whereas those who were in a plantation environment generally stated that there was little beef and other rations. It can also be concluded that slaves who belonged to cattlemen often experienced a different level of bondage. Much of their time was spent in conditions that offered opportunities for freedom. They were often armed, on horseback, or both, and many times they were without supervision in remote areas. This begs the question of why they did not escape. Historian James Smallwood suggested that the skill set employed by the cowboy slaves removed many of the restrictions faced by others. Slaves who worked stock ranked higher in the social hierarchy than those who worked in the fields, possibly because they often worked alongside their owners. Smallwood wrote that "Texas cattlemen treated some slaves with the same consideration that they gave white hands. Ranchers regarded some bondsmen as so indispensable — not to mention trusted — that they used blacks in cattle drives to Mexico [where slavery was illegal]." It is also important to note that, on cattle drives after the war, black cowboys were often treated with respect and paid the equivalent of white wages. This kind of working environment existed because they were acknowledged for their skills, not their color, and the fact that it existed in the years directly after the war all but confirms that this respect existed before as well.

Campbell's main focus was on the lives of slaves who engaged in crop agriculture, but he included information about slaves in the cattle industry. He addressed the seasonal work of branding and hog killing and noted that slaves who fed the livestock were up an hour earlier than their counterparts throughout the year. He wrote that Willis, one of Gov. Francis R. Lubbock's slaves and cowboys, bought his freedom with cattle proceeds, and that the first noted cattle baron in Texas, James Taylor White, "used black drovers and handlers for the thousands of head of cattle he owned in the Atascosito District." He also included the 1854 court case of the widowed Amanda Wildly in Jackson County, Texas, who did not wish to sell any slaves or horses to pay debts because it would "require the service of the principal part of the horses and negroes to take care of and manage the stock of cattle."

Campbell's examples can be added to others. The Slave Narratives, which were seemingly geared toward asking slaves about their lives as they related to plantation agriculture, become valuable testimonials for slaves engaged in other industries besides cash-crop cultivation. Taken seven decades after slavery legally ended, the recollections of those who experienced the institution firsthand are sometimes viewed with skepticism. Common complaints are that memories often change with time, that the interviews were not always conducted in the most desirable ways, and that the questions were often leading. Despite their flaws, these collective memories provide a wealth of information about the lives of slaves before and after emancipation.

Many testimonies provide a lens on slavery in the livestock industry. William Green was twelve when he was brought to La Vernia, Wilson County, where his new master "raised and trained wild horses" and he was "a buckerman ... yes buckerman. ... By the time I was twelve, I could break horses alongside the best of 'em. They wasn't as mean to us as they was to a lot of slaves, but we got our share of suffering. They whipped us with straps and not black bull-whips, like they used in Mississippi. Our food was better. We had meat — bacon, and sometimes beef. And we always had cornbread."

Green's was by no means the only narrative that recounted working as a livestock slave. Austin Johnson was purchased in Louisiana and brought to Texas to work his new owner's cattle. Johnson trained horses for races in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Louisville, Kentucky, which provided him with valuable knowledge. Purchasing a slave who knew how to handle horses was undoubtedly a calculated investment by his new owner. Another slave, James Cape, was trained as a young child to ride horses and tend cattle. He and four other men went from southeastern Texas into Mexico get horses while he was still a slave. At one point he was the "leader" of a two-hundred-horse drive when a hailstorm erupted. His actions to stop the horses from "scatterment" were rewarded with a new saddle from his master. When the war began, Cape's master sent him into the army, as a substitute for a Dr. Carroll, to tend horses; while there he was shot in the shoulder. After the war, Cape worked as a cowboy for several different men in Texas and Missouri using the skills he acquired while he was enslaved.

Monroe Brackins belonged to George Reedes, who owned a stock business on the Hondo River. Outfitted with homespun clothes, shoes, and "rawhide legin's," he learned how to break horses and work cattle. Like other livestock slaves, he remembered plenty of meat to eat, wild game and beef. Brackins and his parents stayed and worked with Reedes for a few years after the end of the war and then moved on. One of the cattlemen Brackins worked with as a freedman was William Wallace, a.k.a. Bigfoot Wallace.

Other testimonies add to the bigger picture. Jacob Branch lived with his master in Double Bayou, Texas, where he and other slaves "tend de cattle and feed hosses and hawgs." Jack Bess belonged to a rancher near Goliad, Texas, where he worked with the cattle and horses; Bess was another who remembered fair treatment from his owner and plenty of meat and vegetables to eat. Henry Lewis was owned by Bob Code in Jefferson County, Texas. He stated: "When I six or seven year old dey 'cides I's big 'nough to start ridin' hosses. Dey have de big cattle ranche and I ride all over dis territory. I's too li'l to git on de hoss and dey lift me up, and dey have de real saddle for me, too. I couldn't git up, I sho' could stay up when I git dere. I's jis' like a hoss-fly." Lewis also stated that they branded cattle from March 1 to December 15, an observation that is fully supported by journals that record multiple trips of cattlemen as they cow-hunted throughout the year. Again, like the many others, Lewis remembered plenty of beef and bacon to eat.

These stories are just a sampling of slaves' memories in the livestock industry. Exploring these narratives with the specific intent of looking for connections to the livestock industry changes the perception of what slaves did in Texas and other states. They challenge the notion that all slave owners wanted to be engaged in the cotton business. In his narrative, Felix Grundy Sadler recounted that his master, Jimmy Sadler, intentionally passed through rich Blackland Prairie soil and on to Bosque County to raise cattle.

In addition to the Slave Narratives, property tax records show that many of the most, and least, known cattlemen owned slaves. Uniformity laws in Texas, and in other southern states, meant that all property was taxed at the same rate, no matter how valuable, to keep the balance of power between slave and nonslave owners. So, although a slave was without debate the most valuable property, he or she was taxed at the same rate as cattle or land, possibly the least valuable property. Thus, the slave owners did not pay a higher rate for their property than did the yeoman farmer for his. Slave values varied according to age, gender, and ability, but what is strikingly similar is that a large number of men who became legends in the postwar cattle era were slave owners. Daniel Waggoner, Oliver Loving, John Simpson Chisum, to name but a few, owned large herds of cattle and were successful stock raisers and drovers at least a decade before the main drives began. Though many of these men owned more than enough land to raise cash crops and seemingly had the means to purchase larger numbers of slaves, they chose to engage in the livestock industry with fewer slaves than their planter contemporaries.

A well-known cowboy on the postwar cattle trail was "Nigger Frank." Frank belonged to John S. Chisum of Denton County long before he was praised by a white man as "the best line rider and horse wrangler" he had ever seen. When assessing the ability and contributions of slaves in the livestock industry, it is natural to assume that older men did the work, but Frank is an excellent counterexample. In August 1866, Frank accompanied Chisum, Charles Goodnight, Loving, and several other cattlemen on a drive from Trickham, Coleman County, to the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. Frank was approximately eight years old at that time and was considered old enough to "wrangle horses and go along on the cattle drive." Using information from the Slave Narratives, journals, and other sources, there is plenty of evidence that slaves participated from the time they reached five years old. Much like young slaves in the crop industry, those in the livestock business were expected to earn their keep and produce profits for their owners as soon as possible.


Excerpted from Black Cowboys in the American West by Bruce A. Glasrud, Michael N. Searles. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Albert S. Broussard vii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: "Don't Leave Out the Cowboys!" Bruce A. Glasrud 3

Part I Cowboys On the Range

1 Before Emancipation: Black Cowboys and the Livestock Industry Deborah M. Liles 19

2 Mathew "Bones" Hooks: A Pioneer of Honor Ana Carolina Castillo Crimm 31

3 "Havin'a Good Time": Women Cowhands and Johana July, a Black Seminole Vaquera Cecilia Gutierrez Venable 59

4 Black Cowboy: Daniel Webster "80 John" Wallace Douglas Hales 75

5 Nat Love, a.k.a. Deadwood Dick: A Wild Ride Michael N. Searles 85

Part II Performing Cowboys

6 Shadow Riders of the Subterranean Circuit: A Descriptive Account of Black Rodeo in the Texas Gulf Coast Region Demetrius W. Pearson 101

7 Oklahoma's African American Rodeo Performers Roger D. Hardaway 115

8 The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again: Herb Jeffries Is Still Keepin' On Mary A. Dempsey 131

9 Musical Traditions of Twentieth-Century African American Cowboys Alan Govenar 135

Part III Outriders of the Black Cowboys

10 Mary Fields's Road to Freedom Miantae Metcalf McConnell 149

11 "No Less a Man": Blacks in Cow Town Dodge City, 1876-1886 C. Robert Haywood 169

12 Charley Willis: A Singing Cowboy Jim Chilcote 195

13 Bass Reeves: A Legendary Lawman of the Western Frontier Art T. Burton 203

Concluding Overview: In Search of the Black Cowboy Michael N. Searles 211

Selected Bibliography 227

Index 235

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