An African-American cowboy sits saddled on his horse in Pocatello, Idaho in 1903. (Corbis)

By dopper0189, Black Kos, Managing Editor (this article was first published in Daily Kos)

After the ends of both the Civil War and Reconstruction, Americans turned their attention to settling (stealing) lands of the Great Plains and Western range. This period was the time of rugged westerners who would later be come known as cowboys.

But if you perform a cursory internet search of the term “American cowboy” a predictable set of images will apear. Husky men with weathered expressions galloping on horseback. These rugged men are dressed in denim or plaid, six shooters holstered at their wastes. They’ll have a lasso on their hips and a bandanna tied around their necks. Of course there will always be their signature cowboy hats perched on their heads.

But most notably, in all these popular cultural images, all the men will be white.

Nat Love — Deadwood Dick

The images of white men as cowboys, in the eyes of the American public, was mostly a result of film and television. But the originally genesis for this image was in the Western pulp novels that were sold for nickels and dimes throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before the advent of crime and detective stories, Western tales were the dominant form of pulp literature.

The original Western novels were not about historical material; they were written at the height of the Wild West period, and detailed what were back then contemporary events. Writers back East would eagerly gather news and rumors reported from the West and fill in the rest with their imaginations. At the same time, aspiring heroes and outlaws would devour the pulps in anticipation of their own adventures.

Despite what you might have seen on TV and at the movies, the American West was settled by a large population of freed slaves. In the 1870s and 1880s, as many as 25 percent of the 35,000 cowboys in the Old West were black cowboys. Cowboys of color have had a substantial presence on the Western frontier since the 1500s. In fact, the word “cowboy” is believed by some to have emerged as a derogatory term used to describe Black cowhands. As the word “cowboy” grew in popularity, the Black cowboys the term described have been stricken from the record with what can only be described as extreme prejudice. 

As America farmers began looking for new lands to cultivate in what would become the Western states, a demand for people skilled in herding and ranching grew. The unsettled (by non-Native people’s) West attracted ambitious people of all colors seeking a better life than they had in the East. For enslaved Blacks the West offered freedom and refuge from the bonds of slavery. It also gave African Americans a chance at better earnings. From pioneers to cowboys to prospectors, African Americans have contributed immensely to the most legendary chapter of American History The Wild West. 

Cattle drive 1870’s

Employed by Europeans all over the Americas, people of African decent regularly served as white’s go-between with Native Americans. Adept at exploring, communicating, hunting and herding, Blacks were some of the most proficient pioneers and explorers.

On a related historical note domesticated horses were brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors during the 1500s. Spanish explorers combined breeds of Arabian steeds, African Barbs and Andalusian horses eventually moved north from Mexico, and bred with Spanish strays to create the famous western American breed that became known as mustangs.

By the end of the Civil War, about 5 million cattle and wild horses were roaming free after being left to fend for themselves. Freed slaves headed west to find their fortunes among cattle ranches and rows of crops. As slaves, blacks were in charge of crops and took care of cows for their white owners, and the availability of land presented a new opportunity for many to escape the South.

It has only been in the past few decades that a strong effort has been made to reclaim the stories of men of color behind many pulp novels featuring white protagonists. For instance, the widely-panned 2013 film “The Lone Ranger,” starring two white men, had the unexpected effect of renewing public interest in Bass Reeves, an African-American United States Marshall whose adventures are believed to have been the inspiration for the white Lone Ranger. Unlike Reeves, and many forgotten African-American frontier figures.

In the real Old West, black cowboys were a common sight. “Black cowboys often had the job of breaking horses that hadn’t been ridden much,” says Mike Searles, a retired professor of history at Augusta State University. His students knew him as Cowboy Mike because he gave lectures dressed in spurs, chaps and a ten-gallon hat.

“Black cowboys were also chuck wagon cooks, and they were known for being songsters – helping the cattle stay calm,” he says. Searles says his research, which included poring over interviews with ex-slaves in the 1930s, suggested black cowboys benefited from what he calls “range equality”.

“As a cowboy you had to have a degree of independence,” he says. “You could not have an overseer, they had to go on horseback and they may be gone for days.”

Life was, nevertheless, harder for black cowboys than for their white counterparts.

In 2013 Vincent Jacobs then 80, a former rodeo rider who lived near Houston, Texas, recalled the racism he faced when he was starting out.  “There would be separate rodeos for blacks and whites,” he says. “It was hard, real hard – they would only let me perform after all the white people had been led out of the arena.”

There are no comprehensive records of who cowboys were. Cowboys were by definition transient and often used assumed names. Bust modern historians estimate that most likely a quarter (up to just shy of a third) of all cowboys in the Old West were black. The first significant number of black cowboys was found in Texas prior to the Civil War. Most of them were slaves owned by white ranchers, but some were freemen. The famous western cattle trails were established in the 1860s, immediately after the Civil War, just as many former slaves were looking to begin new lives. These trails led north from the ranches of Texas to the booming cattle markets of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. It is no surprise that many black men who had been born in slavery, either in Texas or in other Southern states, found work as cowhands.

Bass Reeves was one of the first African-American lawmen

Not only did Hollywood ignore black cowboys, it plundered their real stories as material for some of its films. The Lone Ranger, for example, is believed to have been inspired by Bass Reeves, a black lawman who used disguises, had a Native American sidekick and went through his whole career without being shot.

The 1956 John Ford film The Searchers, based on Alan Le May’s novel, was partly inspired by the exploits of Brit Johnson, a black cowboy whose wife and children were captured by the Comanches in 1865. In the film, John Wayne plays as a Civil War veteran who spends years looking for his niece who has been abducted by Indians. In recent years, black characters have appeared in Westerns such as Posse, Unforgiven and Django Unchained.

While Hollywood is finally starting to pay tribute to the black cowboys of yesteryear, their memory is also being honored by the 200 members of the North Eastern Trail Riders Association, modern-day black cowboys and cowgirls.

Riding more than 100 miles in seven days on horses and in Western-style wagons, they regularly retrace the original trail rides that former slaves made.

Every year the North East Trail Riders recreate the rides of former slaves

As the legal scholar Michael Waldman notes, in the 1860s Southern states “passed Black Codes seeking to restore slavery in all but name. These laws disarmed African Americans but let whites retain their guns.” In the West, though, all men carried firearms, regardless of race. The prevalence of African-American troops — the famous Buffalo Soldiers — in the United States Army acclimated western whites to seeing black men bearing arms. The Buffalo Soldiers served under white officers, but they exercised authority over white lawbreakers and mobs. The regular presence of black soldiers in newly established towns not subject to Black Codes often meant that businesses such as hotels and saloons served black customers, even when they did not serve Mexican or Native American customers.

Ranchers returning from the Civil War discovered that their herds were lost or out of control. A combination of a lack of effective herd containment (barbed wire was not yet invented) and with too few white cowhands, the cattle population was running wild. White ranchers tried to round up the cattle and rebuild their herds with slave labor, but eventually the Emancipation Proclamation left them without the free workers on which they were so dependent. Desperate for help rounding up maverick cattle, ranchers were compelled to hire now-free, skilled African-Americans as paid cowhands.  

“Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations,” says William Loren Katz, a scholar of African-American history and the author of 40 books on the topic, including The Black West.

Black cowboys

Black cowhands were particularly embraced by their white peers. The necessities of trail life meant that cowboys of all races had to work, sleep and eat side by side. In their influential 1965 book, The Negro Cowboys, Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones write of the racist social strictures of Reconstruction-era Texas. “Upon Negro cowboys, however, these sanctions fell less heavily than upon many other Negroes, for as cowboys they had a well-defined place in an early established social and economic hierarchy.” Durham and Jones do go on to note, however, that this unique social role did not offer upward mobility. Even experienced and well-respected cowhands and top hands had little chance of ever being promoted to foreman of a cattle outfit. African-American cowboys faced discrimination in the towns they passed through. Blacks were barred from eating at certain restaurants or staying in certain hotels, but within their crews, they found respect and a level of equality unknown to other African-Americans of the era.

Freed blacks skilled in herding cattle found themselves in even greater demand when ranchers began selling their livestock to Northern states, where beef was nearly ten times more valuable than it was in cattle-inundated Texas. The lack of significant railroads in the state meant that enormous herds of cattle needed to be physically moved to shipping points in Kansas, Colorado and Missouri. Rounding up herds on horseback, cowboys traversed unforgiving trails fraught with harsh environmental conditions and attacks from Native Americans defending their lands as they were stolen.

“Stage coach” Mary Fields

Just like their more widely known white counterparts, African-Americans cowboys generated their own rouges gallery of infamous outlaws. Names like Addison Jones“Stagecoach” Mary Fields, Charlie Willis (who wrote Good-bye, Old Paint), Isom Dart, and Bob Lemmons.

Crawford “Cherokee Bill” Goldsby was every bit as ruthless as Jesse James or Billy the Kid. The son of a Cherokee mother and an African-American “Buffalo Soldier” from the 10th Cavalry, Goldsby supposedly committed his first murder at the age of 12, shooting his brother-in-law during an argument over chores. He avoided serious punishment due to his age, but then shot someone else when he turned 18 and had to flee his hometown.

John “The Texas Kid” Hayes born in Waco, Texas, the outlaw always kept an eye out for “Whites Only” signs on drinking establishments in towns he passed through. When he spotted one, he would enter and ask for a drink. If the bartender refused, he got his revenge by riding his horse into the bar and shooting out all the lights before hightailing it out of town.

The era of cowboys in general and cattle drives in particular ended around the turn of the century. Railroads became a more prominent mode of transportation in the Western US and barbed wire was invented. By 1900 Native Americans were almost all relegated to reservations. All of these factors decreased the need for cowboys on ranches. These changes left many cowboys, particularly African-Americans who could not easily purchase land, in a rough position as the factors that created demand for their services dried up.

Popularized across the United States in 1873 by Buffalo Bill Cody, “Wild West Shows” showcased skills and characters of the Western United States in the form of a traveling performance including rodeo roping, Native American dances, and other acts. Among these traveling shows, African-American cowboy Jesse Stahl was famous for his saddle riding, a defining aspect of rodeos. Racism was common in rodeo competitions, and terms such as “harder to cover” could be used to mask racism in rodeo competitions under the guise that white riders had more difficult horses.

Black rodeo riders would often be compared to animals, given nicknames reflecting African animals and using animal metaphors not found in descriptions of white rodeo performers.[*] In response to their treatment and Jim Crow laws, Black cowboys formed “soul circuits,” later organized as the Southwestern Colored Cowboys’ Association, with the largest number of African-American cowboys participated in rural communities along the coast of Texas up to the 1940s.[*]

Today’s black cowboys are aiming to set the historical record straight  and teach a younger generation to ride.


With the raucous crowd, sunny arena, and pervasive scent of warm hay, this is a typical moment at a small-town rodeo. Except for one thing: All the contestants and nearly everyone in the stands are black. The Bill Pickett Invitational markets itself as the only all-black nationally touring rodeo in the United States. Every year, it threads its way through several of the country’s more deeply rooted black communities, including Memphis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.

Here, at this stop just outside of Oakland, black culture intermingles with conventional country style. Cowboy hats are de rigueur. In the concessions area, vendors hawk catfish, fried alligator, frog legs, and peach cobbler. Next door, Reid’s Records sells coloring books that tell the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, all-black army regiments that fought for the U.S. in the 19th century. Contestants vie for prizes in bulldogging, calf roping, and bareback riding to a soundtrack blending backcountry zydeco and blues with DJ Khaled and Biggie Smalls. During the opening Grand Entry procession, riders of all ages saunter around the arena on brightly braided saddles. Their horses amble and buck to the percussive strains of 2Pac’s “California Love.”

Though heroes of color are virtually absent from the classic Western story, some historians estimate that up to one-third of cowboys during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were black. Their legacy continues in communities bringing attention to cowboys of color across the country today. In Texas, black-cowboy trail rides reportedly attract thousands of attendees; in Queens, New York, riders sometimes compete with traffic. Here in Oakland, black cowboys teaching kids like Brinson to ride say they hope to restore texture and richness to a whitewashed past — and pass down values they believe will lead to brighter futures.

The Oakland stop of the Bill Pickett rodeo always begins the same way. A rider carrying an American flag races through the gates of the Rowell Ranch rodeo grounds as they fill with the swelling chords of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The song is followed by “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — also known as the black national anthem. This year, as the final chords die away, the rodeo announcer includes Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, black men shot by police officers just weeks before in Minnesota and Louisiana, among his list of community members lost during the year.