Accessibility links

USA

'Home on the Range' Was Not Just for Whites

  • Ted Landphair

African-American cowboys and soldiers helped tame the Wild West

American folklore is rich with tales of western cowboys - hard-working ranch hands who spent all day, every day, punching cows. That's cowpoke talk for herding, roping, and branding cattle under the sun and stars. Sharpshooter Nate Love, who was known as Deadwood Dick, is regarded as the greatest black cowboy of the early American West.

Sharpshooter Nate Love, who was known as Deadwood Dick, is regarded as the greatest black cowboy of the early American West.

Actors such as Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy - and Clint Eastwood more recently - became cowboy film stars. So did singing cowboys such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. And the classic heroes of western novels by Americans Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour, and Larry McMurtry - and the German Karl May - still stir the imagination.

And they all have something in common. Each of them was, or is, white.

But there's a place in the western state of Colorado devoted to equally talented black cowboys and cowgirls who are also part of America's western saga.

Men like Bill Pickett of Oklahoma. He invented bulldogging. That's the popular rodeo event in which a cowboy on horseback ropes a steer with a lasso, then dismounts and twists the animal to the ground.

Or Deadwood Dick, a South Dakota bronco buster and Indian fighter who was such a great marksman, he could choose a feather in an Indian headdress and knock it out with one shot at full gallop. Renowned western artist Frederic Remington depicted a hardworking black cowboy.

Renowned western artist Frederic Remington depicted a hardworking black cowboy.

The Black American West Museum and Heritage Center in Colorado's capital of Denver began as the personal hobby of Paul Stewart, who was born on an Iowa farm. We'd play 'cowboys and Indians,' he tells VOA, and when it came time for me to be the cowboy, they'd say I couldn't because there's no such thing as a black cowboy.

Then one day on the street, he saw an old black man in chaps, spurs, and cowboy hat, carrying a gun - which was then legal. Stewart learned that the man owned a cattle ranch and rode dusty western trails with white cowboys.

From that moment on, he began gathering oral histories and photographing black cowboys, and recording the exploits of black cavalrymen called buffalo soldiers. Their stories, pictures, clothes, cowboy gear, and guns are on display at the Black American West Museum in Denver, Colorado.

XS
SM
MD
LG