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Discovery Series | Freedom as a Catalyst to the West for Black Cowboys (Part 1)

When thinking of the Wild Wild West, the first thing to come to mind are cowboys, a lone ranger riding their horse into the sunset. The last thing to come to mind are black and Hispanic cowboys, though one in four cowboys were black. Infamous black cowboys like Nat Love have stories paralleling those of more well-known, white cowboys like Billy the Kid. This paper will recount the early life of Nat Love from slavery, emancipation, and his life as a cowboy, noting how his early life pushed him into a life as a cowboy. The enticing idea of freedom after the end of Slavery was a catalyst for many black cowboys, including Nat Love. His belief in freedom influenced his path to the West and his life as a cowboy.

Many slaves in America in the late 1800’s had experience with cattle and being a cowhand, working on wealthy, white-owned land. When slavery ended, being a cowhand was one of the very few job opportunities for black people in America. These cowboys took tougher jobs compared to white cowboys of the time. They would herd and protect cattle across the United States and break wild horses. Black cowboys would face discrimination in the towns they passed through. They could not eat at certain restaurant or stay at certain hotels but within their company they found equal levels of respect and camaraderie.

Nat Love was born and raised in slavery, on a plantation in Tennessee around 1854, his father being a foreman in the fields and his mother manager of the kitchen. His father taught him to read. When slavery ended, Love worked several jobs, one being on a farm where he was observed to be skilled in breaking horses. At the age of 16, Love headed West, finding work as a cowboy in Kansas. He gained the nickname of Deadwood Dick at a Rodeo where he won several contests.

A possible reason for Black Americans going into a career as a cowboy is the lack of discrimination within the cowhand community. White and black cowboys were nearly social equals, although there was discrimination from others outside of the cowboy community as mentioned before at restaurants, hotels and other places.

It is apparent in Love’s story that freedom was a catalyst in him becoming a cowboy. Having worked on a farm and having no particular direction once emancipated from slavery, he saw the opportunity and took it, like many other black cowboys. Because of the lack of opportunities for freed slaves and exposure to stable work, this was seen as a feasible option. Some other notable black cowboys and woodsmen were Bill Pickett, James Beckwourth, and John Ware. John Ware and James Beckwourth were both born into slavery. John Ware later found himself as a cowboy and James Beckwourth found himself a mountain man in the industry of fur trapping, drawing parallels with black cowboys.

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