We’ve been here!
Recently, there has been a resurgence in interest surrounding the history of Black cowboys. From Portland-based photojournalist Ivan McClellan’s years-long project documenting their culture to 11-year-old Kortnee Solomon’s history-making appearance in 2021 at the first nationally televised Black rodeo, the stories of Black cowboys are being told everywhere. Black cowboys are even headed to the big screen; a number of box office hits have sought to tell dramatized long-forgotten stories of these legends, most recently seen on Netflix’s “The Harder They Fall.”
Despite the fascination, many still don’t know much about the origin stories of these mythical cowboys. To help you out, we did a little research! Here’s everything you should know about the story behind Black cowboys, courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine:
Many Black cowboys came into the lifestyle as enslaved people.
The lifestyle of the cowboy first originated in Texas. The state has long been referred to as cattle country ever since its colonization by Spain during the 1500s. However, cattle farming didn’t hit its economic boom until the late 1800s when millions of cattle grazed across the state of Texas.
White Americans in search of cheap land and those looking to avoid debt in the U.S. began moving to Texas, which was then owned by the Spanish and later the Mexicans during the first part of the 19th century. The Mexican government was against slavery, but those Americans brought enslaved people with them to the new frontier, establishing cattle ranches and cotton farms. By 1825, enslaved people made up about 25% of Texas’ settler population. By 1860, just 15 years after Texas joined the Union, they made up more than 30% with the 1860 census reporting 182,566 slaves living in Texas. In 1861, Texas joined the Confederacy as a new slave state.
When ranchers left to fight in the Civil War, Black cowboys were left to tend the cattle, developing skills that proved invaluable when the war was over.
When the Civil War began, Texas ranchers left to fight with their new comrades, leaving their enslaved people to take care of the land and cattle herds. It was then that they developed cattle tending skills that served them well when the war was done.
With no effective technology to contain the cattle and not enough cowhands, cattle ran wild across Texas and many ranchers returned to the reality that their cattle were lost or out of control. While they tried to wrangle the herds, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, leaving them without free slave labor. Still, they needed help, and were forced to hire newly free and skilled African-Americans to work 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,” said William Loren Katz, an African-American history scholar and author of 40 books on the topic, including The Black West.
Black cowboys then became even more in demand as the demand for beef increased and the lack of railroads required cattle to be physically moved to various shipping points.
Newly free Blacks became even more in demand after ranchers started selling their livestock to northern states where beef was ten times more valuable than in Texas. Without a plethora of railroads in the state, cattle needed to be moved by people to various shipping points in Kansas, Colorado, and Missouri. Black cowboys were forced to round up herds while traveling the trails amid severe environmental conditions and attacks from Native Americans who sought to defend their land.
Despite still facing discrimination and racism, Black cowboys found solace among their own communities and gained respect within their crews.
Black cowboys continued to face racism while traveling, prevented from eating at restaurants and particular hotels as a result of their race. However, among fellow cowboys, they found equality and respect not experienced by other African-Americans of the time.
In cowboy Nat Love’s 1907 autobiography, he recounted some of that camaraderie.
“A braver, truer set of men never lived than these wild sons of the plains whose home was in the saddle and their couch, mother earth, with the sky for a covering,” he wrote. “They were always ready to share their blanket and their last ration with a less fortunate fellow companion and always assisted each other in the many trying situations that were continually coming up in a cowboy’s life,” Love wrote.
The turn of the century brought with it more modes of transportation, more technology, and less opposition after the moving of Native-Americans to reservations, leaving Black cowboys less in demand.
By the turn of the century, cattle drives were mostly obsolete. Railroads became more significant and regular modes of transportation in the West. Barbed wire was created, becoming the preferred method of cattle containment and Native-Americans were all forced to move to reservations, thus decreasing the need for cowboys. As a result, many Black cowboys who couldn’t purchase land experienced a rough transition as they pivoted into civilian positions like railroad workers.
While the demand for working cowboys dissipated, people were still intrigued with the lifestyle, spurring the desire for Wild Wild West shows and rodeos. One of the most famous rodeo stars was Bill Pickett.
Bill Picket was born in Texas in 1870, the son of formerly enslaved people. He dropped out of schooling to work on the ranch, gaining international fame for his unique skills of catching straw cows. He modeled his method after that of dogs who caught cattle, Pickett controlling steers by biting the cow’s lip to subdue him. Pickett eventually took his trick on the road with the Miller Brothers’ 101 Wild Ranch Show. Today, it is known as bulldogging or steer wrestling.
40 years after Pickett’s death, in 1972, he made history as the first Black honoree in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. Today, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo remains one of the most prominent rodeos for honoring Black cowboys and cowgirls, traveling across the country annually.
May we remember the legacy of the Black Cowboys who still live among us today.
Here’s what you need to know about the history of Black cowboys. Cowboy Bill Pickett. Photo Courtesy of Corbis/Smithsonian Magazine
This content was originally published here.