A certain generation of American kids grew up on Hollywood’s version of the American Western, featuring Caucasian cowboys and gunfights with Mexicans and Indians, who were almost always the bad guys. But in this ethnic mix of people, where were the people of African descent? In Hollywood westerns they were conspicuously absent. In our minds, this fictional version became fact and then became actual history.
But the truth is that in the reality of the American West following the Civil War, the black cowboy played a key role. It is estimated that one out of four cowboys on the western frontier was black. In fact, for the years 1865 through the 1880s (the heyday of cattle drives), being a cowboy was one of the few professions a former slave could pursue that provided for a life of relative dignity, greater opportunity, more personal safety, and some equality and respect, over the life of a sharecropper in the South.
Back in Africa a number of tribesmen from countries like Gambia were cattle herders and had the necessary skills for controlling cattle by using herding dogs, whips, and salt. They did this on foot. When kidnapped into slavery and brought to the United States, these men became prized for their abilities with cattle.
There were several regions in the South where these herdsmen were utilized by slave-holding plantation owners and ranchers.
Sections of the lower South, such as pine barrens, marshes, and tall grass savannahs across South Carolina, Georgia, northern Florida, and into the Gulf states, provided grazing land for cattle. The plantation owners would send out groups of slaves to control and drive their cattle in these areas. The further westward these owner-ranchers moved, the greater numbers of slaves would escape into Mexico. There, they learned even more techniques, such as horseback riding and roping cattle, from the Mexican vaqueros. These escaped slaves became some of the best cowboys on Texas ranches and in cattle drives.
A second group of escaped slaves made their way into Seminole Territory in southern Florida. There, they practiced their trade of herding cattle on the savannahs. Many went to Oklahoma with the Seminoles and some ended up in Mexico to fight with the Mexican army.
A third and large group of escaped or former slaves migrated to the coastal prairies along the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to locations in Texas along the Sabine and Guadalupe rivers. In this region, black cowboys predominated in ranching.
After the Civil War, all of these now emancipated men were able to get paying jobs on Texas ranches and on cattle drives to northern stockyards in Kansas, Colorado, the Dakotas, and Wyoming. It is estimated that there were 9,000 to 15,000 black cowboys, representing 25 percent of all cowboys. Working alongside white, Indian, and Mexican cowboys, they shared the same working conditions and performed the same jobs (except being trail boss). While prejudice and bigotry still existed toward people of African descent, the black cowboy could attain a better life than a black sharecropper in the south. This is because his white counterparts depended on him. They lived, worked, ate, and slept together. A crew would consist of a trail boss, a horse wrangler, a cook and eight cowboys. The average crew would have two to three black men. Their trip north took two to three months.
Some black cowboys later joined rodeos after the heyday of cattle drives. Others continued to work on ranches or bought their own land. Some became federal officers in Indian Territory. A number became Pullman porters on the railroads that had made cattle drives obsolete.