Cowboys are white. Thus proclaimed the thing with greatest authority in my life: TV programs. Even the Indians were white, and so were the chiefs and chiefs’ daughters (who were white enough to be loved by the white heroes). (Fact: Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards in The Searchers, 1956) So imagine my surprise, at some embarrassingly relatively mature age that can only be understood if you also grew up in a predominantly white and Christian suburb with little public transportation and one black student in the high school that I can remember, and he was Roberto Clemente’s son, so…where was I? Ah yes, when I found out that of course there were Mexican, Spanish, Argentinean, African-American, and Native American cowboys, I felt that truly the West was a land of possibilities. The movies rarely deigned to capture the diversity of the West, especially at a fluid time of frontier when what you basically needed was guns and guts in order to get a little glory, or at least a little ranch of your own. During that brief time, a good number of former slaves–having been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation–West-Young-Manned it away from the East Coast and found their niche as working hands, cowpunchers, rodeo riders, and range bosses. Some are barely known to posterity; others are some of the most famous names in rodeo and cowboy land.
Mary Fields (Stagecoach Mary)
Source: Sister Mary Rose Krupp, Ursuline Convent Offices
Here’s one tough lady: Stagecoach Mary “broke more noses than any other person in central Montana,” or so wrote the town newspaper where Mary Fields lived. She said she would fight or shoot any man who got in her way, and she frequently did, as most men at the time thought they could ignore, insult, or push around this six-foot-tall woman. She held off wolves, delivered mail in spite of snow, rain, heat, or gloom of Montana night (contributing to the steady growth of settlement in the territory), and retired to do laundry, drink and cuss with her pals, and knock out a tooth or two.
For all who paid to come and see
Bill wrestled steers with his teeth
We’ve never seen such a mighty feat
‘Cause he left us long ago
Bill Pickett, a personal fave, invented bulldogging, or the art of biting the lips of cattle to subdue them in a rodeo ring. He was the Elvis of rodeo and show cowboying at the beginning of the twentieth century; “The Dusky Demon” commanded international crowds as a star. It’s an unfortunate fact that he had to list himself as “Indian” or any other ethnic background than “black” so that he could compete in events, but at least he has been honored by the National Rodeo Hall of Fame and inducted into the Prorodeo Hall of Fame and the Museum of the American Cowboy. About time.
You Gotta Love Nat Love
One of the truest cowboys of all is Nat Love. His stance is all bucko: hips cocked, grip on the massive shotgun at his side casual but masterful, broad shoulders, trim hips (they always mention that in western pulps–all heroes have to have broad shoulders and trim hips) and his wide-wide-wide-brimmed hat tipped back with great devil-may-care. (He out-cowboys most movie cowboys.) He worked cattle in Texas and Arizona, and once on a cattle drive drifted into the 4th of July celebrations of Deadwood City, North Dakota. My sources don’t tell me if he lapsed into profanity but he did wow the crowds with roping, throwing, tying, saddling, and shooting skills. It’s hard to believe that such a mensch would become a porter, ready to be of service to train-riding tourists and business travelers, but he did. Or tried. I can satisfy a couple of customers, he said, but not a whole trainload of them. Love led a romantic life, full of unrequited (then requited) love, brushes with famous westerners like Buffalo Bill and Billy the Kid, and he wrote a rollicking memoir titled, simply, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.
Cowboy Fact #20: Real Cowboys transcend boundaries.
Thanks to a great site called www.blackcowboys.com, and 1soulger for the gut check.
Soon to come! Musings on the heroes journey–through the holster of the American cowboy hero–by our own batboy42.