True Romance; or the Life and Times of African-American Cowpokes

by cowboylands


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

 Nat Love and family  

Cowboy Fact #20: Real Cowboys transcend boundaries. 



Thanks to a great site called, 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.  



8 Comments to “True Romance; or the Life and Times of African-American Cowpokes”

  1. I also have a Deep respect “The Buffalo Soldier” Sources disagree on how the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” began. According to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, the name originated with the Cheyenne warriors in 1867, the actual Cheyenne translation being “Wild Buffalo.” However, writer Walter Hill documented the account of Colonel Benjamin Grierson, who founded the 10th Cavalry regiment, recalling an 1871 campaign against the Comanche tribe. Hill attributed the origin of the name to the Comanche due to Grierson’s assertions. There is some controversy as to where the name originated. Some sources assert that the nickname was given out of respect for the fierce fighting ability of the 10th cavalry.[5] Other sources assert that Native Americans called the black cavalry troops “buffalo soldiers” because of their dark curly hair, which resembled a buffalo’s coat.[6] Still other sources point to a combination of both legends.[7] The term Buffalo Soldiers became a generic term for all African-American soldiers. It is now used for U.S. Army units that trace their direct lineage back to the 9th and 10th Cavalry, units whose bravery earned them an honored place in U.S. history.

    The song, Buffalo Soldier co-written by Bob Marley and King Sporty, first appeared on the 1983 album Confrontation. Many Jamaicans, especially Rastafarians like Marley, identified with the “Buffalo Soldiers” as an example of prominent black men who performed with courage, honor and distinction in a field that was dominated by whites, and persevered despite endemic racism and prejudice.

    History lesson for the day,poppin smoke!

  2. Buffalo soldiers! Now we’re cooking a fine Western stew. They were the real workhorses of the African-American experience. Show-stoppers like Pickett and Love get all the credit, while the regular soldiers were the ones who made it safe! I hadn’t heard the Cheyenne translation story before, thanks.

  3. Leave it to you Bucko to have a likin’ to Deadeye Dick,(Nat Love).

  4. He’s an original Deadeye Dick. I read that his prowess won him the prize in Deadwood and they gave the honorific. Lots of people called themselves “Deadeye Dick.” I hadn’t known there was a prize every year to earn that name.

    And as for taking a likin’: you better believe it. Look at that man! He knows how to pose, but he had the stuff to back it up.

  5. WOW, Nat Love looks a lot like Rick James.

    Herb Jeffries was the first black singing cowboy in a feature film.

    The movie was from 1939, called The Bronze Buckaroo.

    He had sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra,
    and Earl Hines.
    Still alive at 94, he’s the subject of a documentary called
    “A Colored Life: The Herb Jeffries Story”

  6. Here’s a pretty good list of black Pioneers, Settlers, Cowboys and Outlaws.

    One of my fav actors for those type of westerns was Sidney Portier

    He grew up watching a lot of westerns,
    and went on to perform in Duel at Diablo in 1966,
    and his directorial debut with Buck and the Preacher, with Harry Belefonte in 1972

    By the way, you should address him as ‘Sir’ Sidney,
    as he was awarded the title of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974.

  7. Thanks for the Herb Jeffries thought. This is becoming an encyclopedic site thanks to comments. “The Bronze Buckaroo” sang country? or Ellington swing?

  8. I’m guessing BB or swing.
    As you know my rather esoteric music collection runs heavily towards blues, and obscure 60s tunes.

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