I Thought Cowboys Were White? Learning the History of Famed Black Cowboy, Nat Love

Nat Love- Black Cowboy From "The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as 'Deadwood Dick"

Dr. David J. Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

“They numbered thousands, among them many of the best riders, ropers, and wranglers.”
– Philip Durham & Everett L. Jones, “The Negro Cowboys” (1965).

“As one descendant of a black cowboy explained, ‘We didn’t write the books. We didn’t produce the movies. So we were politely deleted.’ There is a conspicuous absence of the black cowboy recorded in the history of the American cattle-ranching industry. The role these men played in the settling of the Old West deserves scholarly attention.”

― Tricia Martineau Wagner, “Black Cowboys of the Old West: True, Sensational, and Little-Known Stories from History,” (2010).

As the US continues to grapple with challenges surrounding diversity and inclusion in society it is increasingly important to find meaningful ways to fight stereotypes and overcome racial oppression. One such way is to diversify school curriculum in meaningful ways. That is, educators must integrate materials into lesson plans that offer a diverse perspective; especially when it comes to teaching subjects such as social studies and language arts. For example, teachers can use books and materials from authors of color or deal with subject matter that highlight individuals from racial and ethnic backgrounds other than European. This article will discuss a topic that is little known to the general public, but is important for K-12 students to learn about, giving a fuller picture of US history. In this article we will discuss the topic of Black cowboys. We have written about this topic in the past, however this essay will focus specifically on a well known African American cowboy named Nat Love. The latter part of the article will include resources for teachers and the general public to learn further about the topic.

Nat Love (A.K.A. Deadwood Dick) by Harvie Brown, 1998

A Brief Biography of Nat Love
Nat Love (1854-1921) is an exemplary historical figure most people have never heard of. Love was born into slavery on a plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee in 1854. He was given the surname Love after his enslaver Robert Love. Despite difficulties and challenges that enslaved Blacks faced in obtaining an education, he learned to read and write as a child with the help of his father. When slavery ended, like so many other free Blacks, Nat’s parents stayed on the Love plantation and worked as sharecroppers. As a teen, Nat Love developed a reputation as a gifted horse breaker and won a horse in a contest (Love, 1907).
At 16 years old, he sold his horse and moved to Dodge City, Kansas working on a ranch as a cowboy with cattle drivers. Love lived an eventful life as a cowboy; having had run-ins with cattle rustlers, enduring inclement weather, had his horse shot from beneath him and even meeting the likes of Pat Masterson and Billy the Kid. Honing his skills on the range, he became an expert marksman and cowboy. In 1876 Love decided to test those abilities, entering a rodeo in the Deadwood, Dakota Territory. All of his hard work paid off; he won the $200 prize money, prevailing in two shooting contests. He competed successfully in lasseling and in bronco riding, earning the nickname “Deadwood Dick” (Durham & Jones, 1965). 
In 1877 Love was captured by a band of Pima Indians in Arizona while rounding up stray cattle near the Gila River. He received several bullet wounds while trying to avoid capture, but his life was spared out of respect for his African American heritage. The Pima’s nursed him back to health, and after gathering his strength, he stole the fastest horse and escaped, travelling over 100 miles riding bareback. In 1889 he married Alice Love, left the cowboy life and spent the remainder of his working days as a Pullman porter. He died in 1921 at the age of 67 years old (Love, 1907, Durham & Jones, 1965, Smith, 2019). 

Bill Pickett- 19th Century
Bill Pickett (1870-1932), Corbis

Bill Picket (1907) Courtesy North Fort Worth Historical Society

The life of Nat Love is an exemplar of the storied exploits of many black cowboys during the Wild West era of the nineteenth century. There is an increasing amount of research and writing on Black cowboys in the old West; however, when movies, television and other popular media sources decide to tell stories about the Old West the life of Nat Love and other Black cowboys are conspicuously absent.
In order to offer opportunities for further exploration of Nat Love’s life and the history and culture of Black cowboys we have provided a number of resources below including, lessons plans for educators and other materials (I.e., Books, articles, Recordings, documentaries) for students and the general public.

Lesson Plans and Other Resources of Black Cowboys

Sample Lessons

Black Cowboys Lesson Plan and Activity- Language Arts and Social Studies

Black Cowboys and Wild Horses Lesson Plan – Language Arts and Social Studies

Black Cowboy- Bill Pickett Lesson Plan

Various Lesson Plans- Spanish and Mexican Roots of Cowboy Culture

Unit Plan- Debunking the Myth of the American West

Lesson Plan: The Cowboy Life

Lesson Plan: The Cowboys

Elementary Unit Plan and Resources: The American Cowboy Life

Elementary Lesson Plan- Nat Love Graphic Novel and Lesson

Books and Articles on African American Cowboys and the American West

Black Cowboys of the Old West: True, Sensational, and Little-Known Stories from History

The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself

Black Cowboys of Texas

Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, behind the Badge

Bill Pickett: Bulldogger (Biography of a Black Cowboy)

The Black West: A Documentary and Pictoral History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States

Black Cowboy, Wild Horses

Black Cowboys in Oregon

The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys

Willie Kennard: Yankee Hill’s Black Marshal

Love on the Range: The Story of a Cowboy

Nat Love, aka: Deadwood Dick – Greatest Black Cowboy in the Old West

Bill Pickett (ca 1870-1932), African American Cowboy

Stahl, Jesse (c. 1879–1935)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

American Indian culture of the West

Calamity Jane – Rowdy Woman of the West

Video and Audio Resources

The Black Cowboy

Roping as a Way of Life: The Proud History of Texas’ Black Cowboys

Federation of Black Cowboys

Black Cowboys of Texas

The Cowboys of Color Rodeo

African-American Cowboy: The Forgotten Man of the West” Documentary about Black Cowboys

Recordings of Black Cowboy Songs

Please share what resources you find useful for your teaching.

We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:


  1. I didn’t really know much about black cowboys before reading this article. It’s interesting to see the different history from what I’ve learned. It’s nice to see loves story explained. He had fought so much adversity but figured out how he fits. This article shows how variety there is in black American culture. This is so different from anything I’ve heard about black culture. Its good to show black American cultures like this it helps them escape from the box that I think they’re often put in.

  2. I was intrigued to read this article by the title. I had never heard of black cowboys or ever seen them in movies or play with black cowboy action figures. I think that as a future educator, I have a chance to change the “norms” of teaching. I think having these resources available allows for a change or just an addition to the curriculum.

  3. I ended up picking this article to read because I grew up watching Cowboys with my grandpa. It’s true black cowboys are not shown at all, even if the shows are in black in white, it just wasn’t something that was allowed. I knew that black cowboys existed but it was almost as if the black cowboys weren’t good enough to be shown which isn’t the case. I found this article to be interesting and learning about Nat Love and his story brought good points up on how we need to make black cowboys more known within our learning, especially K-12. By allowing more research and including ALL the cowboys whether there black or not, if you are a cowboy it needs to be included in our history and learnings, that is how we grow as a society. Black cowboys are important and need recognition for the accomplishments and history they are creating.

  4. I am one the many who had no clue that there were any other cowboys than white men. I believe that history such as this is so important to know, especially for this time period, because it shows just a small bit of the rich history black people have, and shows that black people of this time were so much more than once being enslaved. I also think it is important for young black children to see this, see that representation, and not give white people all the credit for something that black people had such an important roll in as well!

  5. I decided to read this article because the title pulled me in. My whole life, I’d seen white cowboys in the media and in things like costume advertisements and the like. Because of this, I never even put thought to the idea of a black cowboy, but now that I’ve read about Nat, it only makes sense. I think the most interesting thing is that he rode 100 miles BAREBACK! That was probably so uncomfortable! I will definitely be talking about Nat during Wild Wild West week at my job!

  6. History sometimes has a habit of changing the truth or perspective, and that is why I think not a lot of people knew about how there were African American cowboys. At least in the history I’ve learned, it was always White Cowboys versus people of color. So, learning about Nat Love is interesting and I want to do more research on him. I also think it’s important for future teachers to explain to students, breaking up the norms they might encounter in the future or from other teachers.

  7. I never knew that there were black cowboys. If you look it up, you will only see white cowboys. The same is true for most things searched. You will only see white people as the default until you specify your search and say “black/african american___.” History teaches us everything through the white person’s perspective so it makes me question what other things history has failed to teach us because of its perspective. Something similar happened when I learned about the underground railroad and Harriet Tubman. Before doing more research on her, I just thought that she was a conductor of the underground railroad and helped harbor and escape slaves from their plantations. But upon doing more research a lot of her life after the underground railroad is left out. For example, Harriet Tubman also participated in the Civil War and was a Civil War spy! Because of these important details are left out of history books, it makes me wonder what else I am missing out on.

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