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 (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
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:
Up until recently, almost all cowboys depicted in media have been white. Not necessarily all males, as Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley received a fair amount of notoriety even back in their rimes. However, The Hateful 8 and the remake of The Magnificent Seven are the only two somewhat serious movies I can think of off the top of my head that featured POC in leading roles. (We won’t talk about Wild Wild West…) The image of the cowboy, which can broadly be attributed to any figure of the Old West, is a quintessentially American concept, and yet, due to our national history of marginalizing anybody who wasn’t white, one never really expects to see people of color in the role. However, there have been many influential African Americans from the time period, including of course Nat Love and, my favorite example, Bass Reeves.
I wonder if Nat Love would have featured on HBO’s Deadwood. That show tended to portray people of non-European descent very progressively and took a definite anti-racism stance when it came to its portrayal of POC characters. I suppose we will never know, since it was canceled unceremoniously after just 3 seasons.
The title of this article caught my attention. It got me thinking about the fact that I have never heard of or seen a black cowboy. If I were to google “cowboy” every picture would be of a middle-aged white male with a hat, jeans, and boots on. I have never even seen a picture of a black male advertised or dressed up as a cowboy, which I think is unfair. I think the term “cowboy” is thought of as a very American term, which is why you only see middle-aged white males as cowboys, but African Americans are Americans too and they need to be thought of as more than just a “black person.”
The title of this article really caught my eye and brought to my attention that I could not think of any black cowboys depicted in any stories or movies. In fact, for a country that is so proud of being racially diverse and being a “melting pot”, you would think America would be more inclusive in their teaching of its diversity. I think Nat Love is a great example of showing the importance of recognizing the diversity of American history and challenging stereotypes. I have to wonder why this is the first time I am hearing of him given how adventurous and eye-opening his story is. I hope the lesson links for teachers are utilized as Nat’s story gives valuable lessons and expands our knowledge of African American history.
It’s disappointing that when we hear the word “cowboy” no people of color ever pop up in mind, it definitely didn’t pop into my mind! It makes me question why it never has too. I’ve definitely questioned the Latina stereotype in western movies. The old western Mexican village that the cowboys have to save from a Mexican mafia. The sexy Latina being a damsel in distress, in very rare cases being able to fend for herself. She’s hot and that’s all that matters for the cowboy to save the town. I’ve never liked it too much.
Anyway, I found this article very interesting! I’m glad Pima’s were able to nurse him back to health so he can go live the happy life he seemed to have after getting shot. He seemed happy as a cowboy but after some adventure I think settling down might have been good for him. Being a cowboy sounds fun but very exhausting.
What a great example of the people that write the stories being the ones who control the narrative. I think this highlights something we learned in class which is most racism is not intentional. I’m sure that my parents didn’t hear about these stories anymore than I have, so it’s not that anyone was intentionally excluding them in this day and age, but they also weren’t making an effort to be equitable. Our history is richer when we know everything, not just the parts that we’re used to or make the “best story” according to who’s writing it. I wonder how much this specific detail of history, black cowboys, is known by the black community? Either way, it’s great that these stories have been coming out and that we’re getting a more accurate depiction of that time and all our history.
I think this article is a good example of what we learned about in Chapter 2 when talking about knowledge construction and how knowledge is constructed and perpetuated by the people who are creating the truth. When you have education and entertainment institutions that only refer the idea of a cowboy as a White, Country Man people develop an idea that it is the only kind of person a Cowboy could be. I have never heard of Nat Love but it is interesting that he lived in a time, and even interacted with other notable cowboys like Pat Masterson and Billy the Kid, which we all have heard about growing up through our education. It is important for us to fairly represent all types of people when developing lesson plans for history so that we don’t get lost in the old historical construction about what is of the truth of the past.
Growing up I never saw or heard of a “black cowboy” before. I never really sat down and thought to myself about that. Reading this article encouraged me to change my perspective and look at it in a different way. I think that people should try and learn about the different cultures surrounding us.
I do not think I have ever heard of a black cowboy until I read this article. The article made an important statement saying that educators must integrate materials into lesson plans that offer a diverse perspective. Sometimes educators do not offer any kind of diverse perspectives when their classrooms have diverse students. The default is to teach European backgrounds but that is not the only important background to learn. Nat Love overcame many challenges and his story should be shared he should be taught in classrooms. African American cowboys are being removed from the past because they’re not being represented in movies or shows or even in classrooms. It is crucial to share other perspectives and other backgrounds. I really enjoyed this article and the content it provided me with.
I found this article to be very intriguing and changed my perspective on the topic of a “Black Cowboy”. It also showed me how corrupt the school system can be. I believe that it is important to teach your students about how there is a lack of representation of people of color in the media surrounding cowboys and many other topics. While on the subject of what we would be teaching our students, I believe that we should get them excited to learn about different cultures and different upbringings in order to create a well-balanced curriculum.