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).

Introduction
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

Conclusion
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
https://www.ocde.us/CharacterEd/Documents/black-cowboy-wild-horses.pdf

Black Cowboys and Wild Horses Lesson Plan – Language Arts and Social Studies
http://educationalimpact.com/resources/TEPC/pdf/Tuttle_observation_lesson_plan.pdf

Black Cowboy- Bill Pickett Lesson Plan
http://teacherlink.ed.usu.edu/tlresources/units/Byrnes-famous/pickett.html#Objectives

Various Lesson Plans- Spanish and Mexican Roots of Cowboy Culture
http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/educators/lesson_plans/vaquero/index.html

Unit Plan- Debunking the Myth of the American West
http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/2001/4/01.04.10.x.html#a

Lesson Plan: The Cowboy Life
https://www.educationworld.com/a_tsl/archives/04-1/lesson033.shtml

Lesson Plan: The Cowboys
http://www.discoveryeducation.com/teachers/free-lesson-plans/cowboys.cfm

Elementary Unit Plan and Resources: The American Cowboy Life
https://33rec33v8ymt4ag0pi2c0nlt-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Traveling-Trunks-2017-Lesson-Plan-Printer-friendly.pdf

Elementary Lesson Plan- Nat Love Graphic Novel and Lesson
https://classroom.popcultureclassroom.org/wp-content/uploads/woocommerce_uploads/2018/02/NAT-LOVE.pdf

Books and Articles on African American Cowboys and the American West

Books
Black Cowboys of the Old West: True, Sensational, and Little-Known Stories from History
https://www.amazon.com/Black-Cowboys-Old-West-Little-Known-ebook/dp/B004E8M0Q6

The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself
https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/natlove/natlove.html

Black Cowboys of Texas
https://www.amazon.com/Cowboys-Centennial-Association-Students-University/dp/158544443X

Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, behind the Badge
https://www.amazon.com/Black-Cowboys-American-West-behind/dp/0806154063

Bill Pickett: Bulldogger (Biography of a Black Cowboy)
https://www.amazon.com/Bill-Pickett-Bulldogger-Biography-Cowboy/dp/080612203X

The Black West: A Documentary and Pictoral History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States
https://www.amazon.com/Black-West-Documentary-Pictoral-Expansion/dp/0767912314

Black Cowboy, Wild Horses
https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?tid=35327

Articles
Black Cowboys in Oregon
https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/black_cowboys_in_oregon/#.XAF3rOhKhPY

The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lesser-known-history-african-american-cowboys-180962144/

Willie Kennard: Yankee Hill’s Black Marshal
http://www.historynet.com/willie-kennard-yankee-hills-black-marshal.htm

Love on the Range: The Story of a Cowboy
http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2012/08/nat-love-pronounced-nate-lived-the-kind-of-life-that-adventure-novels-and-blockbuster-movies-are-built-on-freed-fro.html

Nat Love, aka: Deadwood Dick – Greatest Black Cowboy in the Old West
https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-natlove/

Bill Pickett (ca 1870-1932), African American Cowboy
https://americacomesalive.com/2012/02/24/bill-pickett-ca-1870-1932-african-american-cowboy/

Stahl, Jesse (c. 1879–1935)
https://blackpast.org/aaw/jesse-stahl-c-1879-1935

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
https://www.amazon.com/Bury-My-Heart-Wounded-Knee/dp/0805086846

American Indian culture of the West
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/precontact-and-early-colonial-era/before-contact/a/west-indian-culture

Calamity Jane – Rowdy Woman of the West
https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-calamityjane/

Video and Audio Resources

The Black Cowboy
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJ014Yaehic

Roping as a Way of Life: The Proud History of Texas’ Black Cowboys
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=XLSwRx_9HbQ

Federation of Black Cowboys
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-m_EWT3QGk

Black Cowboys of Texas
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-vNBFdXxUM

The Cowboys of Color Rodeo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYVZ4511oGw

African-American Cowboy: The Forgotten Man of the West” Documentary about Black Cowboys
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jwlMtg4ts8

Recordings of Black Cowboy Songs
https://folkways.si.edu/dom-flemons/black-cowboys

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:
childsd1@nku.edu

5 Comments

  1. After reading your article and hearing Nat Love’s story for the first time it really made me think about the role of social studies education in debunking popular myth and the whitewashing of popular history that has occurred throughout the country’s history. I had never heard the story of Nat Love, I was somewhat familiar with the idea that many cowboys were black or Hispanic and that much of the romanticized cowboy mythology was not accurate, but I feel Love’s story is a perfect example showing not only the opportunities for formerly enslaved people, as he began his career as a cowboy and later become a Pullman Porter. I also think this biography would be an interesting snapshot for my students into the reality of the late 1800s and challenge their cultural expectations of cowboys.

  2. I like this article because it teaches teachers to fight against the stereotypes that we often face in social studies content areas. We sometimes fall into the grain of re using worksheets and curriculum that a different teacher taught with. Some of this includes stereotypes and bias. Taking the time to create your own curriculum (if the school allows) can allow for some real history to be shown in the light.

  3. I think that this is an interesting thing to look at when discussing the “old west.” As popular as the western genre is, it can be difficult to separate reality from the fictionalized version that is so familiar. Looking strictly at the western genre rather than history, it is interesting to see the progress in how characters are represented more diversely in recent years. Movies such as Django Unchained and The Hateful 8 both feature black leading characters which is a far cry from the John Wayne era of these films.

  4. I really love this resources as an enhancement to reconstruction and the pitfalls within. Nat Love experienced firsthand the impacts and conditions of sharecropping and I would be remiss in forgetting how flawed of a system that was to be apart of. I also think Nat’s story shares similarities to western expanders and how wild the west was. While not a well known historical figure, a figure that embodies qualities usually whitewashed, it is worth explaining, establishing, and teaching this story along with any others of western expanders.

  5. I’ve personally never heard about Nat Love before today. Maybe it’s because cowboys and the Old West is something I haven’t deep dived into researching and learning myself, but I think there’s a lot to say about cowboys being portrayed in the media. I do agree that the existence of cowboys like Nat has largely been erased from cowboy history because of racism. It’s sad that people like Nat Love are shoved aside for white cowboy protagonist figures instead. Movies and media have a large impact on what people first think of. Cowboy and Old Western movies have been a huge example of this. Learning about Nat and who he was was not only interesting but important because students do need to hear about important historical figures from all backgrounds.

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