There Were Black Cowboys? Teaching the American West from a More Diverse Perspective

Nat Love (Black Cowboy) Image from "The Life and Adventures of Nat Love," 1907

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

Democracy and Multiculturalism Represented in the Social Studies Curriculum
One of the hallmarks of the democratic process is ensuring that every voice is heard and that every person is valued. One of the ongoing struggles in the American democracy is the legacy of racism and how it has impacted the lives of many Americans. Racial prejudice has shaped school curriculum and caused there to be a primary focus on European Americans in history courses.

Exposure to a More Diverse Curriculum
When I was in seventh grade a teacher introduced me to two books that had a major impact on my thinking to this day. One was entitled “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” about the treatment and persecution of Native Americans in the American West and and an informational book about black cowboys from the late nineteenth century. The book about the history of Black Cowboys was life changing and instrumental in my becoming a historian and social studies professor. These books helped expand my notion of what American history is. For after all, Native American history is American, Black history is American history and so on and so forth. Generally, history is presented primarily from a Eurocentric perspective and people of color are presented as an afterthought, if at all. So imagine my surprise and delight as an African American young man who loved history when I found out that African Americans played a key role in shaping the American west. Like most people, up until that point in my life I had never even heard of black cowboys.

The Wild West and Black Cowboys
When studying and learning about the time period in the late nineteenth century known as the Wild West, often the focus is on white American heroes like William H. Bonner (Billy the Kid), Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Calamity Jane. But very little is said about the many African American cowboys that existed during that time. During the 1860’s-1880’s there was an estimated 6,000-8,000 black cowboys. Some historians argue that as many as one and four cowboys were Black. Many were slaves that learned how to manage cattle while their masters fought in the Civil War. Historian William Loren Katz stated that being a cowboy was one of the few jobs African Americans could get right after the Civil War besides serving as elevator operators or delivery boys. But why is this important part of American history often omitted. Often even k-12 teachers have no knowledge of this information. There are many stories about celebrated black cowboys who helped tame the West. Below I mention a few.

Civil War veteran Willie Kennard a 42 year old black man in the 1870’s, answered an ad for a new marshal in the rough gold mining town of Yankee Hill. Despite racial prejudice from the townspeople Kennard earned the respect of the town by systematically apprehending all of of the bad men in town that had been terrorizing folks and wreaking havoc. He largely did this with his sharpshooting skills and quick draw he had developed during his military experience. Kennard single-handedly eventually brought law and order to the formerly lawless town of Yankee Hill. However, his name is largely absent from the history books.
Nat Love, famously known as Deadwood Dick was another well known black cowboy. He was a former slave from Tennessee who left the Love plantation after the Civil War to find work. Love was known for his gift of breaking horses and winning prize money for his outstanding performance at a rodeo where he earned his nickname. He details his exciting and romanticized life as a cowboy in his autobiography entitled The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick. Some adventures Love highlighted included his meeting with Billy the Kid, being captured by the Pima Indians and escaping, fighting off cattle rustlers, enduring harsh weather and training as a marksman. Other famous African American cowboys included Jesse Stahl the famed rodeo circuit rider and Bill Pickett the wild west show performer and actor.

What Can Teachers Do?
Teachers can greatly expand upon the typical one dimensional curriculum that focuses on an ahistorical uni-racial version of history by digging more into the lives of ethnically and racially diverse Americans whose lives were different from mainstream America. One great topic to explore are the lives of Black cowboys. Below are a number of resources that align with state and national standards that can help provide great lessons and units on the topic.

LESSON PLANS AND RESOURCES

Social Studies Standards
National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)- Standard 1
Culture: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.

Ohio Grade Eight Social Studies Standards
Theme: U.S. Studies from 1492 to 1877: Exploration through Reconstruction
EXPANSION:
Content Statements:
Historical Thinking Skills:
1. Primary and secondary sources are used to examine events from multiple perspectives and to present and defend a position.
11. Westward expansion contributed to economic and industrial development, debates over sectional issues, war with Mexico and the displacement of American Indians.
Civil War and Reconstruction:
12. The Reconstruction period resulted in changes to the U.S. Constitution, an affirmation of federal authority and lingering social and political differences.

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


REFERENCES

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

2 Comments

  1. I found this article remarkably interesting. I too did not realize that there were so many black cowboys in the wild west. The cowboys that were mentioned in this article were very interesting to read about it. When you asked, “What can teachers do?” I think the first thing is for teachers to dive deeper and not just settle for the history that they were taught. Part of being a teacher is being a lifelong learner. There is so much that teachers do not know, so too many times they just stick with what they already know. That is not enough. Teachers need to seek out history of diverse Americans and make it a part of their everyday curriculum, not just for special holidays or months.

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