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.


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
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

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


  1. I have never really one to enjoy history classes, but this article was very interesting to me. When I was reading this, I thought to myself how i never really thought about how they would bash other culture groups. This was shocking to me because these groups were just as important in today’s talk of history from many years ago.

  2. This article was fascinating to me. For one, the title grabbed my attention almost immediately. The first thought that came to mind was, was there actually African American Cowboys? The stereotypical cowboy is a white man. Of course, after reading, I learned that there is/was black cowboys. During the 1860’s-1880’s there was an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 black cowboys. This number was shocking to me. It is super cool to learn about things like this!

  3. Aren’t teachers AMAZING!! Anyway, I have never heard of black cowboys either and I am a sophomore in College. Isn’t that crazy. And the funny thing is, is I have never even thought about African American’s being cowboys, which is embarrassing to say. You’re absolutely right, we are programmed to learn about European history in our history classes now and we don’t dig deeper into what else could have happened.

  4. When I saw the title of this article I knew I had to read it because I had never stopped to think that in all the learning and knowledge I have from the Wild West that African Americans are widely absent from the history. Reading this now, I feel almost foolish that I hadn’t thought about African Americans role during this time. I found it very interesting that cowboys were a great option for African Americans after the Civil War. With so little options, it is understandable why so many would go down that path, which makes it even more ridiculous that it is not taught as often as it should be in schools!

  5. I found it interesting how many schools teach subjects that disregard many groups of people. When these groups do get mentioned, it is also mostly misinterpreted so that white people become the “heroes” of every American history story. I found this article very eye opening to see how many black cowboys there were and how they had such a strong impact on their surroundings. However, not even many teachers know about them. Americans need to be more aware of cultural differences, and by educating people on topics like this, people may become more accepting of other people.

  6. I never actually learned about the black cowboys. My high school did not teach us that, and that is very unfortunate. I am glad there is an article like this one I can read and now know more about the black cowboys. The education system needs to stop teaching the one-dimensional curriculum that focuses on the ahistorical uni-racial version of history. There were 6,000-8,000 black cowboys and I really wish I would have learned more about them in high school. I hope teachers today teach students about the great black cowboys. 

  7. 1. I never really gave much thought about how history is viewed and written in a manner that banishes entire groups of people that had just as much importance shaping history.

    2. I feel like history is written in a manner that is not intentionally suppose to be told one dimensionally. I feel like history comes off this way since it has been written in this manner for centuries and has become engrained in the way in which history is recorded.

    3. This article is composed of many great resources to teach many great western figures. When thinking of Wild West figures people such as Wild Bill, Custer, Jessie James come to mind. This would be a great way to show kids that each person is involved in the history that is made. This would also help in diverse settings to help connect with kids like the experience you had in 7th grade.

  8. 1. This article was very interesting and very well written. I thought it was very interesting as you stated in the second paragraph, “For after all, Native American history is American, Black history is American history and so on and so forth.” I think this is something not many people think as a true statement just with the way I observe our society. Unfortunately it’s not always that an “American” will consider any ethic group american, even though they live in America. What’s mind bottling is the thought of this is deep down each “American” is made up of all of these ethnic groups that we push to the side and choose that they are different, when there is a good chance a part of them is in us.

    2. This mainly connected to our talks about prejudice and discrimination. How history is shown/ was shown to me on this topic was not how it was presented here. When you look into how history is taught in many of classes you tend to see mild times of discrimination and how something is told.

    3. I would use this to back up our discussions in class of opinion versus fact. I feel many historians based a lot of their lecture off opinions. Especially one teaching this topic that you may only hear one side of the history. I could also use this article in my other classes, my other leadership class discussed how diversity is important to a group/organization and using certain techniques to improve/recognize a diverse culture.

  9. Trevor McMullen

    1. This article is excellent. I completely agree that the education system needs to stop teaching the typical one dimensional curriculum that focuses on an ahistorical uni-racial version of history. Unfortunately my high school did this and I graduated unaware that black cowboys played such a big role in the developing the West during expansion. Ironically, I just learned this for the first time while student teaching US History. After studying it, I was able to teach the class about exodusters.

    2. This connects to diversity which we have covered in class. It also relates to how history can get distorted depending on who is writing it, which we have had discussions about.

    3. I could use this article in a classroom as a resource when teaching my students about the reconstruction period that followed the Civil War. I can also be sure to teach this subject when covering cowboys and westward expansion.

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