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. The Eurocentric perspective that history tends to hold is very damaging to a students knowledge base.For example, when I think about black american history I think of slavery, and that is it. While I now know that African Americans have played their own, large part in every aspect of american history, that is not how my knowledge was originally laid. Started with young children, teaching from multiple perspective could have a huge impact on how future generations view many political issues.

  2. I was surprised to learn of the existence of black cowboys in the first article, I read them backwards, but now am even more surprised that an estimated 1 in 4 cowboys were black. If they were so common, why is there so little representation of them in our history? Especially since it was one of the common jobs a black person could get after the civil rights, that seems like a very simple thing to mention when teaching class. I’m not saying it that teachers intentionally didn’t mention it on purpose, I think it is just not common knowledge, but I am just wonder why and how it go to the point where it is not common knowledge.

  3. I absolutely loved reading this article, and I wish it was taught more in schools! Often, when we’re taught American history, we’re taught the version that focuses on white people. If we are taught about African-American people, then we’re usually taught about slavery and suffrage; however, Africans came over to America hundreds of years ago, so there’s obviously more history to African-Americans than we’re taught. There’s not even much of an argument to black cowboys because it’s completely factual, and I hope that more history of African-Americans will be taught to generations to come.

  4. Once again Dr. Childs presented a very interesting history lesson; near a dear to my heart; I think I missed my calling. As many people have pointed out, we all were probably exposed to the stereotypical white cowboy that we saw on tv and in the movies like the ones John Wayne and Clint Eastwood often played. To this dad I catch my day watching these old shows. Next time, I’m going to ask him if he’s ever seen an African American cowboy in any of them. I can see that it would be challenging as a teacher to try and ensure that you are providing a well-rounded history lesson; it’s probably “easy” to teach about white cowboys because you would have easy access to all of the material needed to teach on this topic but as Dr. Childs points out, you’d have to do a little more research to gather the information needed to teach on black cowboys. I honestly never thought much about it but I never thought much about a lot of the social justice topics that Dr. Childs presents at NKU!

  5. I want to read this book now. I honestly have never thought about their being black cowboys. I find this kind of sad. All we learn about African Americans in school is about slavery, civil rights movement and a few famous black men such as Karl Marx and King Luther jr. America isn’t made of just European decent. I think it’s important that we start implementing the teaching of racial minorities history in school so we can better understand one another.

  6. It’s embarrassing to me that I had no idea there were black cowboys and only thought of white ones. Through media and school, I have only heard of white cowboys, but it is also my fault that I didn’t research deeper as I know a lot of our history education is one sided and leaves out big and important portions of history. Our education system needs to stop teaching a one-dimensional curriculum from a Eurocentric perspective as you are distorting history when teaching in such a fashion. We need to be educating people on the whole story and teach more cultural awareness and hopefully this will teach a greater acceptance.

  7. I have never heard of Black cowboys. I did not assume there were not any, but my attention definitely was not drawn to the fact that there were any. Learning in schools teaches a skewed form of history from one perspective, usually from the perspective of White people. By excluding the role of people of color in history, you are perpetuating the issue of misrepresentation of people of color and you are erasing history itself! All knowledge learned in schools is socially constructed, so it is not surprising that I never learned about the role of Black people in the American west. This leads me to wonder: how much other knowledge do I hold to be true is actually falsified and skewed?

  8. This article was really interesting to me because I had no idea there were black cowboys. When many people think of cowboys and the west they think of white people because thats how its almost always depicted in movies and shows. I also thought it was interesting that they learned these skills when they were slaves because their masters were fighting in the civil war. In the future when I am teaching I will be sure to look more into it and include it as a lesson so more people can learn about it.

  9. It is sad that this is an overlooked fact. When I think of cowboys I picture retro shows such as Gunsmoke or Bonanza which did not depict African American cowboys (that I know of). I was also surprised at the number of internet resources that speak on Black cowboys. I was surprised that many Black men were only left with the job of a cowboy which is now one of the most fantasized/heroic old roles of our time in movies and for children.

  10. Like many K-12 teachers, I was unaware that there were African American cowboys during the 1860’s through the 1880’s. As a teacher, I think this would be very simple to include in a Civil War lesson, but very impactful for the students. When the students are learning about Civil War heroes and people who made a big impact, teachers can talk about lives of Willie Kennard and Nat Love and the impact they had. The attached lesson plans and resources are a great addition for teachers.

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