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. This was such a wonderful and fascinating article to read. Like many others stated I had no idea that Black cowboys existed in history. Thinking about this mindset now I feel ashamed that I automatically assumed this was a white mans area. I find it seriously disturbing that this topic is not covered in history classes, I know for a fact that I was never taught about the black cowboys in the west. I think this is such an important topic that should be covered during wild west lessons so that the students can understand that being a cowboy could included many different races. Looking at these articles over the semester has truly opened my eyes to the racial prejudice that is shown unconsciously and purposely in the elementary classrooms.

  2. This article is one of my favorites you have written as I have been fascinated with the wild west history for quite a while. As a young kid I can remember black and white westerns being on the television and me riding around on my stick horse acting like I was a true cowboy. As I have become an education major, I find myself thinking of ways I can represent all cultures into my instruction. At the end of this article, there are many great lessons that are provided. One of my favorites was, where the students are asked to do different activities and assignments, but to use the resources provided. Of those resources, there were ones that included facts about black cowboys. I agree, it is time as educators and as a human society in general, that we need to stop the ahistorical uni-racial version of history. All students deserve to see their culture and race represented in our history. I look forward to applying these methods into my future instruction.

  3. I have never agreed with anything more than “American democracy is the legacy of racism and has impacted the lives of many Americans. Racial prejudice has shaped school curriculum.” I really hope that upcoming teachers can try to stray away from these practices, especially with the social movements that have been present this year. I hope that our next generation has more exposure to diverse cultures and us future teachers expand on the typical one-dimensional curriculum. Personally, I feel like I learned little about history throughout my years of school and my high school years were spent learning the same thing I learned in middle school. There is so much history to explore and so much we can learn from it.

  4. I only recently heard that black cowboys were a thing and I find it incredibly interesting. Especially to hear that as many as one-fourth of cowboys were black, it’s surprising that something like this isn’t common knowledge. I mean, it’s just so cool? It also makes sense historically, that black men could learn herding in mass numbers because animals still needed to be tended to while white slave owners were away fighting in the Civil War. With how few industries were welcoming of freed black men in the post-war period, the number of black cowboys is probably also due to how many black men couldn’t get other forms of work. I hope that this aspect of history gets researched more, and that Hollywood will give us a historically accurate Western film with a racially diverse cast.

  5. Growing up, I have spent many afternoons watching Bonanza, The Rifleman, and Gunsmoke with my grandparents. The Western Phonomena swept Hollywood and created a culture of celebrating Cowboys and Indians as real-life Superheros. Until now, I have never heard of Black Cowboys and am presently surprised about the impact they had on North America during this time. I am saddened that they have remained in the shadows for so long and that this part of history is untold. As a future teacher, I think that it’s important to share with students that history is all around us and to not trust only what is popular.

  6. I loved this! Growing up I watched cowboy movies with my grandfather and you always saw the white cowboy outlaw with the Native American either sidekick or “bad guy”. I personally never knew there were African American cowboys and I am really excited to learn more and teach this in my classroom.

  7. I really like the topic discussed in this post. I initially clicked on it becuase while it makes sense, I never realized that there were African-American cowboys. I think that this knowledge is incredibly important and powerful because so many little kids love cowboys and love learning about them. It is also so powerful to have students be able to see someone who looks like themeselves when they admire them. This is especially true once the students learn just how manny of them there were. By including African-American cowboys alongside the traditional White cowboys so many more children could be interested in them. I would definitely want to incorporate this into my own classroom.

  8. Unfortunately, much of historiography tends to favor the actions and events surrounding white men. This is mostly due to the fact that until recently, much of history was documented by white men and gave a biased perspective over much of history. This effect can be seen in the American cowboy; a mainstay in American history and popular culture. However, there has been a great bias here as well. Many of us tend to think of cowboys as tough, white men such as Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, but many cowboys were actually Hispanic and Black. This notion alone could lead to conversations in the classroom, and these perspectives offer relevance to students from different backgrounds. It isindeed all American history, not white history.

  9. I found this article to be very interesting, when I think of cowboys I automatically think of white men with fringe on their chaps, and wide brimmed hats. I had never heard of there being black cowboys but after this I wish that I heard more about this side of history. I agree that schools need to diversify their curriculum and try to get away from only seeing one side of the story. I think that they are leaving out a crucial element of history that can really make a difference in their students lives.

  10. I 100% agree that the struggle of racism all around the world is still ongoing and impacts everyone’s lives one way or another. Thinking of a Cowboy I immediately think of a white male with a cowboy hat and a horse. I was never taught about black cowboys in school which is sad. As there was approximately 6,000-8,000 black cowboys I strongly feel that if there were so many black cowboys and for example Willie Kennard, who had an impact but yet we only get taught about the white cowboys if they were not black we would hear and see their names in the school textbooks.

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