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 really enjoyed this article! Personally, I already knew there was different race of cowboys and even gay cowboys through social media such as TikTok and Instagram. However, they should definitely talk about this in educational institutions. I didn’t know about it from school but from others and it should not be like that at all. I also enjoy how at the bottom of the article it asks ‘What Can Teachers Do?’ because in reality they can do a lot by teaching students that Black history is American history. It makes students from different races feel valid, accepted, and important in history and in life. So much of this historical information we teach our students is from white people and we never seem to shine light on Black people unless it involves slavery. We need to take action as educators to give students these facts because it brings a sense of equality for all.

  2. I find it interesting that there was Black Cowboys. I did not learn this growing up in History class. I think that you make a very good point that teachers need to do a little digging into these facts and be able to teach this to all the students. American History is so diverse in many cultures and races, it just gets lost in translation.

  3. I agree that racial prejudice has shaped school curriculum. Within my K-12 experience, history and social studies were only taught focusing on the prominent European figures. Prior to reading this blog, I had no idea that one in four cowboys were black. Hearing about figures such as Civil War veteran Willie Kennard and how he brought law to Yankee Hill makes me believe that this should be incorporated within the multicultural curriculum that we should be teaching. I will try to be aware and create a more diverse curriculum within my classroom.

  4. I hate that so many events or people have gotten lost in translation when it comes to history. Everything has been so miscommunicated that it is hard to understand what is real and what is made up. Diversity isn’t talked about enough in schools, especially when it comes to history.

  5. I think it is important teachers teach more diversely moving forward. This article was very interesting to read and I had never heard of most of the black cowboys you mentioned. 

  6. After reading the article There Were Black Cowboys? Teaching the American West from a More Diverse Perspective, I realize my perspective was that cowboys were always your stereotypical white man. I know that most of the shoes with cowboys I can think of the sheriff is always a white man, he protects some women, and the bad guys are either of color or scruffy. I never thought so much of how this altered my perspective and how seeing a black cowboy would throw me off. I think that we should have more representation not only in school but in movies and shows.

    • I would agree that in K-12 a majority of western history was revolved around white American people. I’ve actually never heard any history on African American cowboys until now. I saw the statistic on 1 in 4 cowboys being African American and that’s actually a big number for them to never be heard of.

  7. I didn’t realize how many social norms I viewed and never thought about it before taking this class. Black cowboys aren’t something ever mentioned so this articles was so interesting to me and showed how inaccurate our education system can sometimes be

  8. I found it interesting for this article to identify cowboys in the Wild Wild West and how they were always viewed as white American cowboys, and I didn’t realize that this was a social “norm” assumption until it was pointed it. I think it is important for educators to include that there were indeed African American cowboys in our society and how they contributed to making an impact in our history. Diversity is something that needs to continue to be relevant when teaching our youth.

  9. 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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