BLACK COWBOYS

....also worked on the ranches and rode the cattle trails

By Bennie J. McRae, Jr. - lwf@coax.net

Copyright 1996, LWF Publications. All rights reserved. Reprinted from January 1996 edition of Lest We Forget.

Almost totally missing from the traditional history of the American West is the role of the Black cowboy as well as other Black pioneers who traveled through and settled during the nineteenth century in the vast territory west of the Mississippi River that extended from the Rio Grande along the Mexico border northward to the Canadian border. Why was the Black cowboy overlooked? The answer is obvious. A deliberate exclusion by the historians, writers, artists, and photographers who apparently felt that certain ethnic groups were unworthy of being recorded in the history books despite their participation and contribution. The exclusion was extended into the twentieth century by the Hollywood producers (documentary and movies) who not only excluded them, but slanted and twisted the facts regarding the overall western scene.

First, let’s examine the definition of a cowboy and review the history of the Black Cowboy which began long before men with unusual skills worked with cattle across the vast grasslands and plains of the Western Frontier.

The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language defines Cowboy as “Boy who has charge of cows; a man who looks after cattle on a large stock farm and does his work on horseback.” Cowboy, cowgirl, and cowhand are defined in the New York Times Everyday Dictionary as “one who tends or herds cattle on a ranch.” These definitions are a far removed from what generally has been depicted in the movies and some documentaries. We saw men on horseback depicted as being cowboys robbing stagecoaches, entering the towns with guns blazing, and drunken bar fights. These incidents obviously took place, but the characters were mere hoodlums and outlaws and not cowboys. Many of the real-life legendary characters portrayed in the movies, good or bad guys, probably had never branded or roped cow or rode a cattle trail.

The Black cowboy’s life was hard, tedious, and lonely with very few luxuries, however, they lived a more dignified life and were not burdened with the constraints placed upon many Blacks throughout the country, especially those living in the South and trying to survive as sharecroppers and being subjected to harsh treatment during the emergence of the Jim Crow laws. They worked on the ranches herding and branding cattle. During the heyday of cattle drives, they rode the trails from Texas northward to grasslands or railheads on the plains. The real cowboys were black, white, brown, and red. They ate the same food; slept on the same ground; performed the same jobs; and were subjected to the same dangers. They rode out of Texas along the Chisholm, Western, Goodnight-Loving and other Trails in long cattle drives to Kansas, the Dakotas, Colorado, and Wyoming . Some were killed in stampedes, some froze to death or were overcome by the extreme summer temperatures, and some drowned. Some remained on the northern plains, others rode back south, and many stopped in towns along the way. The vast majority were honest and hard-working, however, some became outlaws and villains.

Unfortunately, years later, the true history of the West became a myth after the cowboys became folk heroes. History was replaced by fiction, and this fiction was perceived by millions of people to be fact. The Blacks were fenced out, except for an occasional subservient character. And practically all Mexicans and Americans Indians were negatively stereotyped and made into the “bad guys,” hoodlums, renegades or lazy and irresponsible.

The history of the Black cowboys began long before the establishment of large ranches with cattle grazing in the late nineteenth century. Gambia and some other African countries were known to be lands of large cattle herds with the natives possessing innate skills in controlling and managing the movement of the animals. They were not called cowboys at that time, but merely herders.

Throughout the slave trade, ranchers and farmers (slaveowners) with large herds of cattle in the lower south were attracted to this particular groups that had been captured in those African countries.

Once purchased prior to the Civil War, the slaves began to hunt and work cattle in the tall grass, pine barrens, and marshes of South Carolina and other sections of the Lower South in gangs on what was then called cattle plantations. A few were mounted, but most used dogs, bullwhips, and salt to manage cattle. The pine barrens extended westward through Georgia and northern Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, southern Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and into the grazing lands of southeast Texas. As more and more cattle farmers moved westward with their herds and slaves, more and more slaves escaped into the northern states of Mexico, between the Sierra Madres where the principal occupation was cattle and sheep raising. The ex-slaves swapped skills with the Vaqueros. They taught the Vaqueros the skills of controlling cattle, and the vaqueros taught the ex-slaves the skills of horseback riding and roping. From this group came some of the best cowboys to work the ranches in Texas, and to ride the cattle trail northward.

Another center of Black cowboys prior to the movements westward to Texas was in the savannahs of southern Florida. This group was made up mostly of black runaways from the plantations in Georgia and South Carolina into the Seminole Indian Nation. They became herdsmen on foot and horseback. Many in this group went to Oklahoma with the Seminoles, and subsequently with their leader, John Horse and the Seminole Chief Wild Cat, to Mexico where their skills were used in herding cattle as well as fighting with the Mexican army.

Probably the largest contingent of Black cowboys just prior to and immediately after the Civil War could be found in the wide coastal prairie of coarse grass, groves of trees, wooded creeks, and bayous along the Gulf below Houston, Texas from the Guadalupe River eastward to Louisiana.

After Emancipation and the Civil War, thousands of Blacks went to work on the ranches throughout south and west Texas, and subsequently rode the cattle trails northward. To name a few and one of the most famous was Bose Ikard. Born a slave in Mississippi in 1847, Bose was brought to Texas when he was five years old by the Ikard family. Growing up on the frontier, he learned to ride, rope and fight. These skills made him a valuable cowhand later. He rode with such cattlemen as Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving, John Chisum and John Slaughter as they went north from Texas with thousands of cattle over deserts, through Apache, Sioux and Comanche Indian territory, army posts into the Wyoming ranges.

Another Black cowboy who rode the Goodnight-Loving Trail was Jim Fowler. He was assigned the worst job, that of shooting calves in the morning that had dropped during the night. (NOTE: Supposedly the story for the movie "Red River," an American Classic was based on the Goodnight-Loving Trail. However, not one Black cowboy was portrayed.)

Jim Perry was an all-around cowboy, cook and fiddler who worked on the XIT ranch. He once remarked: “If it weren’t for my damned old black face I’d have been boss of one of these divisions long ago.” Newt Clendenen was another well-known cowboy that worked on the XIT ranch.

“One Horse Charley” was the nickname of a noted black cowboy who rode with the Shoshone Indians.

Ben Hodges rode north in a cattle drive from Texas and stopped off at Dodge City, Kansas. A card cheat, fast-talking confidence man, and cattle thief, Ben was one of the few men who survived the wild and dangerous Dodge City. He died in 1929 and was buried in the Maple Grove Cemetery among many old-time cattlemen and cowboys. “We buried Ben there for a good reason,” one of his friends and pallbearers remarked. “We wanted him where they could keep an eye on him.”

There were many others, famous and not so famous, such as Nat Love, Jesse Stahl, Bill Pickett, Isom Dart, and thousand of others who rode away into the sunset following the heyday of the cattle trails. Most were known only by their first name or a nickname. Some drifted onto and worked on the ranches throughout the western frontier.

Of the estimated 35,000 cowboys that worked the ranches and rode the trails, between five and nine thousand or more was said to have been Black. They participated in almost all of the drives northward, and was assigned to every job except that of trail boss. One historian noted that there had been a few cattle drives where the entire crews were black except for the trail boss.

During the later years into the twentieth century Blas Payne was considered to be the finest cowboy ever to ride a horse in the Big Bend country of southwest Texas. Blas was the grandson of Trumpeter Issac Payne, Seminole-Negro Indian Scout, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He worked on the Combs Ranch east of Alpine, Texas and, along with other cowboys became noted and respected for their horsemanship and livestock skills.

Fred Fay, whom I had the pleasure of meeting, resided in Brackettville, Texas and died recently was a cowboy, bronco-rider, sheep and goat herder. Former caretaker of the Seminole Indian Cemetery, he was born in Mexico of African, Mexican, and Seminole ancestry, and came to west Texas at a very young age. His father, Andrew Fay, was also a cowboy who worked on various ranches in southwest Texas for many years.

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