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Vintage photo of two black cowboys

The forgotten history of the Old West’s black cowboys 

Image: The Black West

In 1875, one in four American cowboys was black. These anonymous heroes were the inspiration for many great Westerns; yet Hollywood has erased them from the silver screen. Pieced together from archives, carefully crafted re-enactments and first-hand historical accounts, The Black West restores these invisible heroes to their rightful place in history.

The Black West: A Counter History of the Wild West airs Sunday, 8th October at 9pm on Sky HISTORY

On the face of it, the cowboys of the Old West made for unlikely folk heroes. Their lives were spent in harsh, unforgiving landscapes, where they were expected to carry out all kinds of resolutely unromantic tasks. These included herding livestock, repairing fences and buildings, and embarking on gruelling cattle drives that could last months at a time, with moments of relaxation and solace only to be found in rough frontier towns.

Despite the ugly reality of the cowboy lifestyle in the 19th century, it somehow became the stuff of myths and legends, even at the time. The arrival of pulp paperbacks, Hollywood movies and television shows firmly enshrined cowboys as figures of American folklore. Specifically, white American folklore.

This is despite the fact that the American cowboy lifestyle was directly influenced by the long-standing culture of cow-herding Mexican horsemen known as vaqueros. What’s more, it’s estimated that by the late 19th century, around a quarter of cowboys were black.

Why aren’t black cowboys better known?

Though gruelling and hazardous, the American West was attractive to many black Americans in the latter half of the 19th century. Following the Civil War, former slaves and the offspring of former slaves still had to contend with deeply embedded prejudice and discriminatory laws throughout the United States, but there was a more egalitarian attitude among cowboys.

In the dangerous world of the untamed West, where men depended on each other to take care of cattle and carry out hard physical work far from civilisation, white and black individuals were generally able to function in a fraternal manner that was not often replicated in towns and cities. As William Loren Katz, author of The Black West, has said, ‘Cowboys had to depend on one another. They couldn’t stop in the middle of some crisis like a stampede or an attack by rustlers and sort out who’s black and who’s white.’

Of course, casual racism was still a fact of life, with research showing that black cowboys would often be expected to do harder jobs than their white peers, would struggle to reach positions of greater responsibility on ranches and cattle drives, and faced discrimination in frontier towns, especially if white women were present.

Despite such hardships, black cowboys made their mark on the American West, helping to forge the modern United States. Let’s take a look at just a couple of the individuals who deserve to be as well-known as the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

Nat Love

Arguably the most famous black cowboy ever to get on the back of a horse, Nat Love was born into slavery on a plantation in Tennessee. Growing up, he showed a natural talent for farming and training horses (‘it was a question of breaking the horse or breaking my neck’), and this came in handy when, after the abolition of slavery, he headed out to the American West to become a cowboy.

Nat’s life as a cowboy was like something straight out of the Western yarns. He rocked up at saloons and dance halls in fabled frontier settlements like Deadwood and Dodge City, got into frantic battles with rustlers and Native Americans, competed in rodeos, and even went drinking and riding with Billy the Kid.

Indeed, he and the Kid became fast friends, with the infamous gunslinger even giving him a tour of the log cabin where he’d been born. Later, Nat happened to be close by when Billy the Kid was gunned down in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and surveyed the outlaw’s dead body for himself.

Nat Love sustained at least 14 bullet wounds during his many adventures, but somehow survived being a cowboy, He went on to publish an autobiography and settled into a peaceful life with his family in California. What he described as his life of ‘exciting adventures, good horses, good and bad men, long venturesome rides, Indian fights… and the friends I have made’ came to wider attention in 2021, thanks to the film The Harder They Fall.

Bose Ikard

Born into slavery in Mississippi, Bose Ikard – like so many black cowboys of his generation – acquired his formidable farming and ranching skills while working on his master’s property. After the Civil War and emancipation, he became a fully-fledged cowboy. He worked alongside Oliver Loving, a pioneering rancher who – along with his partner Charles Goodnight – established the famed Goodnight-Loving Trail for cattle drives from Texas to Wyoming.

After Oliver was killed in a Comanche attack, Bose continued to work with Charles and the two became very close friends. Charles later said that he trusted Ikard ‘more than any living man. He was my detective, banker and everything else in Colorado, New Mexico, and the other wild country I was in.’

After his herding and adventuring days were done, Bose settled with his wife in Texas, where his life was occasionally interrupted by battles with Comanche raiders. Curiously, he sometimes fought the Comanche alongside his former slave master, Milton Ikard, who may have been his father.

Bose, who survived to old age, is still renowned for his crucial role in carving out the Goodnight-Loving Trail. It made him the inspiration for a character named Joshua Deets in Larry McMurtry’s bestselling novel Lonesome Dove, with Danny Glover playing Deets in the Emmy Award-winning TV adaptation.