Tony Vagneur: Righting history for the black cowboy
Strange how we’re fed bits and pieces of history and can never be sure we know the full story. At least that’s what you might think if you were a black cowboy during the western movement of our country. How often do you see an African-American hero turning the stampede or having his own “singing cowboy” radio or television show?
Historians tend to focus on the dramatic, leaving out the smaller details that give fullness to a narrative, and so it generally was that black cowboys didn’t get much mention in the story of the settling of the West.
It is generally assumed that black plantation workers, slaves, wouldn’t know much about cowboying, but that would obscure the truth. Many plantation owners or farmers who were engaged primarily in the raising of cash crops also kept a herd of cattle on the premises, the responsibility for which fell to those in the owner’s control. Black men and women (and children, too) knew cattle, knew how to handle them, and before the Civil War were quite knowledgeable in their understanding of bovine beasts. These black “cattle tenders” generally had better living conditions than those working in the fields.
In “Black Cowboys in the American West,” it is pointed out that the term “cowboy” may have originated on the southern plantations. The term “boy,” used then as now as a derogatory term toward black men, likely was used in relation to the men taking care of the cattle, using two words, as in “cow boy.” At that time, western white men did not refer to themselves as cowboys, but rather as drovers, stock raisers or keepers. These non-cowboy terms were used as occupations in the census.
Of maybe 20,000 white cowboys at any given time in the period 1860 to 1900, it is estimated there were 7,000 to 9,000 blacks doing the same jobs. In many instances, white drovers and ranchers praised the black cowboys as being better with rough horses than the white men in their employ.
After the Civil War, even though the slaves had been freed by government fiat, it wasn’t necessarily a much better life for them. Many stayed on the same plantations they had been on prior to slavery becoming illegal, operating as sharecroppers or hired hands of the owners. For some, freedom shone like a glint of sunshine off their eyes and the march to join the “cowboy” trade began.
Many of the first black cowboys started out working the huge trail drives going from Texas to Dodge City or other northern destinations. These drives were usually a conglomeration of cattle from various ranches, big and small, and were always looking for young, top hands ready to prove themselves. Reputations and friendships were established along the trail and when those black cowboys returned home, many of them were offered steady employment on Texas ranches.
In a world where racial discrimination was a fact of life, black cowboys were undoubtedly treated better than most blacks in other occupations. Escorting a herd north was an awesome responsibility, carrying the year’s profit for the ranchers involved, and every man was expected to perform his job without unnecessary distractions. Racism toward blacks or Mexicans alike was discouraged, and a white man whose racial arrogance got in the way of a smooth-running operation might find himself disciplined or let go. Several accounts make it clear that black men were seldom intimidated and were entirely capable of defending themselves.
It’s not an old wives’ tale that cowboys sang to the longhorns at night to keep them calm and from stampeding. Truth is, most cowboys, like today, could hardly sing but were comfortable humming one or two of the most prevalent songs. The black cowboys, the ones who could sing, weren’t so much into cowboy songs as they were into a bit of the blues or making their own up.
Sometime in the early 1880s, or maybe it was the 1870s, one such man, Charley Willis, is given credit for writing the 1970s Linda Ronstadt hit, “Goodbye Old Paint.” Thanks to musicologist John Lomax, Willis’ version was recorded for the Library of Congress in 1947, listing Charley Willis as the author.
If you look around, there are more than a few books written about black cowboys, but still, there doesn’t seem to be much mention of them in mainstream tales of the West. Some of those men went on to build large ranches containing thousands of head of cattle; others moved to town and built African-American communities within white majority towns, erasing much racial discrimination by sheer force of their own personalities.
Maybe it’s time we saluted the black cowboys of the rapidly expanding West, who like all the rest of us range riders, loved rough horses, the wide-open spaces and the freedom of being a cowboy.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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