These Black Cowboys Will Make You Forget About John Wayne

When most people think of the word “cowboy,” an image of a gun-slinging, horse-riding white guy probably comes to mind. This isn’t surprising since 99% of cowboys portrayed in books and movies fit that profile. Without alternative depictions, we’re conditioned to believe that cowboys were a homogenous group — but doing so leaves out a significant part of Black history.


Let’s set the record straight: an estimated one-fourth of America’s cowboys were African-American. These Black cowboys date back as early as the 17th and 18th centuries when skilled slaves used their familiarity with West African cattle herding to escape typical plantation life.


Being a Black cowboy was no easy task. They were often worked twice as hard as their white counterparts and were were expected to face the most severe of dangers. Not only were they expected to tame the most wild of horses, Black cowboys were also the first to lead groups across flooding rivers with cattle in tow.


Interestingly, since the cowboy lifestyle permitted more independence than other positions on the plantation, Black cowboys were reported to develop more cordial and mutually beneficial relationships with whites. Further, there was a certain level of trust and camaraderie that came along with being a cowboy, a camaraderie that seemed to exist outside of race.  


While we may have heard of the famous cowboy actor John Wayne, fewer of us may know Nat Love, Bose Ikard, Bill Pickett, Bass Reeves, and Henry Clay. These are just a few of the Black men whose contributions rivaled those of the famous white cowboys that historically get the shine.


Take Bill Pickett for example. He revolutionized rodeos by inventing the “bulldogging” technique. Pickett figured out a way to completely subdue a steer by biting its upper lip. He became notorious for this practice as a performer in Wild West shows in Canada, Mexico, South America, England, and across the United States.


Though they may not be in the forefront of the “alternative facts” that fill our history books, these Black cowboys are notable figures that should also be remembered. Be sure to look into the legacies of Bose Ikard, Bass Reeves and Henry Clay, and #PushBlack every day.