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The Black Cowboys of Colorado

The Black Cowboys of Colorado


Black cowboys and cowgirls were common in the old west. Their stories deserve a closer look.

I gloried in the danger, and the wild and free life of the plains

-Nat Love, Black cowboy of the old American West.

The sixteen year-old cowboy rode into the searing West Texas desert alongside a group of more experienced men. He had just been hired on after proving he could ride a mean horse named “Good Eye.” Before long an angry sky appeared, purple fell to the ground with rain and bolts of lightning. The tenderfoot and the men he rode with were pelted with falling chunks of ice. When the storm cleared the battered riders were attacked by a hundred Indians defending their land. The young cowboy watched the man next to him get killed, froze in fear for a moment, then began to fire his pistol at their attackers.

This was Nat Love’s initiation into frontier life. As a Black cowboy he would lead one of the most remarkable lives of any old west American, documented in his autobiography written in 1907 while working as a Pullman porter for the railroad in Denver.
We know the iconic Hollywood-glorified names of the old west: Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill Kody, and many others. These well-known men typically have one thing in common other than being frontiersmen, and that’s the fact that they were white.
Despite the whitewashing of the West by Hollywood and historians, about one out of every four cowboys were Black. In the old West before the railroads took over, there were about 8,000 Black cowboys working the range.

The names of most of these people will never be known, but some of them became legends whose achievements and adventures were too remarkable to be erased from history. In recent years these legendary Black cowboys and cowgirls have comeback into focus as historians and a new generation of Hollywood directors are recognizing their rightful place in American history.

For every Wyatt Earp there was a Bass Reeves, a Black lawman who some believe was the real inspiration behind The Lone Ranger. For every Billy the Kid there was an Isom Dart, a mysterious Black horse rustler who played both sides of the law and paid the ultimate price for it when a regulator gunned him down near Brown’s Hole in northwest Colorado.

What is a cowboy?

The answer isn’t as clear as it might seem. The cowboy is certainly an iconic American symbol, but they represent different things to different people. For some they are the quintessential American —quietly independent, fiercely loyal to those they care about, and an often-misunderstood person of integrity and grit. For others the cowboy is a colonizer who blazed a trail of destruction and murder in the American West, killing Indians and stealing their land. Cowboys were both lawmen and outlaws— sometimes simultaneously. Some working cowboys became movie stars, as their mystique created a demand among the public for their tales of the frontier. The cowboy could also be a farmer, or even a politician if he wore a big enough hat and belt buckle to look the part. And does a cowboy really have to be a man? What about the cowgirl and her place in history?

The American cowboy in our mythos is a composite of all these characters. But the one commonality that runs through this mosaic is the epitome of a free person who — whether good, bad, or ugly — makes their own decisions.

Perhaps that was, and still is, the ultimate appeal for the Black American cowboy. After the end of the Civil War and the promise of freedom came the heartbreaking disappointment of Reconstruction in the South. Instead of gaining equality, the formerly enslaved were met with a virulently racist opposition to their freedom. Many formerly enslaved Blacks sought to escape repression by heading north, others looked instead to the Western frontier where the land was vast.

In many cases this move to the west by southern Blacks was involuntary. “You can find individual stories of Black families that were forced from their land,” said Terri Gentry, Engagement Manager for Black Communities at the Black American West Museum in Denver. According to Gentry, Ida B. Wells and Benjamin Singleton were influential in encouraging and organizing Black southerners to venture west to escape the oppression of the Reconstruction-era south. As a result, thousands of Black people and families, called “exodusters,” migrated west to found new settlements on the high plains and Rocky Mountains.

It should be acknowledged that, as Black Southerners migrated west to escape oppression, they took part, consciously or not, in the displacement and subjugation of Native Americans. Black cowboys were a participant in what history has all too often called the “winning of the West.” This terminology minimizes the magnitude of what befell the Native Americans — the genocide of a complex network of indigenous societies who had lived upon this land for hundreds of generations.

The Black cowboy, however, was not part of an empowered class. Although he participated in the displacement of Native Americans from their rightful homelands, he did so primarily in a struggle to survive a disadvantaged life.

The majority of the exodusters settled in Oklahoma and Kansas, but Colorado was home to at least twenty-five Black settlements. The most well-known of them in Colorado was Dearfield, but there was also a place called The Dry, now the location of the town of Manzanola east of Pueblo.

The Black cowboys were a subset of the exodusters. They were often formerly enslaved men, and sometimes women, who were skilled with horses and cattle. Faced with limited opportunities, they sought to scratch out a living from the hard bedrock of an often cruel and unforgiving society.

Ranching outfits during that time needed people willing to endure extreme hardship and they couldn’t always afford to let prejudices get in the way of their ambitions. If a Black man with some riding or roping skills was willing to take the risks and brave the elements, he could get hired into an outfit. Others sought not to join a cattle ranching outfit, but to strike out completely on their own.

The original cowboy.

The very term “cowboy” was a racist label at the time. In the late 1800s the white cowboys were called “cowhands” while the racially derogatory term “boy” was applied to the Black cowhands doing the same or similar work. The Black cowhands, then, became the original “cowboys.”.

Most cowboys of all races — there were many Hispanic cowboys as well as a few Asian and Native Americans as well — were not entirely independent operators. Unlike the perception of the lone rider, they typically had bosses and worked for moneyed interests. Most of these cowboys never made a name for themselves. They did drudgery work on the range, rarely seeking or receiving much recognition. Many died in a lonely ditch or on a sun-bleached hillside somewhere without so much as a funeral. Others were lucky enough to survive and adapt to changing times, finding employment with railroads or mines, or scratching out a living as a farmer.

But there were a few whose exploits made it into the historical record, and among those few were Black Americans like Bose Ikard. Ikard, who was born into slavery and ventured west after the end of the Civil War, was hired as a top hand by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. He was so skilled and dependable that he quickly became a third equal partner, if not financially, at least while out on the range.
The three partners and friends blazed a new trail that would bring thousands of head of cattle from Texas to new markets between 1866 and 1871, first in eastern New Mexico, and eventually through most of Colorado.

Eastern New Mexico is a no-man’s-land in American geography. It is a place that exists on the boundaries between defined regions but is as vast as two Portugals. It is where high plains grasses intermingle with cactus beneath distant forest-topped mesas and peaks – pieces of the prairie, desert, and mountains mix together in a landscape that’s hard to define.

It is a harsh and unforgiving place. Freak winter blizzards turn the tan landscape into a white wind-whipped expanse. Spring superstorms blacken the horizon and threaten violence with no cover. In summer the land cracks under a big, brutal sun, and water becomes scarce in every direction.

Cattle can smell water from many miles away, and after having been driven for days across a hot and waterless land, they can break into a panicked run. When a stampede breaks out, the cowboy’s life becomes hell. He must ride relentlessly to corral the animals for hours or days on end. Should he get careless and find himself in the path of hundreds of thirst-crazed thousand-pound hoofed beasts there will be nothing left of him but a blood streak in the dirt and little bits of flesh and bone.

Such was the danger of Bose Ikard’s life on the trail where he dealt fearlessly with cattle stampedes, hostile Indians, brutal storms, and the heavy burden of life on the brink of survival. By the time the trio’s five-year cattle-driving adventures ended in 1871 Oliver Loving would be killed in an Indian attack and Ikard would save Charles Goodnight’s life more than once. The Goodnight-Loving cattle drive would never have succeeded without Bose Ikard.

If there is a man of the old west who most closely fits the mold of the idealized American cowboy, it’s Bose Ikard. Memorialized by his business partner and lifelong friend Charles Goodnight, Ikard was as tough as they come with impenetrable integrity, fierce loyalty, and uncommon bravery. He was the epitome of true grit.

Cowboys and Hollywood.

The adventurous exploits of Goodnight, Ikard, and Loving were the inspiration behind the 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurty, and the subsequent TV miniseries of the same name. The fictional character Josh Deets corresponds with Ikard, played in the TV miniseries by Danny Glover, a role that introduced many Americans to Black cowboys in the West. More recent westerns have highlighted the fictional roles of Black cowboys, such as Morgan Freeman in “The Unforgiven” and Jamie Fox in both “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” — filmed in Telluride. Most recently, “The Harder They Fall” featured an all-Black cast in a fictional drama that uses the real names of Black cowboys and cowgirls including Nat Love and Stagecoach Mary.

In “The Harder They Fall,” Stagecoach Mary, played by Zazie Beetz, is an attractive saloon owner and burlesque performer with a brutal penchant for murder. There is nothing remotely historically accurate about it, but the film was never intended as a true story. What’s notable about this film is the use of the real names of Black icons, and its all-Black main cast. This is quite a reversal from the decades of primarily white male cowboy actors like John Wayne and Gene Autry.

Stagecoach Mary was indeed a real person, and her true story is remarkable. Born into slavery in the 1830s, Mary Fields was thirty-two when the Civil War ended, and she found herself a free woman. She was a big lady, six feet tall and over 200 pounds, with a brusque demeanor and a liking for whisky and cigars.

In her 50s Fields finally found her Shangri La in Cascade, Montana after reuniting with her best friend and former employer who was a catholic nun. She hung with the boys in the local saloons, drinking, smoking, and playing cards,establishing a reputation as a barroom brawler — said to have knocked many men out cold with one punch — and even participated in a duel. At the age of 62 she was hired as a U.S. postal service mail carrie. She was only the second woman in America and the first Black woman to hold such a perilous job.
Fields was made for the job, and until the age of 71, Stagecoach Mary braved Montana blizzards, fended off wolf packs, and defended cargo from robbers with her pistol. When snow became too deep for her horses to pull the carriage, she strapped on a pair of snowshoes, hoisted the mail bag over her powerful shoulder, and completed the delivery on foot. She never lost a single letter.

By the time Mary retired she was a living legend among her community. The town of Cascade loved “Black Mary” as they affectionately called her. When her house burned down, they built her a new one. When the state of Montana passed a law barring women from entering saloons, Cascade’s mayor passed an exception for her. The local baseball team took her with them to road games as an honorary member of the team. Behind that tough exterior was a generous and loving person who brought bouquets of flowers from her own garden to the games as gifts for any player who hit a home run.

The feeling of freedom.

As the West was tamed and railroads killed the cattle drive, the American cowboy changed with the times. By the beginning of the 20th Century, some cowboys parlayed the skills they learned on the range and became rodeo performers. Here, too, we find legendary Black cowboys like steer wrestler Jessie Stahl and bulldogger Bill Picket.

Picket is arguably the most skilled rodeo performer of all time. What made Picket famous was a stunt of his own invention that is truly hard to believe — bulldogging. The name comes from the behavior of English bulldogs that were bred and trained to bite the upper lip of a bull to subdue the animal. Bill Picket would jump onto the back of an enraged bull from his horse, grab it by the horns, and then position himself face-to-face with the beast. He would then bite into the fatty snot-coated upper lip of the bull, stunning the animal into submission.

One of Bill Picket’s riding partners was none other than the famous cowboy-turned actor Will Rogers. They performed all over the United States and even abroad, drawing crowds of tens of thousands at arenas like Madison Square Garden.

After decades of being forgotten, the American Black cowboy — and cowgirl — is making a cultural comeback.

An example of this trend is the emergence of a group of young Black men in California who call themselves the ‘Cowboys of Compton.” They ride their horses through Compton’s urban jungle, drawing the attention and admiration of passersby, some of whom may not have considered that Black men were real cowboys more than a century ago, and there are still Black cowboys today.

It occurred to me that there is a commonality between these young men and the cowboys of the old west that goes deeper than their horsemanship skills and their cowboy style. It is best stated by a Compton Cowboy featured in the YouTube documentary “Real Black Cowboys” : “When people see us in the community riding seven, ten deep, cars will literally stop. I’ve seen cops or the hardest gangsters and they always tend to loosen up. It changes their mind frame.”

When Bose Ikard and Nat Love rode the high plains with their white compatriots, they became relatable to each other, connected in a bond that was a shared experience of hardship, danger, and, as Nat Love would have said, glory. The reason Stagecoach Mary was so loved was not just because she gave people flowers from her garden, it was because she and the white men she brawled, wagered, and drank with in the saloon shared a relatability of experience in a western land on the margins of life and death.

There is, perhaps, no figure in American history that is more iconically American than the cowboy. To learn, and to understand, that the cowboy life was not just part of the white man’s world but was a shared experience across racial distinctions can help create a relatability that breaks down unnecessary barriers. It can help anchor us to a commonality of our history, one that includes the bad with the good, but one with shared experiences that can be embraced.

I asked Terri Gentry for her opinion on why the idea of the Black cowboy seems to be resonating with some urban Black youth today. The visibility of the Black American cowboy in our media and in our history books “opens the door for another perspective on what freedom means,” said Gentry. “They can see them doing all this stuff out on the open plains, under the stars. It’s a new perspective for what it means to be free.”

Many years ago, there lived strong men who roamed the prairies of the land.
They searched by day and watched by night to protect their cattle the best they can.
They fought side-by-side, many of them died, but nobody ever told me, there were Black cowboys.
That was yesterday, but this is what’s happening today, there are still many hard ridin’ Black cowboys.
They fought side-by-side and many of them died, yet nobody ever told me there were Black cowboys.
But history may show what the whole world needs to know, there are still many hard ridin’ Black cowboys.

-Poem about the Black cowboy by Albert Franks as shown in the documentary “Real Black Cowboys:”


Doug Geiling
Doug is a Colorado native, a Northglenn High School graduate (class of 1993), and Colorado State University alum (class of 1997). He currently resides in Edgewater near Sloan Lake, but has previously lived in Erie and Lafayette. Doug is a backpacker, fly fisherman, traveler, writer, and business management consultant.

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