//Cowboys of Color: How the Black Cowboy Helped Tame the Wild West

Cowboys of Color: How the Black Cowboy Helped Tame the Wild West

By Dave Fountinelle | dave@fresnoflyer.com

Few vocations are more ingrained into our culture and history than the American cowboy – the rugged, hard-working wrangler sitting atop his trusty horse under a dusty Stetson hat, driving his herd of cattle west across a vast, untamed landscape. Cowboys have always been a symbol of freedom, determination, and independence. So it’s no wonder that cowboy culture has been a mainstay of popular entertainment in the United States since the birth of movies and television. Cowboys on both the big and small screens have historically shared many of the same common characteristics. The trademark hat, boots with jingling spurs, gun belt with six-shooters slung low, a bandana around the neck – and a white complexion. The white complexion was as much a part of the cowboy’s uniform as their white hat. So uncommon was the idea of a non-white cowboy that Mel Brooks based his 1974 comedy classic Blazing Saddles around the “outrageous” notion of a Black cowboy riding into a western boomtown and becoming sheriff.

However, history reveals a starkly different truth. It may come as a surprise to learn that 1 in 4 cowboys was Black. Historians have estimated that roughly 25% of cowboys in the American West were African American. Not only were Black cowboys commonplace, but their contributions have also had a lasting impact on both the cowboy profession as well as modern rodeo competitions.

Even the name “cowboy” itself is owed directly to Black wranglers. White cowboys were initially referred to as “cowhands.” In contrast, “cowboy” was used as a pejorative term for Black riders. Its use was a carry-over from slavery and the southern plantation era, where “boy” was used to refer to a Black male regardless of age. Many southerners moved to the West after the Civil War ended. As a result, they brought their nomenclature along with them. Despite the racism prevalent in the post-Civil War American West, being a cowboy was one of the few professions that provided Black men and women a level of freedom and autonomy that was almost unheard of in the late 1800s.

While they were enslaved, many African Americans worked as ranch and stable hands, often assisting their enslavers on cattle drives. After the Civil War ended, many newly-freed African Americans migrated West, where their skills would prove useful in the cattle industry. Black cowboys were taught the cowboy way of life by their former enslavers, Native American cattle handlers, or Mexican Vaqueros. Vaqueros were the original cowboys of the American West, and their skills transformed the cattle industry, especially in California. 

The everyday life of a cowboy was a rough one regardless of their racial or ethnic background. However, Black cowboys often had it even harder than their White counterparts. Black cowboys were usually given the wildest, most unruly horses – which they had to train in order to ride them. Additionally, African American cowboys were expected to perform more than just their one-hired duty on a cattle drive. For example, a Black cowboy hired as a trail cook would be expected to cook, hunt deer and other wild game, entertain his fellow cowboys on the trail by singing or playing a musical instrument, and assist the other cowboys with their jobs. Some Black cowboys also filled the role of nurse, bodyguard, and money transporter for White cattlemen. 

Black cowboys found themselves in even greater demand when ranchers in Texas and Oklahoma began selling their livestock in northern states, where beef was nearly ten times more valuable. The lack of railroads in the western states meant that enormous herds of cattle needed to be physically moved to shipping points, which required significant human resources. Ranchers hired on the newly-freed Black cowboys, whose cattle handling skills and strong work ethic quickly earned them the respect of their White counterparts. Black cowboys still faced discrimination in many towns they passed through on their drives, often being barred from eating in restaurants, drinking in saloons, or sleeping in hotels. However, among their White crew members, the Black cowboys were treated with a level of respect and equality rarely shown to other African Americans.

By the turn of the century, large cattle drives were coming to an end —thousands of miles of new railroad lines connected western towns to shipping routes. The invention of barbed wire solved the need for hired hands to constantly monitor and contain large cattle herds. Lastly, the forced relocation of Indigenous tribes to reservations decreased the need for additional cowboys to provide security for cattle teams. This left many cowboys to face a rough transition. It was particularly difficult for Black cowboys, who still weren’t allowed to buy land and were thus prevented from pivoting into farming or ranching the way their white counterparts were able to do.

While traditional work opportunities for the cowboy were drying up, the public’s fascination with the cowboy way of life would create a new source of income in the form of Wild West shows and rodeos. As Black cowboys continued to move West, they regularly worked with Mexican vaqueros in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California. Vaqueros were renowned for their exceptional roping and riding skills. Black cowboys soon discovered that the techniques they had learned from vaqueros adapted perfectly to the theatrics of Wild West shows and rodeo competitions.

Bill Pickett is one of the most famous early Black rodeo stars. Pickett was born in 1870 and was a child of formerly enslaved people. He dropped out of school to become a ranch hand, where he developed a method of catching stray cows that quickly earned him international attention. Pickett was inspired by watching how cattle dogs would put cows off balance and eventually subdue them. So Pickett applied a similar strategy of pinching the cow’s lip, which would subdue it enough for him to flip the cow on its side and quickly bind its legs with rope. Pickett called this method “bulldogging,” and both the term and its execution were precursors to rodeo’s modern steer wrestling event.

In 1972, 40 years after his death, Bill Pickett became the first Black honoree in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. In 1984, Lu Vason formed the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in his honor. It is the only touring Black rodeo in the country, and this year it will be making stops in Oakland and Los Angeles. 

The Black cowboy is still underrepresented in the history of the American West. Most popular accounts of the era focus on men like Pickett or Nat Love – a formerly enslaved person turned cowboy who also became a famous rodeo star. However, most Black cowboys lived lives that were modest and ordinary. They had limited access to social mobility and the opportunity to parlay their skills into a lucrative entertainment career. While most Black cowboys haven’t received the recognition of exceptional riders like Pickett and Love, their contribution to the history of the American West is no less significant. Both the Black cowboy and the Mexican vaquero were essential to settling the western United States. And without the Black cowboy’s adaptation of the riding and roping skills learned from vaqueros, rodeo competitions might look vastly different than they do today.

The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo will be in Oakland July 9th-10th and in Los Angeles July 16th and 17th.