A while back I wrote an article on black female equestrians and how nobody knows much about them. So many people know so little about black equestrians of yesterday and of today. You read about black female equestrians, now let me introduce you to a few black cowboys.
The life of the early black man and woman was not glamorous at all. The presence of slavery brought many hard and painful years. Black people were enslaved and treated like cattle. Among the many black people enslaved were cowboys.
Black cowboys have been a part of Texas history since the nineteenth century. Many were born into slavery and introduced to cattle country by their white land owners. Cowboys led an unglamorous life, earning an average of one dollar plus food and a bed in a bunk house. Their schedule consisted of rounding up cattle in the fall, watching them throughout winter, and in the spring they picked out cows ready for market and began a cattle drive hundreds of miles long. Eight to twelve cowboys, two or three of them possibly black, could manage a herd of about 2,500 head of cattle. It’s estimated 5,000 to 8,000 black cowboys were part of the legendary cattle drives of the 1800s. In “Black Cowboys”, author Bennie J. McRae Jr. says, “The black cowboy’s life was hard, tedious, and lonely with very few luxuries”. Those who worked as horse wranglers might find themselves caring for 50 horses alone. Older cowboys often became cooks and doubled as doctors for ailing colleagues.
But even though the cowboy life as a black man was hard, many chose to maintain that role even after emancipation occurred. Black cowboys were used to bigotry and found they experienced less discrimination on the open range, as cowboys depended on each other as equals regardless of ethnicity.
Let’s take a look at a cowboy who’s the reason we have today’s event known as bulldogging…………..
Bill Pickett, was born December 5, 1870, he was the second to be born in a family of thirteen children. He had four brothers and eight sisters and was born to Thomas Jefferson Pickett, a former slave, and Mary “Janie” Gilbert. Bill grew up and married Maggie Turner and together they had nine children.
When Bill was in the fifth grade he dropped out of school and worked towards becoming a ranch hand. While working as a ranch hand Bill learned to ride horses and work longhorn cattle. It was Bill Pickett who invented the all too famous Bulldogging, the art of grabbing cows by their horns and wrestling them to the ground. It was known to cattleman that, with the help of a trained bulldog, stray steers could be caught. Bill had seen this on many occasions and figured if the dogs could do it he could do it too. He started practicing by riding hard, jumping from his horse and wrestling the steer to the ground. Bill’s method for bulldogging was biting the cow on its lip and then falling backwards.
Pickett became known for his tricks and stunts at local state fairs and with his four brothers he established The Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. Bill traveled about in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming and Oklahoma doing his bulldogging act.
In 1905 Bill joined the 101 Ranch Wild West Show that featured Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Bee Ho Gray and Zach and Lucille Marshall. Bill became a popular performer who toured the world and even did movies. Due to his ethnicity he was not allowed to participate in rodeos, so often that he was forced to claim his Comanche heritage.
In 1932 Bill was kicked in the head by a bronc and died after being in a coma. In 1971 he was induced into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Bill Pickett invented what many cowboys know today as bulldogging. He wasn’t the only influential cowboy in history though, let’s meet another one.
Bass Reeves is another black cowboy you don’t hear much about. He was one of the first black U.S. Marshalls and is said to have arrested 3,000 felons and shot and killed fourteen outlaws in self-defense. He’s said to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
Bass was born into slavery in Crawford County, Arkansas. He was named after his grandfather, Basse Washington. Bass and his family were owned by Arkansas State Legislator William Steele Reeves. Bass lived with his family for a while before running away to Indian Territory where he lived with Cherokee, Seminole and Creek Indians until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865 and set him free. It was then he met and married Nellie and together they had eleven children.
Reeves owned and farmed land until 1875. He was recruited as a deputy, becoming the first black deputy on the west side of the Mississippi River. He worked for 32 years as a federal peace officer in the Indian Territories and became one of the most valued deputies. Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never wounded despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions. Once he even had to arrest his own son for murdering his wife. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass, then 68, became an officer of the Muskogee Oklahoma Police Department.
He died January 12, 1970, from Bright’s disease, a disease involving chronic inflammation of the kidneys.
Our next cowboy we’ll discuss today is Nat Love. Nat was born a slave on a Tennessee plantation but became a cowboy in Dodge City and the Texas Panhandle. He possessed great horse riding and shooting skills. In 1876, after winning several contests at a rodeo in Deadwood, South Dakota, he earned the nickname the “Deadwood Dick”. In 1907 he wrote an autobiography titled “Life and Adventures of Nat Love”. He died in 1921.
Cowboys do a lot of hard and dirty work. Trail driver George Duffield helped to drive a herd of longhorns from Texas to Iowa in 1866 and kept a diary of the trip. He wrote on one of the pages, “Upset our wagon in River and lost many of our cooking utensils……was on my horse the whole night and it rained hard….lost my knife….there was one of our party drowned today (Mr. Carr) and several narrow escapes and I among them….many men in trouble. Horses all gave out and men refused to do anything…awful night….not having had a bite to eat for 60 hours….tired….Indians very troublesome….Oh! What a night-thunder, lightning and rain-we followed our beeves all night as they wandered about….we hauled cattle out of the mud with oxen half the day…dark days are these to me. Nothing but bread and coffee. Hands all growling and swearing-everything wet and cold….sick and discouraged. Have not got the blues but am in hell of a fix….my back is blistered badly…I had a sick headache bad…all our letters have been sent to the dead letter office…flies was worse than I ever saw them…weather very hot…Indians saucy…one man down with boils and one with Ague…found a human skeleton on the prairie today”~taken from The Cowboy, by Time-Life Books
An Englishman by the name of John Baumann, came to Texas magnetized by the American West. His goal was to become a free-riding frontiersman and perhaps earn a fortune in the process. He scored a job as a cowboy and his first assignment was to help round up a herd of horses that had eaten locoweed. Locoweed causes hallucinations and death in horses. Some had gone into fits, some were foaming at the mouth, some lay groaning and some had already died. Baumann said, “Having shot two horses which were unable to stand up, we rounded up our cripples and made a start for the headquarters 180 miles due south. In addition to being badly locoed and half-starved, the majority suffered a skin disease which eats the hair off and leaves the shivering creature exposed. Many of them had open kidney sores and wither-galls, swollen running nostrils, watering eyes, and wheezy breathing. Three long weeks did this melancholy procession trail across the prairie. Every now and then a horse stumbled and fell; generally he was too weak to rise, when a couple of boys dismounted, and, passing a rope under his body and round his shoulders, hoisted the poor beast on his legs. As a rule this was the beginning of the end, if he managed to hold up until the end of the day’s march, the frosty night settled him. Every morning in the chill half-light of early dawn, it was our sad duty to lift those who had lain down to rest, and, by rubbing their stiffened trembling limbs, to restore circulation sufficiently to enable them to stand. Others were beyond help, and several times I have given such their quietus with a six-shooter bullet without drawing more than a faint trickle of blood, so poor were they.”~Taken from The Cowboys, by Time-Life Books.
The cowboy life is hard and painful. Nearly one cowboy in three was either Mexican or Black and yet you don’t hear about any of them.
Has the legacy of the black cowboys died? No, I don’t think so. The legacy lives on today still.
In Queens, New York the Federation of Black Cowboys takes inner city kids and teaches them life on horseback. The fundamental tools they learn gives them hope for bright futures-something they don’t have much of in their drug infested and crime filled surroundings. Each child is taught responsibility before being allowed to ride and confidence and self-esteem are instilled along the way.
The legacy of the black cowboy and black female equestrian lives on today, and yet not many people know about them. Not much has been said about Cheryl White, the first black female jockey. Or Donna Marie Cheek, the first black member of the U.S. Equestrian Team.
The definition of a cowboy is “A ranch worker who herds cattle”. I think a cowboy, no matter what color they are, is much more than that. The cowboy is hardworking, dedicated and strong. He’s a horseman, cattleman, vet for his animals and representative of his country.