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The Negro Cowboys

Philip Durham & Everett L. Jones (1965; rpt. 1983)


Now they are forgotten, but once they rode all the trails, driving millions of cattle before them. Some died in stampedes, some froze to death, some drowned. Some were too slow with guns, some too fast. But most of them lived through the long drives to Abilene, to Dodge City, to Ogallala. And many of them drove on to the farthest reaches of the northern range, to the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana.
They numbered thousands, among them many of the best riders, ropers and wranglers. They hunted wild horses and wolves, and a few of them hunted men. Some were viIlains, some were heroes. Some were called offensive names, and others were given almost equally offensive compliments. But even when one of them was praised as "the Whitest man I've ever known," he was not white.
For they were the Negro cowboys.
They rode with white Texans, Mexicans and Indians. All the real cowboys—black, brown, red and white—shared the same jobs and dangers. They ate the same food and slept on the same ground; but when the long drives ended and the great plains were tamed and fenced, the trails ended too. The cattle were fenced in, the Negroes fenced out.
Years later, when history became myth and legend, when the cowboys became folk heroes, the Negroes were again fenced out. They had ridden through the real West, but they found no place in the West of fiction. That was peopled by tall, lean, tanned—though-lily-white under the shirt—heroes who rode through purple sage made dangerous by dirty villains, red Indians and swarthy "greasers," only occasionally being helped by "good Indians" and "proud Spanish-Americans." Even the Chinese survived in fiction, if only as pigtailed caricatures who spoke a "no tickee, no washee" pidgin as they shuffled about the ranch houses. Although the stereotypes were sometimes grotesque, all but one of the races and nationalities of the real West appeared in fiction.
All but the Negro cowboy, who had vanished. (1-2)

Many of the first settlers of the Willamette Valley were Southerners, and while they could not change the ruling of the 1843 provisional constitution that prohibited slavery, they added a provision in 1844 which expelled all the Negroes and mulattoes. So in that same year, when George W. Bush, a free Negro, joined an expedition to Oregon, he was refused settlement there. (6)

Negro cowboys hunched in their saddles during blizzards and thunderstorms, fought grass fires and turned stampedes, hunted wild mustangs and rode wild horses. Wolves threatened their cattle, and rattlesnakes crawled into their camps. Their lives were like those of all other cowboys—hard and dangerous.
The point of their history is not that they were different from their companions but that they were similar. They had neither peculiar virtues nor vices to be glorified or condemned. But they should be remembered. (12)

Occasionally a Negro cowboy was spared some of the most dangerous work. Because he was himself valuable property, his owner protected him. Therefore white bronc busters frequently were hired to ride bucking outlaw horses; they sat in dangerous saddles, taking the shocks of bucking, sometimes bleeding from nose and mouth, sometimes fainting, risking rupture, mutilation, or death while expensive Negroes watched from a corral fence. Thus Abel (Shanghai) Pierce, a white cowboy who became one of the greatest of the early cattlemen, was only nineteen when he was hired by Bradford Grimes in 1853 as a bronc buster on Grimes's ranch near Palacios. He was paid fifteen dollars a month. (16-17)

In Texas, as in other Southern states, Reconstruction left a bitter heritage of racial antagonism. (23)

The whites were easily insulted. One Negro was plowing a field when Jack Helms, the white cowboy sheriff of De Witt County, went riding by. The Negro left off plowing, climbed up on the rail fence and began to whistle "Yankee Doodle" as Helms passed. Helms drew his powder and ball Colt and shot the Negro between the eyes. Then Helms rode on, and the Negro's body lay where it fell until only the bones remained. (23)

One of the common stories of the range, according to J. Frank Dobie, told of the tenderfoot Negro cowboy put on first night guard and instructed to call his relief when the North Star set. The next morning he rode in, tired and sleepy-eyed, to find his relief enjoying a cup of coffee after a good night's sleep. The tenderfoot complained that he had watched the star all night but that it had never moved. His first lesson in astronomy had been a hard one. (40)

Cowboys, if they could swim at all, were rarely strong swimmers, and the treacherous currents of high, muddy rivers were made even more dangerous by struggling cattle and horses, floating branches and debris, and hidden rocks and snags. (42)

Cattlemen who knew the dangers of dissension among their crews made their cowboys pledge not to drink, gamble or swear while on the trail. There is doubt that the cowboys kept their pledge not to swear, but drinking and gambling during the drives were uncommon. Only after a thousand miles of blistering sun, choking dust, drenching rain, filthy clothes and sweat-caked bodies did the boys arrive in Abilene for a day or two of don't give-a-damn seeing the elephant. Their trail's-end pay of eighty or a hundred dollars could go in one wild night of drinking, gambling and whoring.
During the months on the trail a close relationship was built up among all members of the crew—among the cowboys, the boss, the cook and the wrangler—that was little affected by differences of race and color. It would, of course, be ridiculous to say that there was no discrimination when men of different races worked together, particularly when most of them were Texans during the bitterness of Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction. But the demands of their job made them transcend much of their prejudice. On a drive, a cowboy's ability to do his work, to handle his share and a little extra, was far more important than his color. To be a good cowboy, one needed first of all to be a good man, for a wild longhorn had no more respect for a white Texan than for a Negro.
An old economic reality helped, too. When there are more jobs than men to fill them, there is less discrimination. And in the beginning, with literally millions of cattle and few experienced cowboys, trail bosses could not afford the luxury of unbridled discrimination. Many contemporary accounts show that some of the best riders, ropers, wranglers and cooks were Negroes. (43-4)

When nationality or color is mentioned in accounts of the trail drives, far more Negroes than Mexicans are identified. It also appears that Mexicans, although many of them were excellent vaqueros, adapted themselves less well than Negroes to the long drives. They suffered from prejudices nearly as strong as those that worked against Negroes, and they had a language handicap. Unlike the Negroes, who could expect some protection from the law during Reconstruction days, as well as active sympathy from some old Abolitionists in Kansas, Nebraska and other northern states, the Mexicans were despised foreigners in a strange land. Unlike the Negroes, who found that provisions for Negro troops had opened restaurants, saloons and even whorehouses to them, the Mexicans could expect to find themselves welcome only at the gambling tables. Small wonder, then, that Mexicans appear infrequently in accounts of the drives to Abilene, Dodge City and Cheyenne. (44-5)

Understandably, most of the men who wrote of their days on the plains did not designate color or nationality among the cowboys with whom they rode. One finds reminiscences in which a cowboy is introduced by name as one of many others and then several pages later is identified, almost by chance, as a Negro. But from a sampling of writers who seemingly did note race or nationality with some consistency, one can infer that a typical trail crew had among its eight cowboys two or three Negroes. Its boss was almost certain to be white, although a few Negroes led crews up the trail. Its wrangler might be Negro or Mexican. Its cook was likely to be a Negro—usually an ex-cowboy. (45)

Always there were rattlesnakes that could spook the horses. Or even worse, they could bite the wrangler, who spent more time afoot than any other member of the crew except possibly the cook. Once bitten, he could expect rough and drastic treatment. In the early seventies a Negro wrangler named Dick came back to the wagon sucking his thumb; his hand and arm were already badly swollen. One of the cowboys immediately drew a knife and gashed—"almost hashed"—the thumb around the fang marks. Then he opened a pistol cartridge, poured powder over the wound,and lighted it with a match. Dick seems to have survived both the bite and the treatment. (48-9)

Jack Thorp remembered that "any one riding up to the wagon was supposed to approach behind the fire so that no sand would blow into the skillets and ovens. Any green puncher who, not knowing this law, violated it, was likely to learn it soon enough, by being told the names of his ancestors and kinfolk. Even a Negro cook, who was frequently forced by Texas mores to be more than ordinarily polite, was usually recognized as something of "an autocrat within his jurisdiction." Failure to treat him with consideration could be punished in too many ways: an erring cowboy found his coffee weak, his beans cold and hard, his meat full of gristle, his bedroll misplaced, his comfort disturbed by countless accidents. Whether Negro or white, cranky or cheerful, the "old woman" was a very important member of the trail crew. (50)

Hundreds of miles due north of Doan's Store lay Dodge City, the head of the trail. Frequently a crew positioned the chuck wagon each night so that its tongue pointed to the North Star and showed the direction of the next day's drive. (64)

The first man killed in Dodge City was both innocent and unlucky. He was a tall Negro named Tex, whose only mistake was standing in a crowd on the street during some minor excitement. The crowd milled around, guns were fired, and Tex fell dead. At the time, everybody thought his death was an accident, but years later a gambler named Denver, then many miles from Dodge, boasted that he had shot Tex "just to see him kick." (65)

Zeke lay down on the blanket, took a long knife from inside his shirt and stuck it into the jamb of the door. Then he took out another knife and drove it into the floor, convenient to his hand.
So guarded, Bolds and the Colonel spent a quiet night. (67)

Although Negroes suffered from discrimination and abuse in Dodge City, there were many white cattlemen like Jim Thornhill. One of his friends explained him this way:
"Jim had a code of his own. I knew his affection for his boys, yet I have heard Jim say he would rather see any of his boys dead than ever take a backstep when they knew they were in the right.
"Unlike so many of his kind, Jim held no racial prejudice. Black, white, yellow and red, they were all alike to Jim. Yet he believed that no race as a whole was worth the powder to blow it to hell. To Jim the human race as a whole was a failure. Only the individual counted, no matter what his color or creed—and a friend could do no wrong." (70-1)

As a tough Olive gunman, the big Negro Kelly frightened settlers in western Nebraska; at almost the same time some quite different settlers in eastern Nebraska were debating "the Negro question." In the Rock Creek community, about sixteen miles northeast of Lincoln, the local Mutual Improvement Society held a series of debates in 1880 and 1881, and in these debates the proper status of Negroes was a recurring question. The decisions of the judges, though undoubtedly influenced by the forensic skill of the debating teams, seem also to have reflected the community sentiment. Thus the judges agreed that Guiteau should be hanged for shooting President Garfield and that Chinese immigration should be prohibited, but they did not believe that enfranchisement of Negroes should be gradual nor that Negroes should be colonized in Africa. They believed that American Negroes were citizens of the United States and should be recognized as such. (83)

Negroes were among the miners, and some of them dug great quantities of gold from their claims. In Lawrence County, on the border of Dakota and Wyoming, "Nigger Hill" took its name from a group who arrived at the mines in 1875 and staked a claim on a hill some distance from a creek. White prospectors sent them there as a joke, and the innocent tenderfeet began to work a dry claim. Carrying all their water, they began placer mining and soon hit a rich pocket that yielded thousands of dollars. Farther south, in Pennington County, both "Nigger Creek" and "Nigger Gulch" took their names from a miner named Jackson, who worked, died and was buried in the area. Hundreds of other Negroes came to work on the claims or in the mines, but they were not celebrated in place names. (85)

One Negro cowboy who stayed in South Dakota was more fortunate than many. He worked as a horsebreaker, and his methods were admired by Theodore Roosevelt, who first came into a little town in the Bad Lands in 1883. Roosevelt built himself a place on the Little Missouri River, served as a deputy sheriff and became a cattleman.
The Negro cowboy was named Williams, and he worked for the Langs, near-neighbors of Roosevelt. Williams's specialty was horse breaking, according to Lincoln A. Lang, who later wrote a book, Ranching with Roosevelt. Williams did not "bust" horses or break their spirits; he broke them to saddle by winning their friendship and confidence. In Lang's account Williams was a "past-master of the art cool, collected, apparently fearless—if there was anything he did not know about handling horses, we never found it out. Moreover, if there was a horse in the range country that could throw him, nobody ever produced one." According to Lang, "Williams was the first to introduce sane horse breaking in our section of the country."
Roosevelt became "an interested and sympathetic observer" of Williams's methods. He watched the Negro handling horses in the corral—getting them used to mounting and dismounting, accustoming them to saddle and harness—and then the rancher adopted the same methods, as far as possible, on his own ranch. (89-90)

When John L. [Sullivan] offered to fight the four biggest men in Tombstone in one ring, nobody volunteered. When the world champion offered to knock out a mule with one punch, nobody offered an expensive mule for the sacrifice. (113)

The good men and the bad men—indeed most of the population of Arizona—were concentrated in the southern part of the state. It is no accident that Cochise County and the town of Tombstone are among the most famous Arizona names in early Western history. The northern counties were more thinly populated and less wealthy; consequently much of their history was less eventful. (113)

With this jail delivery, "Nigger Jeff's" name disappears from the stories of the range war. He may have left the range, or he may have left Arizona.
Or he may have continued to ride and fight. His story illustrates the difficulties faced by any modern reader who tries to discover the role of Negro cowboys in the West. Jeff might never have been remembered as a Negro if his nickname had not included an offensive epithet or if he had not posed for his picture with a group of his friends in a local photographic studio. He might never have been remembered at all, for that matter, had he not ridden through a large crowd of hostile Mexicans, fighting a rear guard action against nearly hopeless odds, helping to save the life of another cowboy. (116)

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