Black cowboys or African American cowboys were largely African American freedmen after the Civil War who were drawn to cowboy life, in part because there was not quite as much discrimination in the west as in other areas of American society at the time. Some estimates suggest that in the late 19th century, 20% of all cowboys may have been African American.
As farmers began looking for new lands to cultivate in the West, a demand for people skilled in herding and ranching grew. The unsettled West attracted ambitious people of all colors seeking a better life than they had in the East. For enslaved Blacks the West offered freedom and refuge from the bonds of slavery. It also gave African Americans a chance at better earnings.
Estimate suggest that twenty percent of all cowhands were Black. In fact, the label “cowboy” is thought by some to have originally been a derogatory term used to describe Black “cowhands”. Buckaroo, another English word for a cowboy, is thought to be an Anglicization of vaquero, Spanish for a horseback-mounted cattle driver. One author suggests that "buckaroo" is actually derived from the African word, bakara, meaning "white man, master, boss."
List of notable Blacks in the West
For a complete list, please see: Black cowboys Project Profiles.
- Nat Love or Deadwood Dick, acclaimed for his rodeo skills, best-known for his autobiography The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.
- Addison Jones, range boss, best-known for driving cattle though the Goodnight–Loving Trail in New Mexico.
- Bronco Sam was not afraid of anything.
- Charley Willis, was called The Singing Cowboy.
- George Glenn rode the Chisholm Trail in 1870.
- Jesse Stahl once rode a bronco backwards with a suitcase in hand.
- John Ware was a highly respected rancher.
- The Moses Speese family moved west in 1888 to Westerville, Nebraska.
- "One Horse Charlie" -rode with the Shoshone Indians.
- Isom Dart. Despite his criminal ways, Isom Dart was known as a kind and generous man, but he could never escape his cow rustling past. At the age of 51, he was shot in the back by the bounty hunter Tom Horn.
- Bill Pickett worked with Will Rogers and Tom Mix and performed in Rodeo shows all over the world. He invented the sport of Bulldogging on his horse Spradley.
- Bose Ikard. His exemplary work on the Goodnight-Loving Trail and his friendships with its founders cemented his name as a cowboy legend of the Wild West.
- Bob Lemmons. Horses would flock to him and follow him anywhere he went of their own free will.
Explorers, pioneers and founders
- The greatest jockey of the 19th century was an African American man named Ike Murphy.
- 'The success of the famous expeditions of Lewis & Clark has often been credited to Sacajawea, a very diplomatic Shoshone woman. But little of that credit has been attributed to York, William Clark’s slave since childhood.
- Estevan was the first explorer to reach Arizona and New Mexico. His legend and lore inspired what would become the European settlement of the southwest.
- The founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was born in 1745 in the Caribbean to a sea faring French father and an African slave mother.
- The Bango Family Dynasty began with Jean Bango, a former slave, who opened the first inn on Mackinaw Island sometime around 1787. George Bonga was a Cass expedition leader. When he passed away in 1885 and he was mourned in Congress and in the newspapers of New York and Chicago.
- George Washington Bush In 1853, 23 White citizens of the state of Oregon demanded that Bush’s land claim be validated. By 1854, as an elected member of legislature, Michael T. Simmons, asked Congress to exclude the Bush family from the racially intolerant laws and be given land of their own. Both requests were granted and the Bush family received 640 Acres of land, which is known today as Bush Prairie.
- James Beckwourth skills as an explorer, translator, warrior, hunter, and, rider earned him a great reputation and made him a legend. Among his many accomplishments was his discovery of a mountain pass through Sierra Nevada, which became known as Beckwourth Pass.
- Edward Rose worked as a guide, interpreter and hunter for the most prominent trading companies of his time.
- Moses Harris was also known as the “Black Squire”. He was one of the West’s most sought after and reliable guides.
- Greenbury Logan was one of the Black Texans who fought for Texan independence against Mexico in 1835.
- George Washington was known for his strength and kindness, which he proved to have in abundance during the Panic of 1893 when he single-handedly saved the town of Centerville, WA from starvation.
- Pio Pico's ancestry was African, Native American and European. He went on to earn wealth and fortune and became Governor of California twice over.
- William Leidesdorff was born in the Virgin Islands in 1810 to a Danish planter and his African slave wife. His financing and advice as the first African American diplomat helped the U.S. win their victory against Mexico.
- Mifflin W. Gibbs. In 1873 he was elected as a judge in the city of Little Rock and was later appointed as U.S. consul to Madagascar.
- William H. Hall made enough of a fortune to pay for his lavish wedding in New York and went on to deliver a lucrative lecture series called The Hopes and Prospects of Colored People in California.
- Alvin A. Coffey become the first African American member of the California Pioneers’ Association.
- Daniel Rogers. When he went to buy his freedom from his Arkansas master with a thousand dollars worth of gold dust, his master pocketed the cash. Outraged and incensed by the master’s deceit and dishonor, White residents in Arkansas raised enough cash to provide Daniel Rogers his freedom.
- Moses Rodgers purchased mines in Mariposa County and he married one of the daughters of Emmanuel Quivers who forced the desegregation of schools in the region.
- Barney Ford and Henry O. Waggoner. When Ford and his team struck gold in 1860, White vigilantes drove them off the land to seize their gold. But they never found any and they began the rumor that Ford had outwitted them and buried the gold on the mountainside, which became known as Nigger Hill. Many attempts were made to find Ford’s gold, but no one ever struck gold.
Marshals and outlaws
- Cherokee Bill spent his life as a criminal known for his firearm prowess, quick reflexes and charming personality.
- Ben Hodges. Surviving photographs of Ben Hodges show him as a well-armed, rough and tough outlaw. But Ben’s greatest weapon of all was his way with words and his sharp wit.
- William Robinson & George Monroe. African Americans looking for alternatives to mining found jobs in the city, but two African Americans found work with The Pony Express.
- Jess Crumbly of Cheyenne & The Texas Kid were known for their intolerance of segregation. Whenever The Texas Kid read a sign stipulating the bar was for “Whites Only” he would go inside and order a drink despite the color of his black skin. If the bartender refused him a beverage, The Texas Kid would back his horse into the bar and shoot out all the lights.
- John Slaughter. In 1884, when boxing champ John L. Sullivan came to Tombstone and said he would give five hundred dollars to anyone who could last two rounds in the ring with him, John Slaughter was the first to volunteer. Slaughter got the first punch in, but he lost the match.
- Britton Johnson was known as the best shot on the Texas frontier.
- Matthew Bones Hooks was committed to establishing Black towns and wherever he was told he couldn’t go, he went anyway.
- Bass Reeves commissioned by "The Hanging Judge" Judge Parker, became the first Black United States deputy marshal west of the Mississippi River.
- Marshal Willie Kennard Kennard confronted the gruesome rapist Caswit in Gaylord’s saloon and blew the pistols out of Caswit’s hands.
- Stagecoach Mary Mary Fields was born a slave in Tennessee and grew up to be six feet tall and she weighed 200 pounds. Under her apron she wore a Wesson gun and a .38 Smith and he was known to take down anyone who attempted trample on her rights.
- Elvira Conley. Tall, proud and impervious to the bullying of local criminals, she opened her own laundry business. Her promises of fresh, clean clothes attracted the likes of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. Over the years, the three forged a strong friendship in the rough railroad town.
- Henrietta Williams Foster was tougher than any man who crossed her path and she outperformed them with her livestock skills.
- Daniel W. Wallace and his wife, Laura Owen, had a reputation for helping and feeding hungry Natives and for investing in the community’s education.
- Abijah and Lucy Prince were well respected by many of their White peers and lived on a farm in Guilford. Despite their legal victories and the respect many White people had for her, she never won the right to have her children educated in her community.
- Aunt Clara Brown was a deeply religious woman who was separated from her husband, son and four daughters when they were each sold to different slave owners. Later wealthy, she provided health care to the poor of all colors, she founded churches and she searched Kentucky to locate her long lost family. Her search was in vain, but she returned to Denver with 26 ex-slaves, paying for all of their travel costs.
- Lucy Gonzales Parsons was a beautiful and passionate woman who chose to marry a White man named Albert Parsons who was personally dedicated to fighting injustice and inequality. In 1905, she delivered a well-presented speech, which proposed the idea of passive resistance and introduced the building tools for the Civil Rights Movement.
- Biddy Mason. Born in slavery, by the time she died in 1891, her family was one of the richest in California.
- Among the founding families of Los Angeles were the African grandparents of Maria Rita Valdez, owner of Rancho Rodeo de Las Aguas, known today as Beverly Hills.