Early in Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained, residents of a frontier Texas town circa 1858 are scandalized by the sight of a black man in their saloon. The scene is reminiscent of the one in Mel Brooks’s more blatantly satirical Blazing Saddles, in which frontier townsfolk are shocked by the appearance of the stylish black lawman, Sheriff Bart.
There’s no doubt these movies accurately portray the inherent racism of that era, but like other western films and TV programs – Bonanza and The Rifleman, for example – they leave the mistaken impression that a black cowboy would have been so rare a sight in the Old West as to be beyond contemplation. Hollywood, in other words, would have us believe that the West was as white as driven snow.
The truth is that the West – most famously in Canada by John Ware – was filled with people of all colours, including a significant number of blacks as well as Mexican and native cowboys.
About 1,000 black men, women and children, mostly from Oklahoma, settled in Saskatchewan and Alberta between 1897 and 1911. South of the border, according to the Black American West Museum in Denver, one out of three cowboys was black.
For instance, Deadwood Dick (1854-1921), whose real name was Nat Love, was born a slave in Tennessee but lived a heroic life in the West. He earned his nickname performing at a rodeo in Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory in 1876, shared drinks with Billy the Kid and claimed to have received no fewer than 14 bullet wounds during his cowboy life.
His portrait photograph shows a proud and confident character fully decked out in cowboy hat, neckerchief, chaps, six-shooter, saddle and Winchester rifle.
Though you wouldn’t know it from Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s epic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, black cowboy Walter Jackson (1887-1976) rode with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang for part of his colourful career. He was also the son of a cowboy and is thought to be the first black person born in Montana.
Whether his travels took him to the Bar U Ranch southwest of Calgary, where the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh) once worked as a ranch hand, is unknown. But it’s well established that Canada’s most notable black cowboy, the aforementioned John Ware (1845-1905), was a familiar face at the Bar U.
Born a slave on a cotton plantation and raised on a ranch in northern Texas, Ware drove cattle between Texas, Montana and Canada before finding work at the Bar U. Seeing an opportunity to make a life for himself in Southern Alberta, he started his own ranch of several hundred cattle near the Red Deer River northeast of the current town of Duchess in 1882. His home has been preserved for visitors at Dinosaur Provincial Park.
Ware was so well regarded in the community that his funeral is reported to have been a major event. Last year, Canada issued a postage stamp in his honour to mark Black History Month. His brand hangs proudly in Calgary’s highbrow Ranchmen’s Club, and schools and other buildings carry his name.
The iconic Bill Picket (1870-1932) may be the best-known black cowboy. A celebrated innovator of the rodeo sport of steer wrestling, he performed in Canada, Britain, South America and across the United States with the likes of Buffalo Bill and Will Rogers.
There’s little question that black cowboys and their families faced, overcame and, at times, succumbed to intolerable racism, but they weren’t the oddity portrayed by the entertainment industry. Hollywood’s “whiting out” of their contributions continues to be a grave disservice to courageous men and women and their role in our shared pioneer history.
Graeme Menzies is the author of the e-book The Rodeo Guide for City Slickers.