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5 African-American Cowboys Who Shaped the American West

When we think about the Wild West, most of us probably think about the scenes we've seen depicted in a John Wayne film. There's a noticeable lack of diversity in nearly every western film. But in the real Old West, it's estimated that a quarter of all cowboys were African-American. Just check the history books.

The truth is, black people were just as present in Wild West Shows and skilled with roping steer as any white cowboy, so it's unfortunate that there is such a lack of representation in pop culture. One of the few depictions of black cowboys in Hollywood was in the miniseries Lonesome Dove. Danny Glover's character, Deets, was based on a real cowboy named Bose Ikard. Ikard joined Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving on their historic cattle drive back in the late 1800s. 

Country singer-songwriter Dom Flemons' album Black Cowboys shares songs and stories of African-American cowboys.

"You have people coming from slavery and emancipation and then, through their hard work and perseverance, in spite of the obstacles they had, they were able to create a new social order that still influences us to this day," Flemons told NPR in 2019.

Here are five historic black cowboys who helped shape the Old West. 

1. John Ware

black cowboys
Wikipeida Commons/ Public Domain

Ware was born into slavery in South Carolina but moved down to Texas after the Civil War. There he learned all the skills needed to become a cowboy. He worked on cattle drives from Texas all the way up to Canada and even helped boost the ranching industry in Alberta. Not only did he have his own ranch, but he also wowed crowds by performing in the Calgary Stampede. It's been rumored that he was never thrown from a horse. He went on to become one of the most respected men on the Canadian frontier. 

2. Bass Reeves

black cowboys
Wikipeida Commons/ Public Domain

Reeves was not only a lawman, but he was the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi . Throughout Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory, he apprehended over 3,000 criminals. He was born into slavery in Arkansas and gained his freedom during the Civil War. He was first recruited as a deputy due to his familiarity with the Indian Territory and the ability to speak multiple Indian languages. He became one of the most valued deputies in the Indian territory during his 32-year career.

3. Bose Ikard

Bose Ikard is best known for participating in the cattle drives on the Goodnight-Loving Trail. He grew up in Mississippi, but after the Civil War he found work as a ranch hand. His incredible life inspired the character of Deets in Larry McMurtry's novel Lonesome Dove.

Read More: Cowgirls, Outlaws and Gunslingers: 10 Women Who Ruled the Wild West

4. Nat Love

Nat Love was a former slave who went on to become one of the most prominent black men of the west. Love grew up in Tennessee, where he learned how to read and discovered that he really had a gift with horses. He traveled to Dodge City when he was a teenager and found cowboy work on cattle drives. He became a crack shot out on the trail and earned his original nickname: "Red River Dick." He later found himself in Deadwood, where he won a rodeo competition which earned him a new nickname: "Deadwood Dick." 

5. Bill Pickett

black cowboys
Wikipeida Commons/ Public Domain

Bill Pickett was a prominent performer during his time. He actually invented the "bulldogging" technique, which became known as steer wrestling. Pickett traveled the world performing with the Miller Brothers' 101 Wild Ranch Show alongside the likes of Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, Tom Mix and Lucille Mulhall. He posthumously became the first black cowboy honored in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.

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5 African-American Cowboys Who Shaped the American West