photo of legendary cowboy Bill Pickett
Wikipeida Commons/ Public Domain

5 Black Cowboys Who Shaped the American West

When we think about the Wild West, many 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, from the ranchers and cowhands to the villainous outlaws. But in the real Old West, it's estimated that a quarter of all cowboys were Black. Just check the history books.

The truth is, Black people were just as present as rodeo performers and in Wild West Shows as any white cowboy, roping steer and working on cattle drives. So it's unfortunate that there is such a lack of representation in pop culture when it was such a big part of Black history.

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 American West.

1. John Ware

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 became one of the most respected men on the Canadian frontier.

2. Bass Reeves

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 in the 19th century.

Reeves is the subject of a forthcoming Taylor Sheridan series, which is based on the real life and legacy of the lawman. David Oyelowo, who's co-producing the series, will portray Reeves on the Paramount+ show.

3. Bose Ikard

Bose Ikard is best known for participating in the cattle drives on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, which ran from Texas all the way up to Colorado and Wyoming. Ikard joined Charles Goodnight, and Oliver Loving on their historic cattle drive back in the late 1800s. 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 which gives a closer look at the cattle industry at the time. In the miniseries Lonesome Dove, Deets was portrayed by Danny Glover.

4. Nat Love

Photo of legendary cowboy Nat Love

Getty Images

Nat Love was a former slave who became one of the most prominent Black men in 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, Kansas, 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

Bill Pickett is one of the most legendary Black rodeo performers of all time. He actually invented the "bulldogging" technique, which became known as steer wrestling. Outside of his reputation as a "bulldogger," 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.

Editors Note: This article was originally published on May 29, 2021. It was updated on Feb. 23, 2023. 

READ MORE: The Bill Pickett Rodeo Puts the Long Overlooked Legacy of Black Cowboys Center Stage