African American Cowboys
In classic Westerns, cowboys have almost exclusively been portrayed as White. However, in reality, there were African-American, Mexican, and Native American cowboys. The passage below traces how African Americans became cowboys in the late 19th century.
The Civil War in Texas had the unexpected effect of creating the African American cowboy. Within sixteen years of annexation to the United States, Texas joined the Confederacy. Successful ranchers formed regiments and went off to war, leaving behind their wives, children, and African American slaves to maintain and preserve the welfare of the ranches. Most of the ‘outdoor’ work became the responsibility of the African Americans. Some African Americans took this opportunity to escape to the western frontier of Texas. Others used the opportunity to acquire the skills of cowhands. But maintaining the cattle herds and claiming ownership of the cattle on the open range was difficult at best, and during the war it was impossible. There were just too few ‘hands’ to do the work. Barbed wire had yet to be invented, so the cattle continued to roam the grasslands and returned to the wild. Fear of the Indians was still a major concern, but giving firearms to African Americans was unthinkable. . . .
Finding their herds decimated, the primary concern of the owners was once again acquiring horses, rounding up the wild cattle, and putting on their marks to build herds. . . . But with the 1865 emancipation proclamation in Texas, the ranchers lost a primary source of labor. . . .
Free African Americans who had held together the ranches of their owners during the war had learned the skills it took to work with cattle and horses. They could top off a horse, throw a cow, pull calves from mud bogs, and pop those ’horns out of the brush. Their skills were now in demand as ranchers worked to build their herds. The ranchers needed help, lots of it, to reclaim the cattle from the wilds. So these cowboys went to work, and the law required a wage be paid.
Source: Massey, Sara R. Ed. Black Cowboys of Texas. Texas A&M University Press, 2000. 95.
1. Why did the Civil War have the “unexpected effect of creating the African American cowboy?"
2. Why do you think cowboys have historically been portrayed as white?