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    Wild Wild West

African American CowboyThe Overlooked Rich History of the African-American Cowboy

By Jayne Skeff

It’s a little-known fact that one in four cowboys in the 19th century American West was black. American history has done an incredible job of bringing the romantic taming of the Wild West to life through images, both historic originals and modern day conjures of the sharpshooting, trailblazing, horse-back riding, saloon door swinging cowboys of American lore. But 25% of this powerful force is missing in history’s visual representation of how it really was.

So how did American slaves held in the South evolve to be such a huge part of the early American Cowboy population? Well, the answer lies simply in Texas and it’s lack of fencing.

During the first half of the 19th century, white Americans seeking cheap land, flooded into Texas bringing with them their slaves, establishing cotton farms and cattle ranches. By 1860, black slaves accounted for over 30% of the population of Texas, closing in on 200,000. And while Texas technically had joined the Confederacy, it’s distance from the fight and influence of Mexico’s opposition to slavery, left the situation a bit more fluid than in other regions.

African American Cowboy on a horseBut in the end, it came down to the millions of head of cattle, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the lack of fencing to control these massive herds running wild. Texas ranchers didn’t have choice but to hire these now-free, highly skilled African American cowhands – nearly 200,000 strong. With no railroads at this time, these cowboys moved these millions of cattle in drives to shipping points in Kansas, Colorado and Missouri. They drove their way through harsh environments, facing horrible discrimination and attacks from Native American defending their lands. But they got the cattle to their destinations.

And from there, they took their place alongside their white cowboy brethren in taming the West. They became integral in drives all the way to Montana and Oregon, becoming lawmen and landowners themselves. These black cowboys were the lucky ones. While discrimination was strong, they found a level of respect and equality not known at the time by their Southern brothers and sisters still struggling as sharecroppers in the South.

These fascinating facts of our history are found in searching African-American history but should be firmly rooted in American history.


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Smoke Signals blows your way from High Noon Western Americana of Los Angeles, California, producers of the High Noon Antique Show & Auction for 25 years (1991-2014). Smoke Signals eMagazine was founded in 2010 from a desire to share thoughts and facts with the High Noon community and look at what is going on in the Western world while feeding our readers with great recipes and giving advertisers a chance to blow their own smoke.

And hopefully we educate along the way.

Linda Kohn Sherwood, Editor

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