Unpacking the Complicated History of the Black Cowboy
Historians estimate that around 1 in 4 cowboys were Black.
When most of think of a cowboy, we tend to think of slick-talking, sharpshooting white man with cowboy hat and leather boots. In the U.S., it’s a tall task to grow up without seeing at least one western film or tv show with this archetype. But the term “cowboy” was what Black cattle ranchers, usually slaves or former slaves, were called.
The stories of Black cowboys are often left untold in American history and pop culture. Descendants of these ranchers want to combat this oversight, and set the record straight in an effort to include the contributions of these men in history and culture of the American West. But to truly dig into the past of the Black cowboy, means unearthing a complicated history.
Alaina Roberts, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land,” wrestles with the tension between the historical and popular culture depiction of Black cowboys. Her work uses archival research to connect “debates about Black freedom and Native American citizenship, to westward expansion on Native land.” She says that Black cowboys, who did various categories of work, were also a part of settling the West and its territories into the United States.
“You have people like the Buffalo soldiers, who are a part of the U.S. Army; U.S. marshals like Bass Reeves,” Roberts said. “And then you have Black men riding for a living to take care of their family.”
Many of the Black people in the West were brought to the land by white settlers decades before the Civil War. By 1860, almost 200,000 slaves resided in Texas alone. Some tribes forced out of their homelands in the southeast had brought slaves as well, like Roberts’ ancestors, to Oklahoma. It’s from this history of settler colonialism and western expansion in the later part of the nineteenth century that many Black people reached the western part of the United States. After the Civil War, many freed Black men in the West worked as cowboys — herding and taking care of livestock.
“If we start with the class analysis lens, it would be important to think of them as workers. These were…