Share This Article

Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge, edited by Bruce A. Glasrud and Michael N. Searles, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2016, $24.95

It may come as a surprise that anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000 cowboys in the frontier West were black (one in four by some accounts). Some grew up in slavery, others as freemen, and most (though not all) started riding, roping, wrangling, punching cows and all the rest in Texas. “Black cowboys settled in and enabled the development of communities throughout the American West,’ writes Bruce Glasrud in the introduction to this collection of both previously published and original essays. Back in 1965 Philip C. Durham and Everett L. Jones wrote the groundbreaking book The Negro Cowboys, and since then many books and articles have touched on the significant roles of black cowboys on the 19th-century frontier. But this new three-part overview goes a step further, illustrating the diversity in the black cowboy experience and pointing out that not all black cowhands were male (although there were no known black women on the long trail drives north from Texas).

Part I profiles cowboys on the range, including the fascinating stories of pioneer Mathew “Bones” Hooks and cattleman Daniel Webster “80 John” Wallace. Also featured is the far better known Nat Love, who wrote a fanciful autobiography (choosing for himself the sobriquet “Deadwood Dick), and whom Michael Searles describes as “the iconic image of an Old West black cowboy.” Cecilia Gutierrez Venable writes about south Texas female cowhands Johana July and Henrietta “Aunt Rittie” Williams Foster. Part II focuses on performing cowboys, including black rodeo performers on the Texas Gulf Coast and in Oklahoma, as well as black Hollywood cowboy Herb Jeffries, known as the “Bronze Buckaroo.” Part III, titled “Outriders of the Black Cowboys,” highlights two historical figures previously profiled in Wild West—legendary Indian Territory lawman Bass Reeves and hard-riding Mary Fields, whom the U.S. Postal Service recognized in 2006 as “the first known African American woman star route mail carrier in the United States.”