Beneath his black hat and behind his boisterous laugh beats the heart of a diligent historian. Michael N. “Cowboy Mike” Searles spent a career as a teacher, engaging students from elementary school through college age before retiring as a professor emeritus from Augusta State University in Georgia. The focus of his classes was the American West, specifically the experience of black cowboys and buffalo soldiers. As a writer and editor Cowboy Mike continues to tackle both subjects. He wrote a chapter of Black Cowboys of Texas (2000) and with Bruce A. Glasrud edited Buffalo Soldiers in the West: A Black Soldiers Anthology (2007). The two also collaborated on Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge (2016). Searles recently spoke with Wild West about his ongoing homage.
What sparked your interest in black cowboys?
I always liked stories about cowboys, and the TV shows and movies fascinated me. As I watched Hopalong Cassidy and Lash LaRue, I never thought there were black cowboys. My first recollection of black cowboys came when I encountered the book The Negro Cowboys, by Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones. While I did not start my research until much later, the book planted a seed. The idea there were black cowboys sparked something inside me. Later I was introduced to images of blacks in the West, which I used to teach about the black experience west of the Mississippi. I also came across other books, such as William Loren Katz’s The Black West, Kenneth Wiggins Porter’s The Negro on the American Frontier and W. Sherman Savage’s Blacks in the West.
What did you learn about their influence out West?
The story of black cowboys was rarely told, with a few notable exceptions, such as Bill Pickett. Yet outside the West few individuals had any knowledge of Bill or any other cowboy. As I interviewed cowboys in the West and continued my research, I made a discovery: Black cowboys were mentioned often in heroic terms by white cowboys they rode with. There is a poem by Wallace McRae, titled “Ol’ Proc,” that chronicles the life of black cowboy Joseph H. Proctor. The last stanza of his tribute to Ol’ Proc reflects the impact and anonymity of black cowboys:
I couldn’t wait to meet, Mr. Proc,
Whose peers all praised his ways with stock.
But when his calloused hand gripped mine, surprise hit me in waves.
Those old cowboys who cut no slack
Deemed it unimportant Proc was black,
And wasn’t worth a mention that Joe Proctor’s folks were slaves.
How did black men in the 19th century come to be cowboys?
Black men ventured west as trappers and mountain men before the era of the cowboy. Some even migrated with the Spanish from Mexico. The largest influx of blacks into cow country came as slaves and mastered the craft of cowboying, which they continued when slavery ended. Being a cowboy lacked the romance found in Western films. Not everyone was suited to the cowboy life, so once a man seemed to adapt to the lifestyle, he often found continuous work on ranches. The largest influx of blacks into cow country came as slaves and mastered the craft of cowboying, which they continued when slavery ended.
What are some myths you’ve dispelled about 19th-century cowboys?
The biggest myth is that all cowboys were white. While the majority of cowboys were white, there were ranches in Oklahoma and southeast Texas where black cowboys represented a majority. I interviewed some old black cowboys who told me that on their ranches only black cowboys were hired, with the exception of the ranch foreman. I did not come across any myths about black cowboys, because they tend to be such a small part of the story, when they appear at all. In some stories Samuel Maverick’s unbranded cattle began to proliferate due to an uncaring and possibly lazy slave.
Which black cowboys stand out for you?
It’s hard not to identify with Bill Pickett. His fascinating life and travels, combined with his feats—extraordinary feats—set him apart from the rest. Nat Love also has continued to pique my interest. He is the only black cowboy of the period to write his own biography, which makes his words the more fascinating. The story of his life is filled with bombast, intrigue and historical tidbits.
How did you research range boss Addison Jones?
[University of Washington professor] Quintard Taylor pointed me to the Oxford University Press folks, who were looking for researchers to write short biographies for their American National Biography [anb.org]. Quintard suggested I write about black cowboy Nigger Add—the name by which he [Jones] was identified. I read the entry on Nigger Add in the Dictionary of American Negro Biography, by Rayford Logan. I looked at archived manuscripts in various parts of Texas. The longest description of Add came from J. Evetts Haley’s George W. Littlefield: Texan. Add worked on the Littlefield Ranch in Texas, and many of his exploits are referenced in the Littlefield book. However, I did not have a last name until I stumbled on a regional publication that gave his full name: Addison Jones. With his full name I did additional research and developed a fuller picture of Add.
How do the livelihoods of black cowboys and buffalo soldiers compare?
Cowboy life engendered or reflected an independent spirit. A cowboy did much of his work alone or with a few companions. A cowboy could quit and seek employment on a different ranch or take up a different line of work. Cowboy work, if you were not a permanent member of the staff on a ranch, was transitory and sporadic. Becoming a buffalo soldier required discipline, a willingness to take orders, monotonous work, sometime hostile relations with townsfolk, living and working in unpleasant habitats. I’m sure some cowboys made the transition to buffalo soldier, but I suspect most did not stay long.
What was the origin of your “Cowboy Mike” persona?
Once I found information and images of black cowboys, I was asked to visit schools and make presentation on the black West. As I acquired chaps, Western clothing, spurs and cowboy boots, I needed a name. Cowboy Mike was an easy transition. As I began to wear regular cowboy clothes, boots and hat, folks began to call me Cowboy Mike. I even have my own wooden nickel. WW