On this episode of Stuff You Should Know, Chuck and Josh talk about the history of Black cowboys in the American West. Cowboys, or cowhands, were men responsible for herding and keeping track of cattle in the untamed West, and most of what we know about them today is accurate: They lassoed cows, drove herds, bucked broncos, all that kind of thing. White families would move from the East Coast, which was largely industrial, for a chance at cheap land and fortune in Texas and other Western settlements. And usually, they’d bring their slaves with them. When the Civil War broke out, white ranchers in Texas left to fight with the Confederates, leaving their slaves behind to keep an eye on things. When they came back, the slaves were free, and they wanted to be paid for their work. So began the Black cowboy movement.
Even before the Civil War, most cowboys were Black, because the job was considered too low for white men. But then, the West began to be popularized and romanticized in the East, particularly cowboy stories, so it became a coveted title. Afterwards, something like 25% of all cowboys were Black. And much like their white counterparts, they were sometimes lawmen and sometimes outlaws, like Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. Marshal who served for 32 years and was actually the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, or Isom Dart, who would steal cattle and horses in Mexico, drive them across the Rio Grande, and sell them in Texas.
Another Black cowboy named Bill Pickett revolutionized the rodeo, inventing the sport of steer wrestling. He even copied herding dogs and would bite the steers on the lips to distract them with the pain. Though he was a genuine trailblazer and one of the best rodeo men in the game, he was barred from competing in most rodeos – if you were Black, you had to compete late at night or early in the morning, before the “real” rodeo began. Bose Ikard, right-hand man to a successful cattle rancher, inspired Danny Glover’s character in Lonesome Dove. And we can’t forget about Nat Love, a.k.a. “Deadwood Dick,” one of the most famous Black cowboys of all time. Despite being born enslaved, Nat’s father taught him to read and write, enabling Nat to publish his autobiography in 1907. Hear all about this fascinating history on this episode of Stuff You Should Know.
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