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  • Writer's pictureLandon Payne

The Yeehaw Agenda: The Legacy Of The Black Cowboy

When we think about the days of the American West, we imagine the trailblazing, sharpshooting, and horseback riding cowboys romanticized in American lore. Although Black cowboys do not play much of a part in the prominent narrative, historians estimate that one in four cowboys were Black, entrenching them in cowboy culture.

The cowboy lifestyle came into its own in Texas, which had been a cattle country since it was colonized by Spain in the 1500s.  Following the Civil War in 1865, Blacks migrated to or became free in the West. The majority of them acquired useful skills for herding cattle and possessed other profitable talents as a result of enslavement. Black cowboys were taught the ropes by vaqueros (Mexican or Spanish cowboys), their former slave masters, or Native American cattle handlers. 

“Contrabands,” Cumberland Landing, Virginia, 1862. Library of Congress.

The traditional cowboy we know today arose in the 19th century. White Americans searching for cheap land to settle on (or evading taxes) migrated to the Spanish (later, Mexican) territory of Texas at the beginning of the 19th century. Although the Mexican government opposed slavery, Americans brought them along as they settled the frontier and established cotton farms and cattle ranches. Cattle farming did not become the copious economic and cultural phenomenon recognized today until the late 1800s when millions of cattle grazed in Texas. 

By 1825, slaves accounted for nearly half the Texas settler population. As a significantly new slave state, Texas joined the Confederacy in 1861. Though the Civil War barely reached Texas soil, many white Texans took up arms to fight alongside their kin. While Texas ranchers fought in the war, they relied on their slaves to maintain their land and cattle herds. In doing so, the slaves developed cattle tending skills like breaking horses, herding livestock, and other skills that made them invaluable to the Texas cattle industry in the post-war era. Many Black cowboys were generated as a result.

“Contrabands,” Cumberland Landing, Virginia, 1862. Library of Congress.

Cowboys of all colors worked together. They shared the same bunkhouse, food, and sometimes the same pay. However, Black cowboys still faced prejudice. It was rare for Black cowboys to be promoted to the level of trail boss or foreman. In saloons, Blacks were forced to stay at the end of the bar. Interestingly, the term cowboy has an intriguing, yet sadly unsurprising origin. Initially, White cowboys were called “cowhands”, and Blacks were unpleasantly deemed “cowboys.” Black men being called “boy” despite their age derives from slavery and the antebellum era in the South. Many southerners migrated West and westerners would have been familiar with southern racial etiquette. Sadly, the racial issues prevalent in the North and South also impacted the American West. 

Although most movies and books excluded the Black cowboy, most of their stories have been used as inspiration in mainstream media. For example, Bass Reeves, a Black US Marshall overseeing pre-statehood Oklahoma Territory has long been rumored to be the inspiration for The Lone Ranger. Rare films like “Django Unchained” present narratives from the perspective of a Black cowboy. However, some are still under the notion that these roles are limited to John Waynes and Henry Fondas when discussing films and shows depicting the “Old West”. Seeing as how a quarter of cowboys were indeed Black, this whitewashed narrative is moot. The rich history, culture, and legacy of these unsung American heroes are still felt today. As we learn more of their stories, we regain much of the history we thought long lost. 

Bill Pickett was the first Black athlete inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame. He continues to make an impact on cowboying long after his death.

Black cowboys, like William “Bill” Pickett, also took up careers as rodeo performers. Born in 1871 in Taylor, Texas, Pickett is credited for inventing the sport of “Bulldogging,” which became known as steer wrestling and continues to be one of the most popular rodeo competitions today. Pickett, nicknamed “The Dusky Demon” and “The Bull-Dogger,” became one of the most distinguished Wild West rodeo performers in the country. He was immortalized in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, OK in 1972

Because Black cowboys were kept out of White associations and White-sponsored events, they were forced to set up their own. The Southwestern Colored Cowboys Association was formed in the 1940s by Black cowboys wanting to compete in rodeo events. The Bill Picket International Rodeo founded by Lu Vason in 1934 has been in existence for more than twenty years. It is dedicated to keeping the legacy of Black cowboys who helped define the American West alive.

Ja’Keith Miller competing in a Pony Express Event with Spencer’s Most Wanted, a rodeo club in Oklahoma City.

Present-day progenitors like Ja’Kieth Miller of Oklahoma City, OK are inspired by and carry on the traditions set by the cowboys of centuries past. Miller, who rides with local rodeo club Spencer’s Most Wanted, competes in an event called “Pony Express'', a relay race on horseback with an eight-man team. 

“I’ve been competing since high school! I started my junior year and I’ve been addicted ever since!“

Growing up on the rodeo scene instilled a vitality in Miller that has kept him rooted in the game for over a decade. His description of breaking horses can only be described as an out-of-body experience.

“The adrenaline rush of running full speed got me hooked! I grew up on the rodeo scene and I never really had anyone to teach me or show me any other event but Pony Express! So when I learned the ropes I put my all into it!”

Miller is a strong advocate for bringing more Black youth into the equine space. The “community-first” sentiment is shared by a vast majority of Black rodeo clubs across America. All of whom are committed to keeping the rodeo customs alive for yet another generation.

“It’s a great way to open your mind! It teaches discipline, accountability, and responsibility and it’s fun once you learn the ropes! It helped me stay out of trouble and put my mind on something more important. So I hope the rodeo scene gets bigger as time goes by for Oklahoma because we need it for our misguided youth.”.

“I hope the Black Rodeo circuit continues to grow and shows the children we are more than what they see. We have roots and history everywhere in this world. Why not get into it as much as possible?”

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