The wall-to-wall white faces in Old West movies give an altogether false impression of how things actually were. In reality, black cowboys made up about a quarter of the hands on many cattle drives, and in some areas they even predominated. Some of the stories which belong to these men have been used in films, their deeds attributed by implication to white men.
For a black man, a life on horseback was definitely preferable to picking cotton on a plantation. It went even better than that because cowboys enjoyed considerable independence and there was significantly less open discrimination against blacks in the ranching world than in other areas of society.
That wasn’t to say that there was no discrimination at all. As a general rule, black cowhands were expected to perform the harder and dirtier tasks. It was their job to pin down the calves for branding which was a much more physically demanding task than wielding the branding iron, a job reserved for white men. They also tended to break horses which hadn’t been ridden much. They had special talents, too, which had nothing to do with brawn, being renowned as songsters who went the rounds of cattle at night, singing to keep them calm so that they didn’t stampede. Very few black men ever became trail bosses or managers of any kind, but some were employed as chuck wagon cooks and as such they commanded a higher wage than that of a regular cowboy.
There were a number of well-known personalities, some of whom demonstrate clearly the prejudice there was at the time. Bill Pickett was one such man; he was barred from many rodeos because of his ethnicity and often had to claim he was Comanche in order to perform – something which was in fact partly true. He was famous for the invention of ‘bulldogging’, which in its original form involved grabbing the horns of a steer and biting its upper lip then falling backwards, which had the effect of subduing it.
Pickett was featured in several movies and was in fact the first black cowboy star. However his record as a rodeo competitor might have been very much more significant if he’d been allowed to perform in more competitions.
Nate Love earned the nickname of Deadwood Dick due to his prowess at shooting. In the same competition he roped, threw, bridled, saddled and mounted a wild mustang in exactly nine minutes, which was an incredible feat and made him the clear winner.
Jesse Stahl was a bronco rider and possibly the most famous black cowboy of all. He received rough treatment when it came to competition judging because he was seldom placed higher than third, even when he had outperformed his fellow competitors. In a mocking gesture one contest, he mounted and rode a horse seated facing the tail. He repeated this stunt later and then with another black cowboy invented the so-called ‘suicide ride’ in which two riders sat back to back on the same bucking horse.
There is a woman nicknamed Stagecoach Mary who is worth a mention as someone involved with horses even though not a cowboy. Her nickname derives from her days as a mail carrier when she was aged about sixty, the second woman and first African American woman to be employed by the US Postal Service. She had 100% reliability. If the snow was too deep for her horses, she would strap on snowshoes and carry the mailbags on her shoulders. She was six feet tall and very sturdy otherwise she would probably never have managed it, but her dedication to duty is the stuff of legend.