Though in many ways Hollywood has whitewashed the Wild West, some of the first settlers were freed slaves who traveled west and became the black cowboys of the American frontier.
Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, America turned its attention to settling lands in the Great Plains and to the west.
Despite what you might have seen in movies, the American West was settled by a large portion of freed slaves. In the 1870s and 1880s, as many as 25 percent of the 35,000 cowboys in the Old West were black cowboys.
Freed slaves headed west to find their fortunes among cattle ranches and rows of crops. As slaves, blacks were in charge of crops and took care of cows for their white owners, and the availability of land presented a new opportunity for many to escape the South.
Take a look at these three black cowboys who were famous for their skills riding horses, managing herds and enforcing the law:
In 1875, Bass Reeves became a U.S. Marshal overseeing the vast expanse of Oklahoma Territory before it became a state. His job was a tough one. Of the 200 marshals killed in the line of duty, 130 met their untimely ends in Oklahoma.
That didn’t deter the former slave from Arkansas. He was an expert marksman with the rifle and pistol, attributed to his time fighting in Oklahoma Territory during the Civil War.
Reeves served as a U.S. Marshal for 27 years and is widely regarded as the first true lawman of the Wild West. Reeves, with the help of his Native American assistant, tracked down as many as 3,000 criminals during his career. He achieved this through skill but also audacity. Reeves used disguises as a way to get close to criminals before capturing them.
It’s believed that Reeves’ story is the basis for The Lone Ranger stories since Reeves kept his true identity a secret and he had a Native American sidekick.
Bill Pickett was a master ranch hand born in Texas in 1870. He invented the art of bulldogging, a method that subdues cattle by biting their lip. Pickett observed bulldogs wrangling cattle to the ground by biting their lips until the cows sat still.
Pickett turned bulldogging into a way of wrestling cattle that humans could utilize. He would ride up next to a cow or bull, and then lasso the animal and pull it to the ground. Pickett then jumped off his horse and next to the cow before biting the lip and tying the cow’s legs.
Bulldogging became a main attraction for rodeos in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The technique eventually became outlawed due to animal cruelty concerns. In 1972, 40 years after his death, Pickett became the first black inductee into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. You can see footage of Pickett performing his bulldogging method in this video, originally filmed in 1921.
Bob Lemmons grew up a slave before moving to West Texas. This territory contained huge herds of wild mustangs, which were valuable commodities to ranchers settling the Wild West.
His unique approach started with earning the trust of the herd. He did this by working alone rather than in a group, because a large group of men would spook the herd.
Lemmons infiltrated the herd of wild mustangs and then broke the lead horse. The rest of the horses would follow the leader to back to his ranch. Lemmons’ lucrative work allowed him to earn enough money to buy his own ranch and built up large herds of horses and cattle. He died in 1947 at the age of 99.