Black cowboys made up at least one third of the cowhands that drove cattle along the long trails from Texas to mid-western and northern points in the middle of the 19th century. But you’d never know that from the images of the “cowboy” in popular culture. Contrary to popular media depictions, black cowboys were integral to the transformation of the West. They joined the round-ups, cattle drives, and served on the ranch crews that define the era of the great trail drives in the American West. Some were lured by the open range, the chance for regular, albeit low, wages, and the opportunity to start new lives. Others worked cattle and horses because those were the skills they honed while they were enslaved, and after emancipation they continued to work on the ranches and farms they and their parents had served on before the Civil War. Today we’re talking about cowboys, and cowgirls, of color in the American west.

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Transcript for Black Cowboys: People of Color in the American West

Written and researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Produced by Marissa Rhodes and Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Elizabeth: Black cowboys made up at least one third of the cowhands that drove cattle along the long trails from Texas to mid-western and northern points in the middle of the 19th century. But you’d never know that from the images of the “cowboy” in popular culture. Contrary to popular media depictions, black cowboys were integral to the transformation of the West. They joined the round-ups, cattle drives, and served on the ranch crews that define the era of the great trail drives in the American West. Some were lured by the open range, the chance for regular, albeit low, wages, and the opportunity to start new lives. Others worked cattle and horses because those were the skills they honed while they were enslaved, and after emancipation they continued to work on the ranches and farms they and their parents had served on before the Civil War. Today we’re talking about cowboys, and cowgirls, of color in the American West.

I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik

And I’m Marissa Rhodes

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Marissa: Images of the American cowboy are part and parcel of many people’s idea of what America is. We hold up the “self-made man,” the “rugged individual,” the lone pioneer family who headed out West and “made it” as pinnacles of what America is fundamentally about. Now, countless historians have debunked this myth, showing how massive amounts of capital and government intervention allowed the West to become habitable and profitable for farmers, cattle ranchers, and for the growth of cities and towns. Not to mention the guns and manpower behind the U.S. Army’s near genocide of the Native Americans already living in these areas, corralled into smaller and smaller reservations, until they posed little to no threat to incoming American capitalism.

A picture of a smiling Ronald Reagan wearing a light colored cowboy hat

Ronald Reagan wearing a stetson in 1976 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Yet the myth of the West holds strong in the American collective consciousness. Advertisers and politicians have seized on these ideas of rugged individuals who were inhabiting an “empty” landscape. Think about the Marlboro man, who hawked cigarettes since the 1950s. American men didn’t want to smoke cigarettes with filters, they thought that filtered cigarettes were sissy. So marketers at Marlboro thought up the Marlboro man- a cowboy – the image of a rugged manly-man to sell filtered cigarettes to American men, convincing them that filtered cigarettes were cool. I mean, if a cowboy is smoking them, they must be for men right? And Marlboro became the leading brand of cigarettes in the US for decades, particularly with young people. Politicians also seize on the image of the cowboy. There isn’t a modern American president who hasn’t been pictured wearing a big old Stetson, trying to look like the “every-man.”

Marissa: So what is it about the West that has had so much appeal to Americans over the years? The West is portrayed as the embodiment of freedom and individuality. A place where people could find success all on their own and that it was possible because the West was essentially an empty landscape with natural wealth. A land that didn’t belong to anyone. Of course, the land in a sense did belong to people. Although their conception of ownership was much different than the Anglo version. Plains Indians lived in the expanse we call “the West.” When white settlers began moving West, there was a quarter of a million Indians living there already, consisting of a number of different tribes and bands. Some were sedentary like Hopi and Navajo. Many were nomadic hunters who followed the Buffalo herds over vast areas. There were an estimated 13 million buffalo roaming the Plains in the early 19th century. By 1890 there was about one thousand left on the free range.

Elizabeth: Americans have this perpetual myth that the West was uniquely hospitable to “making it on your own.” Truly, life in the west was less easy to make it on your own. The infrastructure that built the West got big subsidies from all levels of government. Ranchers and farmers could not have developed their ranches without those all important railroad connections. So although the myth is really appealing, the reality is much more complex.

Marissa: Take mining for example. The mining migration started before the Civil War. The California gold strike started in 1848. On their way to the west coast, some people stopped off along the way. Many hung out in Nevada where they found a little gold and struck silver.

Elizabeth: There’s this idea that the people that benefited from these mineral discoveries were the prospectors and little groups of men who went out and made these lucky strikes. And actually there is a lot of truth to that. Individual miners who made the original discoveries got rich. But for individuals, there was only so much of the metal that they could take advantage of because they could only really get the minerals on the surface. They didn’t’ have the capitol to do the deep mining that was called for to really get all of the metal out.

Marissa: So take for example the Comstock lode, the biggest silver strike in American history. The profits out of this particular strike work out to about a billion dollars in today’s money. But it cost an enormous amount to get that silver. The soil was particularly soft and so they were constantly under threat of cave-ins. Mining engineers came up with novel plan of building little boxes underground so people wouldn’t be buried as they hauled the ore out. And that took capital. It took investment from eastern banks. The same for copper from Butte Montana, and the smelter in Anaconda Montana, where the Butte copper was processed. The Butte mine went down a mile deep and then there was harder rock. So they didn’t have to do the box work they did in Comstock, but to get the ore out, they had to build a railroad system inside the Butte mine. They built three thousand miles of underground tracks.

Elizabeth: Where we’re going here is to make the point that in order to take advantage of these discoveries of precious metals -it took extreme amounts of outside capital to take advantage of these reserves. To extract, smelt down to a purer form, and to ship it to markets took more than just one guy and a pitchfork. It isn’t that big companies came in and push out the little guys, rather the little guys on their own could not take advantage of it without the companies and large investments of capital.

Marissa: Additionally, the railroad acted as both a push and a pull factor for American migration West. Railroad companies wanted people to move to the Great Plains. They wanted this land to be filled with people who would use the railroads but they also wanted to make money by selling that land. That was their biggest motivation because the railroad companies owned a huge chunk of real estate. The federal government gave the railroad companies huge swaths of land through land grants and encouraged them to build. The railroads were given over a hundred million acres from federal, state and local govts. The railroad companies wanted to sell this land. They didn’t sell it for much, but it was still all profit as they were given the land by federal land grants. As the railroads grew and more cities began attracting the railroads to make stops in their towns, the western infrastructure grew. So this expansion of transportation was enormously useful for the country in pushing it towards economic development. But private investors didn’t come forward to build this infrastructure, it was underwritten by the federal government.

Elizabeth: The big railroad boom really took off in the 1890s, which brought to a close one of the most mythologized periods of western history, that of the massive cattle drives out of Texas to mid-Western railroad hubs and northern processing facilities. The period between approximately 1865 to 1890 was a short span of about twenty-five years when cattle drives and cowboys were at their height. And so that’s where we’ll spend the majority of our time this episode, giving you a little glimpse into the lives of a few people who lived and worked as cowhands and horse masters, eking out a living as wage laborers and small farm owners while the built environment grew around them.

Marissa: Cattle trails started with big cattle drives out of Texas. Texas Longhorns had been roaming the southwest for over 100 years, since the time that the Spanish arrived in North America. Nobody really “owned” these Longhorn, they essentially roamed free. Additionally, they were not really marketable until the railroads started moving west across the country and it was possible to get them to hubs like Chicago, where the giant meat packing facilities were able to process the animals. Some cattle drives would take the animals all the way north, others took them to railroad hubs in places like Kansas City, to be shipped further North and East.

A status of bronze steer being roped by a bronze cowboy in a large public art exhibit

Bronze steers in a large sculpture in Pioneer Park, Dallas, Texas, commemorating the Shawnee Trail | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: The first large-scale effort to drive cattle from Texas to the nearest railhead for shipment to Chicago occurred in 1866. A group of Texas ranchers banded together to drive their cattle to the closest point that the railroad tracks reached, which at that time was Sedalia, Missouri. Subsequently, these cattle drives became a major economic drivers. Many drives originated in Texas. The major trails were the Goodnight-Loving Trail, the Potter-Bacon trail, the Western trail, the Chisholm Trail, and the Shawnee or Texas Trail.

Marissa: The word cowboy refers to those hired by cattle owners to tend and herd their livestock. Cowboys often worked from horseback and performed a variety of tasks that included keeping the cattle together, guiding them to pasture, protecting them from rustlers or bandits, branding cattle, and driving them to a railroad shipping point. This latter activity defined the heyday of the cowboy. These cattle drives could sometimes last two to three months, traveling over treacherous terrain. Cattle drives were usually performed by a crew that consisted of a trail chief, eight cowboys, a wrangler to take care of the horses, and a cook. Most of these crews consisted of numerous Black or Mexican heritage cowboys.

Elizabeth: Cowboys were waged laborers and their lives were extremely hard, mostly working for room and board and extremely low wages. They rode anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day. The weather was harsh, either extremely hot and dry or bitter cold in the winter. Unsurprisingly, there was a series of cowboy strikes in the 1880s. In 1883, an essentially general strike swept across the Texas panhandle. One of the leaders was a forty-year-old Pueblo Indian named Juan Antonio Gomez. The cowboys had no union but were well organized and prepared for the strike by building a strike fund in advance. Like many labor strikes the , I don’t know- bourgeois? Establishment? What’s a good word- press harangued the striking cowboys, complaining they were just loafs, or dangerous agitators, who just wanted a free ride. See if this sounds familiar, the Las Vegas Gazette wrote that the strikers were “using unlawful means to compel their employers to grant their request” of higher wages and added that the strikes “always result in evil and no good.”[1] But the strikers were not easy to push around. One newspaper reported that the bosses “imported a lot of men from the east, but the cowboys surrounded the newcomers and will not allow them to work”. Of course, it also helped that, according to the Fort Collins Courier, the strikers were “armed with Winchester rifles and six-shooters and the lives of all who attempt to work for less than the amount demanded, are in great danger.”

Marissa: Many of those attracted to work as cowboys were single men. In fact, a lot of them were former Confederate soldiers. The economy in the South after the Civil War was stagnant, so a lot of former confederates ended up out on the Great Plains working as cowboys. However, as more scholarship is done on the class and gender dynamics of cowboys, it has become glaringly apparent that the cowboys were not entirely the white men that western movies would have us believe. In fact, at least ⅓ of all cowboys were Black or of Mexican heritage.

Elizabeth: These cowboys worked as wranglers, riders, ropers, bulldoggers, and bronc busters. I think you can probably figure out what wranglers, riders, and ropers did. Bulldoggers essentially handled, or wrestled, unruly cattle. In rodeo terminology, this is now called steer wrestling. It’s where the cowboy is riding alongside a steer and they jump off their horse and are timed as to how long it take them to wrestle the steer to the ground. Bronc busters were people, or are people- I mean, people still do this work – who “break” horses. They’re the horse tamers so to speak.

Marissa: Black cowboys came from varied backgrounds–many grew up in slavery, often learning their skills as slaves on cattle ranches. Others were free Blacks from Mexico. Most who joined the long trail drives were men, but Black women also rode and worked on western ranches and farms. One of these women, Mary Fields, was a woman who lived and worked in Montana. She was known as a sure shot. She hauled freight for the Ursuline nuns at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade, Montana. She lost that position however, because the bishop heard of her involvement in a shoot-out with bandits trying to steal her freight. The bishop considered it inappropriate for a woman freight hauler to be getting involved in gunfights while working for him, so he fired her. A Black woman in Texas named Aunt Polly Upton, lived on the Melon Creek Ranch and had a small herd of cattle of her own and was known for being an excellent rider and wrangler. Henrietta Williams Foster, or “Aunt Rittie,” was a native of Mississippi who was taken to Texas by her slave owner. She was known as a tough woman who worked cattle, rode bareback, and “could ride a horse better than a man,” in addition to her fieldwork, domestic chores, and childrearing. After emancipation, Aunt Rittie owned her own home and cattle.[2]

Elizabeth: We know about cowgirl, or vaquera, the Spanish term for cowgirl, Johana July, because of WPA records. In the thirties during the Great Depression as part of FDR’s jobs program the Works Progress Administration hired tons of social scientists, historians, and out-of-work academics to go out and gather oral histories of the people in the U.S. One of the women these WPA interviewers talked to was Johanna July. July was born in Mexico in 1860 in a Black Seminole family. She most likely spent her early days in Nacimiento de Los Negros, a settlement established in northern Mexico following the emigration of Indian and black Seminoles from Indian Territory in the U.S. into Mexico. And there is a whole, really interesting history about Seminole Indians, particularly Black Seminole Indians, in Mexico. After the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a large portion of them including many maroons, or enslaved Black peoples who lived near and among Florida Indian tribes, moved to Mexico where slavery was illegal. I’d like to do a whole podcast on that soon. If you’re interested in hearing more about that, let us know and we’ll try to get that together for you soon.

Marissa: By about 1870 however, after much of Northern Mexico had been ceded to the U.S. during the Mexican War, the U.S. Army was desperate for translators and scouts familiar with the border country. They began to employ Black Seminoles from Northern Mexico, which lead many to return to the United States. Most of them, including Johana July’s family, settled in or near Eagle Pass, Texas in 1871. She was about ten years old when they moved back to the U.S.

Elizabeth: Throughout her childhood, Johanna July learned to work cattle and, in particular, to ride and tame horses. Johanna mastered the art of breaking horses. She preferred to ride bareback, although she was also known to ride sidesaddle. Her technique for breaking horses was unique. Many vaqueros would break horses by walking them through deep sand or mud to tire them out. Johanna used the Rio Grande river. She explained her method to her WPA interviewer,

I would pull off my clothes and get in to de clothes I intended to bathe in and I would lead ’em right into de Rio Grande and keep ’em in dere till dey got pretty well worried. When dey was wild, wild, I would lead ’im down to de river and get ’im out in water where he couldn’t stan’ up and I would swim up and get ’im by de mane an’ ease up on ’im. He couldn’t pitch and when I did let ’im out of det deep water he didn’t want to pitch. Sometimes dey wasn’t so wore out an’ would take a runin’ spree wid me when dey got out in shallow water where dey could get der feet on de ground and dey would run clear up into de corral. But I was young and I was havin’ a good time.”[3]

Marissa: July married a U.S. Army scout at the age of 18, who was stationed at Fort Clark, near Brakettville, Texas. She left her mother and family for a small home near Las Moras Creek but she found this transition difficult as she had grown up in a matrifocal community, where women banded together in work while oftentimes the men were away for extended periods on scout patrol. So leaving this female-centerd lifestyle proved difficult. She no longer had that female-centered network. Additionally, her lack of domestic skills angered her new husband. Johanna had spent her whole life taking care of horses and livestock, not learning how to clean a home or prepare food. Apparently this upset her new husband who began to abuse her. After one beating, she decided to leave. She slipped away in the night, stole a neighbors horse and attempted to go back to her mother. But she “couldn’t get dat old pony out of a trot.” In fear that he would trail after her, she rode through the night anyway, covering the forty-five miles to her home. “As I got to Fort Duncan I heard de sentry call out, ‘Four o’clock an’ all is well!’ I know I said to myself, ‘All may be well, but I don’t feel so well after dis ride!” Johana stayed with her mother, but she was always vigilant of her surroundings because she feared the wrath of her spouse. She revealed that “he come down dere [her mother’s home] three or four times to get me but I wouldn’t go. He shot at me two different times but he missed me, den he tried to rope me, but de Lawd fixed it so my head was too low and de rope went over. I got to de brush an’ he never could find me. He would have killed me, en’ I knowed it!” Johana remained with her extended family and continued raising livestock and breaking horses.[4] Later, she married a man named Ned Wilkes in 1881 and had four children. Wilkes passed away in 1900, three years after the Seminoles were evicted from Fort Ringold in 1897. She married her third husband sometime before 1910 and they worked with livestock, broke horses, hunted, and sold hides.

a photograph of several horses running in a field in a herd

Wild mustangs | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Johana July’s life shows us once glimpse of a fairly common phenomenon, that women were adept cowhands too, whose stories are often overlooked. Contrary to what we see in films and other popular media, women worked livestock, rode horses, and managed ranches. If women are included in the story, it has mostly focused on Anglo women. But women of color were also integral to both the economics of cattle raising and the physicality of it. Some worked for part of a family wage or aided a spouse, others did it all on their own. But we don’t find a lot of evidence of these women on the surface because for most, lines of inheritance went to men. So even if women were running and operating businesses and ranches, it was their male kinfolk who were actually “on the books” as owning the operations. It’s only through snippets like the WPA interview Johana July that we find out more about the lives of these women.

Marissa: Images of black cowboys have been scarce in popular culture as well, giving the false impression that African Americans were not among the men and women who worked cattle out West. Like all ranch hands and riders, African American cowboys lived hard, dangerous lives. Black drovers were expected to do the roughest, most dangerous work–and to do it without complaint. They faced discrimination, but sometimes less than in the South, which many had left in search of autonomy and freedom. As cowboys, they could escape the brutal violence visited on African Americans in many southern communities and northern cities.

Elizabeth: Many Black cowboys began their cattle work while enslaved, brought to Texas by white landowners. Once there, many whites began ranching, often selling or trading their slaves for livestock. By 1861, Texas had over 180,000 black inhabitants and close to 4 million head of cattle. When the war ended four years later, ranching, with its dependence on cowboys, became the dominant industry.

Marissa: While riding herd, black and white cowboys depended upon each other. They lived, ate, slept, and worked together. The demands of the trail were many. Harsh weather, snakes and wolves, dangerous rivers and mountains, and the threat of attack from Native Americans, forced many white cowboys to transcend their prejudices. One Black cowboy, Nat Love (also known as Deadwood Dick), summed up the cowboy code, “There a man’s work was to be done, and a man’s life to be lived, and when death was to be met, he met it like a man.”

a black and white photograph of Nat Love, black cowboy

Nat Love, otherwise known as Deadwood Dick | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Nat Love was born into slavery near Nashville, Tennessee, sometime around 1854. After emancipation his family stayed on the plantation they had worked and became sharecroppers. Love, already known for his skill with horses, headed out west at the age of 16. We know a lot about Love because he published his autobiography in 1907, entitled Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself. As a young man he traveled throughout the West on cattle drives. He started in Dodge City, Kansas, where he found work as a cowboy with cattle drivers from the Duval Ranch, located on the Palo Duro River in the Texas Panhandle.

Marissa: After driving a herd of cattle to the rail head in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, Love entered a “rodeo” on the 4th of July in 1876. Deadwood was a boom town, propped up by the recent discovery of the Homestakes mine. Mining men and gamblers organized a roping contest with a $200 dollar prize. And just to reiterate how many cowboys were actually people of color, a good portion of the competing cowboys in the competition were Black or mixed ancestry. Each cowboy had to rope, throw, tie, bridle and saddle a mustang in the shortest time. Love won the competition by coming in at exactly nine minutes, the closest runner up came in at twelve. Love also won the shooting contest. Each contestant had fourteen shots with the rifle and twelve shots with a Colt revolver. Love swept the competition and took the prize money, earning himself the moniker “Deadwood Dick,” after a popular dime novel character. In 1872, Love moved to Arizona, where he found work at the Gallinger Ranch. It was in Arizona that Love met and drank with famous outlaws like Billy the Kid.

Elizabeth: In 1877, Love wrote that he was captured by a band of Pima Indians while rounding up stray cattle near the Gila River in Arizona. Love was shot a few times in the scuffle, but he claimed his life was spared because the Indians recognized his Blackness, as many of them were of mixed Black heritage themselves. He wrote that the Pima nursed him back to health and hoped to adopt him into their tribe. Eventually, however, Love stole a pony and escaped into west Texas. By the late 1880s Love had settled down a bit. He married a woman named Alice and worked as a Pullman porter, overseeing the sleeping cars on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroads. He published his autobiography at the age of 53 in 1907 and spent his later years as a courier and guard for a securities company in Los Angeles.

Marissa: Another famous black cowboy is Bose Ikard. Ikard was born enslaved on a farm in Summerville, Mississippi sometime in the 1840s. His owner, who was also most-likely his father, moved his family and his slaves to Parker County, Texas in 1852.

Ikard is famous for his close association with the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, one of the most famous and heavily used cattle trails, and for his close association with Charles Goodnight, the trail’s namesake.

Elizabeth: After emancipation, Bose Ikard remained on the ranch that he had been raised and enslaved on. His primarily job after emancipation, as before it, was working the cattle. In 1866 he began work as a trail-driver in the Goodnight-Loving Trail’s first year. Much of what we know about Ikard, comes from the memories of Charles Goodnight. Ikard and Goodnight began a friendship in 1866 that lasted until Ikard’s death. Ikard worked the Goodnight-Loving trail until 1869.

Marissa: Between trips on the trail, sometime in the late 1860s, Ikard married a woman named Angeline who had also been born into slavery in Texas, in 1853. They had six children together, of whom five survived to adulthood. After his trail riding days, Ikard settled in Weatherford, Texas, which is just west of Fort Worth. He became a farmer and lived a fairly mundane existence doing yard work and errands for neighbors, while tending his farm. When he died, the obituary in the Weatherford paper had no mention of his days and adventures on the historic Goodnight-Loving trail. When Charles Goodnight heard of Ikerd’s death however, he contacted local authorities and had a new obituary published in the paper under the headline, “Charles Goodnight Erects Monument to Negro Friend Buried Here.” Goodnight also had an epitaph engraved on Ikard’s headstone, which reads, “Served with me for four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches, splendid behavior—C. Goodnight.”

Elizabeth: Now, if ya’ll are Larry McMurtry fans, you probably already know all this. But the character in Lonesome Dove, Joshua Deets, played by Danny Glover in the movie, is based on Bose Ikard.

Marissa: Another famous Black cowboy is Bill Pickett. He was born in 1870, about 30 miles northwest of Austin, Texas. He was the oldest of 13 children. His parents were both born into slavery and both were of mixed racial heritage, which included Native American ancestry. After the Civil War ended slavery, Pickett’s father moved his family to the small community near Austin and began to raise vegetables for market.

Elizabeth: Pickett and several of his brothers worked on ranches around Austin and became skillful cowboys. Around 1888, the Pickett family moved to Tyler, Texas where five of the Pickett brothers worked on local ranches and offered their skills at breaking horses. Pay for this type of work was extremely low, so one way Bill Pickett made ends meet was by riding bucking horses on Sunday afternoons to amuse bystanders and pick up some extra cash by passing the hat.

Marissa: Picket worked on local ranches for a number of years. In 1890, he married Maggie Williams and they had nine children together. He made ends meet by taking any farm and ranch work available, including picking cotton and taming horses. Apparently, sometime in the late 1890s he even became blind for eleven months. Then, when the condition cleared up, he swore his eyesight never troubled him again.

Elizabeth: But Bill Pickett is most famous on account of his unique rodeo skills. He learned his cowboy skills from observing cattle dogs that were used as a method of controlling cattle. Bulldogs were originally bred to control – get this – bulls. Whoda thunk it? Bulldogs would bite the bull’s muzzle and hold on, essentially subduing the bull. Pickett discovered that he too could subdue cattle by biting them and sure enough, as an adult Picket would leap from his horse, seize the steer by the horns, and pull the head back to the point where he could bite the animal’s upper lip and the steer would be immobilized. Oftentimes the steer falls over onto the cowboy. This biting technique is now illegal in modern steer wrestling, for pretty obvious reasons. Steers are also much lighter in modern rodeos, usually between 400 and 700 pounds but back in the day, Pickett faced steers between 800 to 1,100 pounds. Needless to say, Pickett lost a lot of his teeth and because the bulls often fell on him, he was frequently injured.

a photograph of black cowbpy Bill Pickett

Bill Pickett ca. 1902 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Pickett’s first major public exhibition was at the Tyler county fair in 1888. After that he began to tour Texas county fairs and in 1900 he started touring extensively. In 1905 he joined the 101 Show, a “wild west” exhibition that would attract up to 65,000 people to events. Pickett joined the lineup as “The Dusky Demon” and traveled around the world with the show. From 1907 through 1913 Pickett toured with the 101 Show in the United States and Mexico. In the winter of 1913 the show went to South America and then to England where all of their horses were seized by the British government at the outbreak of World War I. They almost didn’t make it home because they couldn’t find a ship that would take them back to America!

Elizabeth: You can see Bill Pickett’s bulldogging skills in the short film, “The Bull-dogger.” It’s at the Library of Congress and we’ve got it linked in the show notes. He was the twentieth person to be inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame and there’s a bronze statue of him in the stockyards in Fort Worth Texas. He also has a U.S. postage stamp, but this is a bit of a funny story. The U.S. Postal Service unveiled the “Legends of the West” stamp collection in 1993 and one of the stamps in the collection honored Bill Pickett. However, Pickett’s family informed the Postal Service that the picture they used, which to the Post Office’s defense, has been accredited to Bill Pickett in numerous sources, was actually Bill’s brother, Ben. The Postal Service announced the recall and destruction of the five million stamp panes that had been shipped to hundreds of post offices with the erroneous Bill Pickett stamp.

Marissa: The Postal Service made new artwork for Pickett’s stamp but just as the new stamps were hitting the presses, the Postal Service discovered that some clerks had sold 183 of the incorrect stamp panes. This created a collectable so rare that the value skyrocketed! So, to give the public a chance to own the incorrect stamps, and to defray reprinting costs, the Postal Service made the controversial decision to sell 150,000 of the faulty panes through a lottery, which collectors grabbed at lightning speeds.

Elizabeth: Now I was curious, so I did a quick little search with the google machine and found a few of these on ebay for around $75 to $150 dollars. I also found a “blue book” type stamp price guide that listed it for $240. So.. I don’t know, I’m not a stamp collector, so I don’t know if that’s like an exorbitant amount for a stamp. I guess for something that was originally worth 29 cents it is?

Marissa: So in conclusion, the popular image of the cowboy in print and the movies has greatly underrepresented the true makeup of the cowhands of the West. People of color were an integral part of the story and were part of the cultural diversity characteristic of the American West

Elizabeth: By around 1890 the cowboy’s world had changed. The mass expansion of railroad lines had rendered long drives unnecessary as more and more lines meant that ranchers had to move their cattle shorter distances. Additionally, barbed-wire fences blocked the legendary Chisholm and Western trails. Some old cowboys, like Nate Love, found work as Pullman porters and published his autobiography. Still others, like Bill Pickett, put their riding, roping, or shooting skills to use on the Rodeo and vaudeville circuits. Most however, like Johana July and Bose Ikard, lived out the rest of their lives in relative obscurity. Doing the work that was needed in order to get by.

Marissa: If this podcast has piqued your interest I encourage you to check out the show notes on where you’ll find all of the sources used for this episode. We appreciate your listens and for your support.

Elizabeth: Make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. And if you’re so include, contribute to our Patreon account so that we can keep this podcast going.



Sara R. Massey, ed., Black Cowboys of Texas (College Station, Texas A&M University Press, 2000).

William Loren Katz, The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States (Harlem Moon/Broadway Books, 2005).

Bruce A. Glasrud, Michael N. Searles, and Albert S. Broussard, Black Cowboys in the American West : On the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016)

Mark A. Lausehas, The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, & Class Conflicts in the American West (Verso Books, 2018).

Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones, The Negro Cowboys (University of Nebraska Press, 1965).

The National Multicultural Western Heritage and Museum- Dallas/Fort Worth:

The Collection of the United States Postal Service:

Sculpture of Bill Pickett in the Fort Worth Stockyards:

The Bull-Dogger:

Johana July’s interview with the WPA: Angermiller, Florence. Johanna July–Indian Woman Horsebreaker: a machine readable transcription. Texas. Manuscript/Mixed Material.

[1] Mark A. Lausehas, The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, & Class Conflicts in the American West (Verso Books, 2018), chapter 3.

[2] Cecilia Gutierrez Venable,“Havin’ a Good Time”: Women Cowhands and Johana July, a Black Seminole Vaquera,” in Bruce A. Glasrud, Michael N. Searles, and Albert S. Broussard, Black Cowboys in the American West : On the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), pgs 59-74.

[3] Ibid 69; Johana July’s interview with the WPA: Angermiller, Florence. Johanna July–Indian Woman Horsebreaker: a machine readable transcription. Texas. Manuscript/Mixed Material.

[4] Venable, 70.

Black Cowboys: People of Color in the American West


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