African-Americans in the Wild West: Nat Love, Cherokee Bill, and Stagecoach Mary Fields
February 25, 2011 1:50 PM   Subscribe

The stories and pictures of the Wild West commonly feature white men, with little notion of the diversity present in the later half of the 19th century beyond the various regiments of "buffalo soldiers". In reality, black cowboys made up a large portion of the cowhand population, possibly a quarter of all cowboys. Estimations range from 5,000 to 15,000 cowboys being of African heritage. Many have been forgotten in the passing of time, but some of their stories live on. For instance, the cowboy Nat Love, the outlaw Cherokee Bill, and (all sorts of awesome) "Stagecoach" Mary Fields.

Nat Love was born in 1854 as a slave in Tennessee, but made his way west, to Kansas and then Texas, where he gained renown for horse-riding and gun skills, earning the name Deadwood Dick (though he was not the only one with that nickname). After years of being a cowhand, Love saw the end of the cowboy era with the rise of the railroads, and got a job as a sleeping car porter. He published an autobiography in 1907: The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (; alt: 1995 reprint on Google books).

Born in 1876, Crawford Goldsby was the son of George Goldsby, a mulatto sergeant of the Tenth United States Cavalry, and Ellen (Beck) Goldsby, a Cherokee Freedman, mixed with African, Indian and white ancestry. His young life was rocky, including two years at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an off-reservation boarding school in Pennsylvania. He returned to Fort Gibson, in Indian Territory, where it has been said that the 12-year-old Goldsby first killed a man - his brother-in-law who told the young Goldsby to feed the pigs. In other tellings, Goldsby was 18 when he first shot a man. That same year, he got the alias Cherokee Bill, following a gunfight between the Cook gang and a sheriff's posse. Cherokee Bill and the Cooks earned a reputation for violence and theft, but evaded the law. In 1895, Cherokee Bill was caught and tried for the murder of an innocent bystander during one of many robberies, for which he was found guilty. While in jail, he attempted to break out, killing a guard in the process. He was then tried, and found guilty, for a second murder. His hanging drew a crowd of thousands on St. Patrick's Day, 1896.

Mary Fields was born in 1832, into slavery in Tennessee, where she was friends with the farm owner's daughter. She was taught to read and write while a slave, and stayed on Judge Dunn's farm for some while following emancipation. Her childhood friend, Dolly Dunn, went on to become a Ursiline nun. Dolly Dunn, then known as Sister Amadeus, invited Mary Fields to join her at the Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. Sister Amadeus was soon assigned to become the headmistress at a convent in Montana, where she fell ill with pneumonia. Mary Fields hadn't first traveled out with Sister Amadeus, but now went to help her sick friend recover. After her friend, now Mother Amadeus, was better, Mary decided to stay on and help the nuns repair the building. Unfortunately, Mary was too hot-tempered, and thought to set a bad example for the children (or maybe the men in town were tired of her out-earning them, and maybe she shot a man in self defense), but she was sent away from the mission, with some financial backing from Mother Amadeus. Mary started a cafe, but was a poor cook with a big heart, and the restaurant ran out of money in short order. She was given a mail route that she ran for eight years, where it was her toughness and reliability that earned her the nickname Stagecoach Mary. She also earned her reputation for being tougher than most any man, out-shooting, out-drinking and out-working them all. After her stagecoach days, Mary was in her 70s, so she took it easy and opened a laundry service, though it's said she spent more time at the saloon than at the laundry shop. She also spent time in her garden, where she'd collect flowers to present to the local baseball team. For every game, she would fix buttonhole bouquet for the members of each team and five large bouquets for each of those who made home runs. She also offered her services as a babysitter for $1.50 a day, which she'd then spend on the little ones.

There are more tales, some truthful, some tall, on the 'net:
* Who Were The Cowboys Behind 'Cowboy Songs'? - an NPR piece on the musical history of cowboys, including the African-American genre of the blues ballad (example: Goodbye, Old Paint)
* The Other All-Americans - Buffalo Soldiers and Black Cowboys, loads more links to profiles and histpry
* has a bit of information, hidden behind a series of linked pages that each open in a new window.
* Lest We Forget is an archive of stories and information, though it seems the file names have changed a bit, so the articles don't link to each other any more (thus the weird index page link), including some previous posts

Modern Black Cowboys:
* Federation of Black Cowboys (NYC) - based at the Cedar Lane Stables in Queens, New York, the FoBC formed in 1994 to share the group's common love of horses and the forgotten legacy of the Black West
* Oakland Black Cowboy Association has spend over three decades sharing knowledge about the contributions of people of color in the settling of the West
Previosuly: Urban Horsemen in Philadelphia - The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club uses the urban cowboy pastime to steer young boys away from street violence
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Fantastic! Awesome, awesome post. You wouldn't know it from watching (most) westerns, but the American West after the civil war was a FAR more ethnically diverse place than any other region of the country. Not just African Americans, but also Chinese, Hispanic, and Native American peoples in way higher numbers than either the east or the south.
posted by absalom at 1:59 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Of course, many early cowboys were vaqueros from Mexico along with not insignificant numbers Native Americans.

And, on preview, what absalom said as well.
posted by tommasz at 2:02 PM on February 25, 2011

Next you'll tell me Ghengis Khan wasn't white!

(amazing post)
posted by Navelgazer at 2:06 PM on February 25, 2011

And as seen by the parents of Crawford Goldsby/Cherokee Bill, races weren't distinct categories. While some histories tell of range equality, there was plenty of discrimination against minorities and women, though that previously linked source says there was less economic disparity between white and black cowboys.

Anyway, there is a lot of interesting history on the internet. This is just the tip of it, and focused on three characters picked (more or less) at random from the many names I came across. Happy reading!
posted by filthy light thief at 2:24 PM on February 25, 2011

Any excuse to link to The Persuasions is OK by me.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:26 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by cashman at 2:32 PM on February 25, 2011

Mary Fields is an icon in these parts (central Montana). Recently featured in a news segment re: Black History Month. The first Montana State Librarian was also a black woman, BTW.
posted by davidmsc at 2:46 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

It is Black History month and so we recognize black cowboys, black baseball teams, black soldiers in the Civil war. In most instances, they were segregated from white equivalents.

Among the many many important figures not noted in Black History month because they were not Black: the folks lreferred to as "Breed," that is half indian and half white. Many a white soul and some white soldiers, took indian wives, and many of them also lived with indians, finding that way of life more to their liking...often these half breeds--scorned sometimes by whites but not so much by indians--served as scouts, earning salaries this way because they could also act as translators.

there will be no sites or pages to memoralize them.
posted by Postroad at 3:06 PM on February 25, 2011

Great post.
posted by Miko at 3:40 PM on February 25, 2011

I was surprised to learn in a Wyoming History class that Rock Springs, Wyoming, was at one time one of the most diverse cities in the world due to the different nationalities of the people who were mining there. Today, not so much.
posted by elder18 at 3:51 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Postroad - this was inspired by a comment overheard on some news program this month, but from what I've read (and posted), black cowboys weren't segregated, but there was some discrimination. As for the people of mixed heritage, some of them get placed in collections of historic African-American people and events, while a few collections consider all overlooked minorities.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:54 PM on February 25, 2011

A lasting legacy of the (buffalo) soldiers as park rangers is the Ranger Hat (popularly known as the Smokey Bear Hat). Although not officially adopted by the Army until 1911, the distinctive hat crease, called a Montana Peak, (or pinch) can be seen being worn by several of the Buffalo Soldiers in park photographs dating back to 1899.

What a great post, thank you!
posted by snsranch at 4:00 PM on February 25, 2011

In Alberta, Canada, there was John Ware.

Huh, wikipedia says, "Born a slave Ware worked his way to being one of the most well respected figures in frontier Alberta crossing race lines thanks to his good nature and hard work. . . . Several geographical features near the Wares' ranch are named in their honour:
* John Ware Ridge (formerly Neighbour John Ridge)"

I'm pretty sure the Alberta History prof observed that the original name of that ridge, named in his honour, involved the N-word, not "Neighbour."
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 4:28 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

corrected link: N-word
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 4:29 PM on February 25, 2011

This is a freaking GREAT, well-researched post. Well done!
posted by pluckysparrow at 4:44 PM on February 25, 2011

Awesome post, filthy light thief - I have been enjoying it.

I had been collecting a few links on Stagecoach Mary, but you covered them all and then some. I love that she became friends with the actor Gary Cooper and he wrote the article in Ebony that you link as earned her reputation for being tougher than most any man - what an amazing woman.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:13 PM on February 25, 2011

Not african-american, but a minority among stagecoach drivers nonetheless, Charley Parkhurst was found to actually be Charlotte after her death.
posted by 445supermag at 7:23 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I first played Red Dead Redemption, the wild west Xbox video game, I spent hours just wandering around amazed at the gorgeous scenery and recreated frontier towns. In one of those towns, I saw for the first time a black non-playable character. The anthropologist in me was intrigued that the game designers had modeled the historical demography, I walked up to him and tried to get a closer look.

Unfortunately, I didn't have complete mastery of the controls, because I ended up blowing his head off with my shotgun.
posted by bergeycm at 11:09 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

The first Montana State Librarian was also a black woman, BTW.

Please tell me more!
posted by ikahime at 7:41 AM on February 26, 2011

While we're (semi) sidetracked on black history in Montana - this is a great video for history buffs and bicyclists alike: Bicycle Corps: America's Black Army on Wheels. The story of an experimental bicycle corp that biked from Montana to Missouri in 1897.
posted by 445supermag at 6:18 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

davidmsc: are you sure she was the first Montana State Librarian? In my bit of searching around, I've only found Alma Smith Jacobs (1916-1997), who is listed as "the first African American to serve as the Montana State Librarian" when she became the state librarian in 1973. Unless there is some forgotten history, perhaps you've swapped a bit of the wording?
posted by filthy light thief at 1:02 PM on February 28, 2011

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