People like lawman Bass Reeves, mail carrier Stagecoach Mary, cowboy Nat Love, con man Ben Hodges, and rodeo star Bill Pickett show African Americans’ contribution to the Old West was rich and varied.

Over the course of more than 30 years as a Wild West lawman, Bass Reeves “had a button shot off his shoe, his belt buckle shot in half, his hat brim shot off and his horse’s bridle reins shot through” – yet he was never wounded while tracking and hauling back the 3,000 criminals he’s credited with arresting.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Reeves was one of many African Americans who rode through the Wild West and Kansas area but who aren’t as famous as their White counterparts, like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid.

When it came to cowboys, “the typical trail crew [taking cattle from ranches in Texas to railroads in Kansas] had two or three Blacks among its eight cowboys,” author William Loren Katz writes in the book “Black People Who Made the Old West.”

“The first man killed in Dodge City was a Black cowboy named Tex,” Katz wrote. He was watching a gunfight between two Whites, and a stray bullet hit him.

Averaging the stats given by various sources, there were probably around 10,000 Black cowboys and maybe 100,000 Black settlers in the era. Author John Ravage writes in his book “Black Pioneers” that they may have accounted for up to 3% of the people in the West.

Though they were outnumbered, the Western movie star Gary Cooper told Ebony Magazine in 1959 that he felt Blacks (and Asians) had played an important part in developing the West.

Reeves has received attention in the last few years for being a possible inspiration for The Lone Ranger. Though this claim has been debunked, Reeves’ life and career legacy are impressive enough.

Enslaved in Texas until his 20s, Reeves escaped during the Civil War while serving his owner, a Confederate officer.

He successfully hid in what was called Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, and learned several Native languages, how to shoot and ride horses, and how to live in the wild.

His skills, good reputation and imposing size – 6-feet-2 and 180 pounds – led to him being recruited as a deputy in 1875 by the U.S. Marshal for Indian Territory.

Indian Territory was essentially a big reservation area where Native Americans had been pushed into when the government took their ancestral land.

There was virtually no law, and criminals frequently escaped there to hide – forcing Reeves and his fellow officers to hunt them around an area of about 75,000 square miles.

Mike Searles, a retired history professor from Augusta State University in Georgia, told BBC Radio that his research into the time period suggested that Blacks on the frontier benefited from “range equality.”

“As a cowboy you had to have a degree of independence,” he said. “You could not have an overseer, they had to go on horseback and they may be gone for days.”

Taking a chuck wagon, a cook and a scout, and sometimes a posse, Reeves would search the range for months for the men whose names were on the warrants in his pocket.

He actually couldn’t read, and had his companions tell him the names and crimes on the warrants, and he memorized them. He was known to approach men he wanted to arrest and ask them to read their warrant; they were caught off guard, and he’d draw his gun and cover them.

A famous story about Reeves was the time he trailed two brothers. He suspected they’d go to their mother’s house, so he disguised himself as a tramp with bullet holes in his hat and went to the house, fooled the mother into feeding him and waited for the young men to show up. They did, and he fooled them too. The men went to bed thinking they had a new partner in crime. When they fell asleep, Reeves silently cuffed them and in the morning marched them to where his posse was waiting, 28 miles away. The angry mother followed for the first three miles.

Reeves’ saddest mission came when he had to track down his own son for murdering the son’s wife. It took two weeks, but Reeves brought in his son peacefully. The young man was sentenced to life but was released years later on good behavior and was a model citizen.

When Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma in 1907, Reeves, nearing 70 years old, left the hard riding to join the Muskogee Police Dept. He remained there a couple years until failing health forced him to retire. He died in 1910.

Reeves is remembered as an upstanding man, a quick draw on the gun, and a sharp dresser who favored wide-brim hats, good suits and polished boots.

Recent times have seen him commemorated with various hall-of-fame honors; a 25-foot-tall bronze statue in Fort Smith, AR, where he hauled outlaws to court; and the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge on US-62 Highway spanning the Arkansas River between Muskogee and Fort Gibson, OK.

A FEW OTHER BLACK COWBOYS

BEN HODGES was an original smooth criminal who made Dodge City his home from the 1870s to his death in 1929.

He arrived as a cattle drover, the son of a Black man and a Mexican woman from Texas.

There’s a famous photograph of him looking like a real gunfighter – stern look, big mustache, hat cocked to the side, shotgun in hand, and six-shooter on his belt – but he was actually a charmer who tried to keep people laughing while he schemed to fleece the wealthy.

Learning of an old Spanish land grant near Dodge City, he gathered documents and twisted his Mexican ancestry to prove he was the rightful owner of the land.

Many locals knew his claim was phony but supported him because they thought they stood to win, too, if he succeeded. A bank president who was new to town believed the story and extended to Hodges a line of credit and letter of recommendation. In the end, though, he didn’t succeed in getting the land.

He earned a reputation for gambling and for rustling cattle.

He was finally caught for stealing one herd, and was put on trial. Low on money, he represented himself in court against damning evidence. The people of Dodge City thought for sure he was going to prison.

Hodges spoke to the jury for two hours, and they hung on every word, even laughing at his jokes.

“What me,” Hodges said, “the descendant of old grandees of Spain, the owner of a land grant embracing millions of acres, the owner of gold mines and villages and towns situated on that grant of which I am sole owner, to steal a miserable, miserly lot of old cows? Why, the idea is absurd. No, gentlemen, I think too much of the race of men from which I sprang, to disgrace their memory.”

The jury found him not guilty, and the cows wandered back to their owners’ land soon after.

On his death, Hodges’ friends buried him in Dodge City’s Maple Grove Cemetery, among many cattlemen and cowboys he’d known and swindled.

“We buried him there for a good reason,” one of his pall bearers said. “We wanted him where they could keep a good eye on him.”

NAT LOVE aka “Deadwood Dick” also took work as a cowboy in Dodge City in the 1870s, after leaving Tennessee plantation life at age 16.

By his own account, he had a gift for breaking horses and also became an excellent marksman. On cattle drives, he endured every type of weather and fought cattle thieves. He won money and prestige in rodeos, including the handle “Deadwood Dick,” in honor of a popular pulp novel character.

He left the Western life in 1889 to marry, and worked for years as a Pullman porter on railroad passenger cars. It paid more money and was less dangerous.

His last years were spent with his family in Los Angeles, and working as a courier and guard for a financial company.

In 1996, he was portrayed by Ernie Hudson in the HBO movie “The Cherokee Kid,” about a fictional Old West African American outlaw played by Sinbad.

Part of Love’s legacy is the memoir he wrote in 1907, “Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself.” Though historians have had trouble verifying his claims, Love’s book is considered one of the most exciting cowboy stories to be written down.

The other part of his legacy is being the subject of maybe the most famous two photographs of a Black cowboy. They come from the same studio session. Wearing chaps, a bandana around his neck, and a wide-brim hat atop his thick natural hair, in one he stands with a hand on his rifle and the other on his gun belt, and in the other photo he holds his lasso. In both photos, he stares out at us from the Old West like he could walk out of it and throw down right now.

STAGECOACH MARY, real name Mary Fields, actually drove a horse-drawn wagon to carry mail on a “star route” out of Cascade, Montana. She was said to be “as reliable as a stagecoach.”

If snow was too deep for her horses, Fields wore snowshoes and carried the mail sacks on her shoulders. She was sturdy, tall and weighed about 200 pounds, and wore men’s clothes with an apron and skirt over her pants. 

Freed from slavery in her 30s, Fields did domestic work for a judge’s family and then for a mother superior, Mother Mary Amadeus, at a convent in Ohio. When Mother Mary was sent to Montana Territory to start a school for Native American girls, and came down with pneumonia, Fields traveled to care for her.

The nun recovered, and Fields remained at the convent hauling freight, doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, and repairing buildings, and eventually becoming the forewoman.

Fields was a tough, independent woman who had her own way of doing things.

Local Native Americans called her “White Crow”, because “she acts like a white woman but has black skin.” Local Whites didn’t know what to make of her, either. One schoolgirl wrote an essay saying, “She drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.”

She fought with the hired men who worked the convent grounds, even drawing her gun on at least one. Complaints to the area’s bishop resulted in Fields being fired, though she had only ever worked for room and board there, never being paid wages.

Mother Mary set up Fields in the restaurant business in Cascade, but it failed in a year because she extended too much credit to customers.

Then, around 1890, Mother Mary helped Fields win the contract bid on the mail route from Cascade, and Fields held the contract for eight years – that is when Mary Fields became known as Stagecoach Mary.

Amazingly, she was between 50 and 60 years old at the time.

After her mail contract ended, Stagecoach Mary remained in Cascade operating a laundry and babysitting business. She had a house with a flower garden that was one of her joys, alongside whiskey and cigars.

She was beloved by the townspeople. Though women were prohibited from drinking in the local saloons, the mayor gave Stagecoach Mary special permission to do so. When her laundry building burned down, the townspeople rebuilt it for her. She was even the mascot for Cascade’s baseball team.

Old age didn’t soften her. While drinking in the saloon one day, she saw a man pass by who owed her $2 for laundry. The 70-year-old woman followed him outside and down the street, grabbed him by the collar and knocked him down with her fist. Walking back in the saloon, she said, “His laundry bill is paid.”

The movie actor Gary Cooper grew up in Montana and recalled seeing Stagecoach Mary. In a guest column for Ebony Magazine, he reflected, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw breath or a .38.”

Stagecoach Mary died in 1914, aged about 82, and was named to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2015.

BILL PICKETT may be the most famous Black cowboy. He was known for his rodeo skills and was a star performer with one of the biggest traveling Wild West shows of the late 1800s – early 1900s, the Miller Bros.’ 101 Ranch, which was based at a 110,000-acre ranch near Ponca City, OK.

The show was like a Western circus, with a buffalo chase, Native American sports and dances, riding stunts, sharp shooters, bucking broncos, and reenactments of cowboy-vs.-Native shootouts. It performed across the U.S. and Europe.

Pickett’s specialty was bulldogging, or steer wrestling. Instead of using a rope to lasso a running bull from his horse, he leaped from his horse onto the bull, grabbed a horn in each hand and twisted the animal’s neck until it rolled to the ground on its side.

“His sense of timing, guts, and power gave it a flowing quality associated with a ballet performance,” author William Katz wrote in “Black People Who Made the Old West.”

Two of his ranch assistants became famous in movies and radio: Tom Mix and Will Rogers. Rogers eulogized Pickett’s 1932 death on a national radio broadcast.

Pickett was the first African American named to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Alongside Black mountain man Jim Beckwourth, Pickett was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1994 in the company of Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock, Geronimo, Annie Oakley and other famous Western heroes, sparking new interest in his legacy.

Sources: “Black People Who Made the Old West” by William Loren Katz, “Black Pioneers” by John Ravage, Wikipedia, True West Magazine, Ebony Magazine, CowboysOfColor.org.

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