By Kathaleen Roberts / Journal Staff Writer on Sun, Jun 30, 2013
Roy Rogers and Billy the Kid may have been the most famous cowboys of the Old West, but one-third of America’s cowboys were African Americans.
From the freed slaves who found work on the earliest cattle drives to the contemporary rodeo circuit, African American cowboys have been part of the West’s heritage for generations.
“A lot of African Americans went west —— that’s the one place where they could be judged like anyone else,” said Kevin Woodson of the Texas-based Cowboys of Color, sponsors of the largest multicultural rodeo tour in the world. Woodson and the Albuquerque-born Aaron Hopkins, also from Cowboys of Color, will speak at the New Mexico History Museum at 2 p.m. today after a screening of the short documentary “African American Cowboy: The Forgotten Man of the West” by film student Victoria Lioznyansky.
Many western ranch foremen of the 1850s were African American, Woodson said. African American cowboys were in high demand during the boom years of the western cattle drives from 1866-95.
“A lot of the cattle moving skills came from Africa. There’s even a breed of cattle called Watusi cattle,” Woodson said. “They (also) knew how to ride and handle horses on plantations.”
Cowboying offered the chance to leave the cotton fields and explore the vast western landscapes. University of Texas historians say up to one in three cowboys who drove cattle north up the Texas trails were of African American descent. As the Civil War broke out, many ranchers headed east while their African American employees tended cattle, broke horses, raised crops and staved off Indian attacks. When the war ended, thousands of cattle grazed the open range unbranded and untamed, ripe for roundup.
Kevin Woodson, seen above, of Cowboys of Color, will speak today about black cowboys. (COURTESY OF BRANDON THIBODEAUX)
In New Mexico, former ranch hand Jack Thorp was hunting stray horses near Roswell in 1899 when he stumbled upon a camp of black cowboys singing under the stars. The incident inspired Thorp to compile the world’s first book of campfire lyrics, “Songs of the Cowboy.”
Born a slave, George McJunkin grew up to become foreman of the Crowfoot Ranch near Folsom, where he discovered ancient bones that proved to be the oldest of their kind at the time.
And when Henry Boyer first came here in 1846 as a U.S. Army wagoneer for Gen. Stephen W. Kearny, he was awed by the state’s open spaces. His son Frank decided to try homesteading, walking from Pellam, Ga., to New Mexico with his student Daniel Keyes. Boyer and Keyes settled in an area near what is now Dexter in 1900. The pair worked on ranches until they were able to send for their wives and children, launching the all-black community of Blackdom, according to the New Mexico Office of the State Historian.
Then, Hollywood whitewashed the cowboy legend.
Director John Ford turned a dime novel about a black cowboy called Arizona Joe into “The Searchers,” (1956) starring John Wayne and Natalie Wood. Some scholars have traced its origins to the story of Brit Johnson, a black man who ransomed his captive wife and children with the Comanches in 1865, Woodson said.
“That movie is literally about the exploits of Britton Johnson,” he explained. “But they don’t say that when they roll the credits. He was known as one of the best shots in the west.”
The Oklahoma-raised Will Rogers learned his roping skills from Daniel Walker, an African American who was the most skilled cowboy on his father’s ranch.
Nat Love, who traveled from the Texas Panhandle to Arizona and Deadwood, S.D., was known as “one of the best shots in the West,” Woodson said. “Some whites tried to masquerade under the name.”
“Lonesome Dove” was lifted from the life of a black trail driver born into slavery named George Glenn, he added.
“There’s no way Larry McMurtry would have written that story without knowing about George Glenn,” Woodson maintained.
Three-fifths of the cowboys riding the Chisholm Trail were black, he added.
Woodson grew up in St. Louis, not knowing a single black cowboy. His mother took him to his first rodeo when he was 2. He was hooked for life. He brushed his first horse at the age of 5 or 6, he said.
“I just had that constant hunger,” he explained. “I read as much as I could and I learned to ride.”
When he announced to his (black) teacher that he wanted to be a cowboy, she said, “Be serious. There are no colored cowboys,” he added.
Woodson would grow up to prove her wrong. “I had read about all these different people,” he said. “So I wrote a report and gave it to the class. I was surprised, because I thought teachers knew everything.”
Woodson went to college, but he hung around people with horses. He attended a bullfighting school in Belleville, Ill.
“Other than the bulls and the horses, I was the only black thing there,” he said.
Woodson capped his 13-year career as a bullfighting rodeo clown by participating in the Bill Pickett Invitational Finals Rodeo in 1992 and 1993. The profession cost him a broken collarbone, a ruptured back and several broken fingers. Today, he competes in calf roping, teaches riding and western horsemanship and announces rodeos.
“I thank God every day I got to be a cowboy.”