Black Legends of the Wild, Wild West, Part 4

This is the fourth and final article of a Four Part Series on Black Folks, who helped to tame the west. First we looked at US Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, followed by Mary Fields aka Stagecoach Mary. Then James Pierson Beckwourth, American Mountain Man and our final legend from the old west is Nat (pronounced Nate) Love aka Deadwood Dick and a few others.  

Nat Love and 3 little cowpokesIf I told you that it was reasonable to assume that one out of every three cowboys, or even three out of every five in the old west were men of color, would you believe me? Keep in mind the duties of cowboys, especially drover’s included driving herds of cows over a long distant, often forging new trails, facing rustlers of all colors and creed, land barons looking to make a fast buck for allowing passage, and the always possibility of losing a small number of the cows along the way if not the entire herd. They had to manage the heat, wind or rain storms and lighting that may spook the cattle into a stampede.

Ever seen movies where the herd is restless on a dark night with the sound of accidental gunfire, thunder or lightning, maybe even the rattling of chuck wagons metal plates and cups sets them off. All trail hands mount up to stop them from running off a cliff or running themselves to deaths. Every seen the width of the horns on a Texas longhorn cow or steer? Imagine riding a galloping horse in the dark trying to avoid gopher holes and other obstacles on the ground. All while turning those puppies running at speeds up to twenty-five, thirty-five or even forty-miles-per hour depending on their size and what frightened them.

Once the remainder of the herd was delivered to the loading pens, the trail hands job was finished. They were off to celebrate a long hard journey by whatever amused them at the time. As depicted in the movies, since these were underpaid and overworked young men, they looked for quick thrills.  There was then, as is now for that matter, nothing like wine, women and song to provide a day and night to remember for a young man. I remember one night in South Korea in 1962…me and…whoops, sorry I almost forgot this story is about the old west.

Those cowhands that worked in the loading pens were considered less than the trail hands. You had to walk among the cattle prodding them along to different parts of the stockyard. Sometimes those cattle had been in those pens for days, eating, drinking water and releasing waste of all kinds’ right where they stood. So walking around in those pens could be difficult, made even worse if you are trying to cut out the group of cows from a large corral. Or steer, by prodding a bunch of cows with long poles, one at a time up a ramp for the purpose of loading them onto a train’s cattle car. Thus the name “cowpuncher” was awarded to these men. That could be dirty and nasty work for even less pay than a trail hand. Recorders of History via books, and writers of movie, TV scripts have all grouped these individual that handle cows on ranches, trail drives and pens at the end of the trail as “Cowboys.” Now I ask again, if I told you on an average, one out of every three Cowboys were men of color would you believe me?

Before, and even more freed and former slaves after the Civil War filled these low paying jobs.  This was during a time (late 1860’s to mid-1890’s) when the big herds were being driven from the west to eastern shipping points and beyond. Most still earned less than their white counterparts. Emancipated Blacks contributed to filling a workforce void of white men because of the huge number of manpower lost by the Confederacy and Union States alike. Add that to losses in the West, such as the Indian Wars, rampant diseases, land rights skirmishes, and Saturday night shoot-outs or just overall drunken gunfights.  One can see why the life expectancy for those type individuals (cowboys, gunslingers & outlaws) was around thirty-five.

There were over 186, 000 black people serving in the Union Armies. A very small number served in the Confederacy, most until the first chance they had to run away from the masters who had them there to fill the dirtiest jobs that Southerners did not want to do. At war’s end, the Union Army established colored units from those men who fought during the Civil War. There were four infantry units and two Cavalry regiments. All units accepted new recruits who were fit for duty. This was also a way for emancipated blacks to earn a living and get an education while gaining respect from most in the nation as part of the Armed Services of the United States. All units, 24th, 25th, 38th, 40th, and 41st Infantry regiments along with the 9th and 10th Cavalry were stationed in the south-western Plains.

This was right in the heart of the Indian Wars being fought on behalf of the residents and new settlers to the area. By now you have heard of the term “Buffalo Soldiers.”  A term of respect for their bravery bestowed upon the 9th and 10th Cavalry by the Cheyenne and Comanche Indians. The Buffalo Soldiers fought Indians, cattle rustlers, Mexican revolutionaries, outlaw gangs, all while patrolling small ranches and railway construction lines. They contributed to building military outposts and erected telegraph lines.

Some call him the most famous black cowboy of them all. Nat (pronounced Nate) Love was born a slave, in Davidson County, Tennessee in 1854. Reading was against the law for slaves, nevertheless, as a child, he was taught how to read and write by his father, Sampson. After slavery had ended, his father, once a slave foreman in the fields, and his wife (Nat’s mother, a former manager of the plantations kitchen) settled on a small farm. Sampson Love died after the second years planting of tobacco and corn crops. Nat had to take a job on a neighboring farm to help out with the dwindling family finances.

After a few more years of odd jobs in the area, he left for the west. He was in search of a better life and earning a living while yearning for a free young man’s adventurous lifestyle. He met Bronco Jim, one of the black cowboys who were part of a Texas bunch preparing to return home after delivering their herd to Dodge City, Kansas. Asking for a job, the trail boss agreed to hire him if he rode and broke one of the orneriest horses in the outfit. Bronco Jim, his name giving his profession, gave his newfound friend a few quick pointers. Albeit the toughest ride of his life, he survived the ride and was hired.

It didn’t take him long to be indoctrinated into the hard life of a cowboy. After being involved in Indian hostile’s attacks and fighting off rustlers, he took every chance he could to practice shooting his forty-five pistol. He became a marksman with the weapon. He left his Texas Panhandle job and landed in Arizona working with Mexican vaqueros. Nat picked up the Spanish language and learned to identify cattle brands. The spring of 1876 saw his outfit head out for Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory to deliver three thousand head of cattle. They rode into town on the day before the Fourth of July celebrations.

The betting members in the town had put together a sporting event in honor of the holiday. It was a contest ideal to show off the expertise of a cowboy. $200 (equal to $5000 today) would be awarded to the best man who could rope, throw, tie bridles, saddle and ride some of the wildest mustangs, chosen for the contest. Note the winner had to perform the feat quicker than any other in the contest. There were a dozen men, six of them black, who entered the event. Nat completed the task in nine minutes, three minutes and twelve seconds better than his closest competitor, another black cowboy. Next was rifle and Colt shooting event. Each contestant was to fire rifle twelve shots, and the same amount of pistol rounds at a black bull’s eye target placed at 100 and 250 yards. Nat hit the bull’s-eye on all his rifle shots with ten of the twelve pistol shots hitting the target almost dead center. Nat Love’s display of his cowboy skills and marksmanship earned him the $200 in prize money so much so that Deadwood City town folk gave him the name of “Deadwood Dick.”

The words of Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love which appears in his self-authored 1907 autobiography, entitled “Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country ad ‘Deadwood Dick’ by Himself.” are descriptive of a specific era in our history. He wrote, “It has now been many years since I quit the range, and as my mind wanders back over those years as it often does, memories both pleasant and sad pass in review and it is but fitting that I record a few of them as a final to the history of my life which has been so full of action, which is but natural as the men of those days were men of action. They had to be, and probably their actions were not all good, that I freely admit, but while that is so, it is equally so that their actions were not all bad, far from it. And in the history of the frontier there is recorded countless heroic deeds performed, deeds and actions that required an iron nerve, self denial in all that these words imply, the sacrificing of one life to save the life of a stranger or a friend. Deeds that stamped the men of the western plains as men worthy to be called men, and while not many of them would shine particularly in the polite society of today or among the 400 of Gotham, yet they did shine big and bright in the positions and at a time when men lived and died for a principle, and in the line of duty. A man who went to the far west or who claimed it as his home in the early days found there a life far different from that led by the dude of Fifth Avenue. 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.”

Nat Love worked as a Pullman porter on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in the latter part of his life. He died (1921) in Los Angeles, California at the ripe old age of sixty-seven, some thirty-two years beyond the life expectancy of his peers from that era.

Men like “One Horse Charlie,” a black cowboy who reportedly rode with the Shoshone Indian tribe.

There are numerous black cowboys from that era. Men like Bronco Sam, who once rode a longhorn steer on a dare. This after his crew roped and saddled the animal for the black bronco-buster. He rode the bucking and frightened steer down the main street of Cheyenne, Wyoming followed by his crew yelling in encouragement. After seeing its own reflection in the glass window of a clothing storefront, the animal charged through the window directly at his reflection. Store shoppers and clerks went diving to get out of the way of this bucking animal. People on the outside watched as the animal turned back toward the hole he had made with is entrance. He ran, still bucking and trying to toss off Bronco Sam, who was still in the saddle. His horns had a few store items, underwear, pants, coats, and other assorted pieces of or whole garments. It was reported that Bronco Sam shouted after dismounting the steer now once again roped to be led back to the herd, “I brought out a suit of clothes for everybody in the crew.” Bronco Sam rode back into town and paid the shopkeeper $350 he said was owed him for the damages.

Then there is Jesse Stahl, who competed in an early 1900 Rodeo in Oregon. He felt he was cheated out of an outstanding first place ride by a racist judge who awarded his second place. In protest, Jesse rode his next bronco facing backward with a suitcase in his hand, just to show off his abilities for all to see.

Other men like Addison Jones, Range Boss, (1845-1926) aka “Nigger Add” or “Old Add.” He was a range boss for the LFD outfit where he led a crew of south Texas black cowboys. A man whose recognized cowboy skills in western Texas- eastern Mexico labeled him as “the most noted Negro cowboy that ever ‘topped off’ a horse.”

Isom DartBose Ikard (1843-1929), born a slave in Mississippi, arrive in Texas as a child with his owner Dr. Milton L. Ikard. After the Emancipation Proclamation, he stayed on with the Doctor as an employee until 1866. At which time he joined a trail drive to Colorado in the employ of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Eventually, he worked for Oliver Loving, who was killed in a skirmish against the Comanche’s and then as a tracker, cowboy and de facto banker for Charles Goodnight. The “Goodnight Loving Cattle Trail” was named after his bosses. Upon his death, Goodnight, paid for a grave marker for Bose Ikard. On it he inscribed “with me 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 Comanche’s, splendid behavior. C. Goodnight.”

Goodnight was quoted by the Weatherford Daily Herald in June of 1929, saying “I have trusted him farther than any living man. He was my detective, banker, and everything else in Colorado, New Mexico, and the other wild country I was in.” 

Authors Note: I was proud to learn that the character of Joshua Deets (portrayed by actor Danny Glover) in one of my favorite cowboy movies, the TV mini-series, Lonesome Dove was based on Bose Ikard. By the way, Lonesome Dove’s four episodes in 1989 were Co-Executive Produced by Motown’s Suzanne De Passe. It has an outstanding all-star cast and storyline. A storyline I also learned while doing the research for this article is based on the lives of Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight. This is why I love American history.

Not so final, but finally for this article is Ned Huddleston (aka Isom Dart) (1849-1900). Born as a slave in Arkansas he later earned such nicknames as the “Black Fox” and the “Calico Cowboy”. He ended up in Texas as a twelve-year-old in the company of his owner in 1861, a Confederate Officer during the Civil War. After the war, he left for the southern Texas-Mexico border region. He found work as a stunt rider which enhanced his horse skills.  He was labeled as an Outlaw while working with Terresa, a young Mexican bandit as they rustled horses in Mexico. They brought the stolen mounts back across the Texas border, selling them for cash.

By 1875, he’d join up with the Tip Gault cattle and horse rustling Gang working out of southeastern Wyoming. The gang was eventually ambushed by an angry rancher and his men.  Everyone but Ned Huddleston was killed in the gunfight. Changing his name to Isom Dart, he began a new life of hard work as a bronco buster.

Around 1890, he became a rancher, even though, some of the Brown’s Hole locals felt he built up his herd with stolen cattle from their ranches. They hired the infamous Tom Horn, a range detective, to handle the matter. Horn, as was his style to take no chances, ambushed, killing Isom Dart on October 3, 1900. Some in the area were convinced of his guilt by the ranchers who hired Tom Horn. Others were not so sure as they saw a changed man in Isom Dart. They felt that cattlemen wanting his land were the real reason for the charge and killing.

Final Authors Note: For western yore and cowboy movie buffs like me, this has been a pleasure researching and writing this series. Doubling so because the stars are black like me. For all minorities, it is never too late to learn about your history and how America was built by people of all races, colors and creed. That is the beauty of the computer and internet, no one can tell you different. There are too many to credit here, but a heartfelt thank you to all that have documented the information I found in research, including some that have died but left books. I do have my sources on file.

One more request if you will. I know that we are in an instantaneous cycle as for as delivering and interpreting information and news. Let me caution people of color. We are individually responsible for ensuring we get information that is not only credible but inclusively thorough. Too many reporters in the majority of media outlets are settling for the headline grabber without completing the authentication process. As a kid, I never heard of the individuals noted in this article. Yet they lived, and made history that was not being reported during my childhood. Let’s not fall for the Okie-doke again.         

Peace, make it a day in which Jesus Christ would be proud of you,

Codis Hampton II

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