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Cowboys: A History

Cowboys and Western

The novel Shane, by Jack Schaefer, was first published in 1949. It’s considered by many to be a quintessential western. It features a lone wolf gunslinger with a tragic past, a devious cattle baron, and a climactic gunfight. These images were cemented with Alan Ladd’s performance as the titular character in the 1953 movie. But Westerns like Shane, in both movies and novels, have painted an incomplete picture of the old west and the people who inhabited it. The first people who could be considered “cowboys” in America appeared in the 1500s. They were largely Indigenous American “vaqueros,” from the Spanish word for cow, who were trained by Spanish colonizers to wrangle cattle on horseback, utilizing expert skill with a lasso.

In the 19th century, enslaved African American men were frequently trained in ranching. When the end of the Civil War saw those formerly enslaved moving north and west, many were able to gain work as cowhands. By the end of the 1800s, about a quarter of all cowboys and farmhands were Black and an even larger percentage were of Mexican descent. Although the contributions of these cowboys of color are not widely known, some of them have become legends in their own right.

Famous Black Cowboys

Nat Love was born in 1854 Tennessee and grew up during the Civil War and Reconstruction. After the Civil War, he moved to Texas and worked for 20 years moving cattle. In 1907, he wrote The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick.” In it he tells some tall tales about his adventurous life and many accomplishments, including a run in with “Buffalo” Bill Cody, winning the same horse in two different raffles, and being a horse whisperer. It was these stories that helped Nat go down in history as one of the most famous cowboys.

Bill Pickett was of African American and Cherokee descent. Born to formerly enslaved parents in 1870, the family moved to Texas when he was 18 years old. Pickett and his brothers opened a cowboy service, where they would break horses, move herds, and provide other ranching services. It was doing this work that Bill invented “bulldogging,” the skill of grabbing cattle by the horns and wrestling it to the ground. He’d eventually take this skill on the rodeo circuit, performing with “Buffalo” Bill Cody and Will Rogers.

Shane makes its world premiere in Moe and Jack's Place -- The Rouse Theatre June 3 through June 25.