The Forgotten Cowboys

by Lydia Wei, age 16
The Forgotten Cowboys

“The cowboy. A figure bathed in romance and national worship, the cowboy represents open lands, rugged individualism, and wandering, roaming freedom—diving into the unknown, unafraid, charging on a lone horse. The cowboy is the essence of American life, what we want to be; he is our quintessential hero. And he is always—always—white. However, white men were never the only ones out on the range, and they certainly were not the only ones with a hand in the American cowboy culture.”

The cowboy. A figure bathed in romance and national worship, the cowboy represents open lands, rugged individualism, and wandering, roaming freedom—diving into the unknown, unafraid, charging on a lone horse. The cowboy is the essence of American life, what we want to be; he is our quintessential hero. And he is always—always—white.

However, white men were never the only ones out on the range, and they certainly were not the only ones with a hand in the American cowboy culture. During the late 19th century following the Civil War, cattlemen and ranchers saw the economic potential in the Great Plains, and over 55,000 cowboys worked the plains between 1866-1885. Twenty-five percent of these cowboys were African Americans who brought their own culture, which they had already developed during their time as slaves, to the open ranges, where it became the heart of cowboy culture.

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Buckaroo!” With its kicking k’s and howling oo’s, the word “buckaroo” is a classic example of Wild West slang. Meaning cowboy, “buckaroo” is generally believed to come from the equivalent Spanish word vaquero. But as with all history, origins are murky, and it is equally likely that “buckaroo” arose from African American influence, specifically the Gullah word buckra. Gullah, a language orginaly spoken by Southern slaves, was carried out west by black cowboys who quickly adapted its vocabulary for their new life of strange, foreign geography, unfamiliar work, and, most notably, heightened socio-economic tension in a work system much different from that of the plantations. Buckra, in particular, reflects these environmental factors, and to understand its use by African American cowboys requires an understanding of the African American cowboy’s status in the social hierarchy of the West.

While the segregation between white cowboys and African American cowboys was customary, the presence of Mexican vaqueros on the range complicated this relationship. African Americans, outnumbered by Mexicans who were better trained for range work, found themselves in economic competition with another minority group. Though neither group was fully accepted by the white cowboys, Mexican vaqueros were regarded as above black cowboys.

The Mexicans’ attitudes merely added insult to injury; contemptuous and condescending, “como un negro” was their supreme insult. Resentful of the Mexicans’ mockery and superiority, African American cowboys turned against the Mexican vaqueros by attacking them viciously through a coded language.

Buckra, in essence, means “white man” or “master”; “buckaroo” is simply a variation of buckra, intended to be confused with vaquero to disguise its meaning. The use of words with double meanings was common among African Americans, hiding an often derisive and risque message. “Buckaroo” fell perfectly into this pattern: African Americans privately ridiculed Mexican cowboys by sarcastically referring to them as white men or masters. Because of its phonetic proximity to vaquero, outsiders—both whites and Mexicans—only picked up on the surface meaning of “buckaroo,” which was cowboy. This secret language gave African Americans a feeling of dominance over the Mexicans, allowing them to preserve their pride in the face of harsh racial and economic competition on the plains. The fact that “buckaroo” has remained with us to this day as a distinguishing cachet of cowboy culture is a testament to the gritty survival of the black cowboy in the wild, wild West.

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It was John Lomax, the 19th-century American folklorist, who best described the beauty of Western music in his collection Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp: “Here… we may see the cowboy at work and at play; hear the jingle of his big bell spurs, the swish of his rope, the creaking of his saddle gear, the thud of thousands of hoofs on the long, long trail winding from Texas to Montana…” Indeed, cowboy music alone is material enough to retell the history of the West; its narratives and melodies carry us to an untethered land of young blood, beaten trails, and cattle drives. Though neglected and forgotten, African American cowboys were the keepers and interpreters of this cowboy legend, making significant contributions to Western music’s early formation.

When African Americans went out to work on the range, they brought with them an already developed musical culture from the plantations. In both structure and content, the ballads of the West originated from the field holler and moan sung by black slaves: a traditional three-chord ballad with narrative and sentimental lyrics. The song “Levee Camp Moan,” sung by Texas Alexander, contains the brooding lyrics and poignant reflections characteristic of black music and, later, of cowboy music: “They accused me of murder,/And I haven’t harmed a man,/They accused me of forgery,/And I can’t write my name.”

Songs by African American cowboys appear in numerous collections from the era. The first collector of cowboy songs, Jack Thorpe, began his work in 1889; his initial find was “Dodgin’ Joe,” a song by an African American cowboy and popular amongst black trail crews.

John Lomax’s collections, including 1910’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads and 1919’s Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp, contain plenty of songs by black cowboys; indeed, several of the most famous songs in both collections, such as “Git Along Little Dogies”, “Sam Bass”, and “Home on the Range”, came from African American cowboys. This music gave African Americans an indispensable role in the landscape of the West: by pouring the tribulations and joys of the trails into rowdy, sentimental music, African American cowboys reached out in song to touch other cowboys, alleviating the loneliness of the plains and making range life’s hardships a little more bearable.

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Rodeo is the poetry of raw physicality, unpredictable creatures, and sacrifice; a battle between injury, immortality, and glory. Long dubbed “the toughest sport on Earth,” rodeo holds an undeniable appeal as a symbol of cowboy masculinity—after all, who else but a seasoned cowboy would even dare to handle a thrashing, bucking bull? African American cowboys too took part in this show of bravado and bravery, making rodeo the heroic sport it is today.

During slavery, African Americans often made up work crews responsible for the maintenance of ranches, including breaking horses, and after the Civil War, African American cowboys rounded up and branded cattle. These requisite skills made African American cowboys a perfect fit for the sport of rodeo; in fact, rodeo itself began with African Americans, NativeAmericans, and Mexicans teaching white men how to rope and wrangle cattle.

African Americans continued to develop their early cattle-ranching skills, and soon began creating their own thrilling rodeo events. Bill Pickett, an African American rodeo star, invented bulldogging, a rodeo style in which cowboys control a bull by biting its lip and subduing it. Pickett performed this trick for audiences across the country on numerous rodeo circuits; to this day, bulldogging remains one of the most popular events of rodeo. Nat Love and John Ware, both African American cowboys, were pivotal figures in early rodeo. Love was celebrated for his daring exploits and his roping, bridling, saddling, shooting, and bronco riding skills, earning the nickname “Deadwood Dick”; Ware, along with Pickett, popularized bulldogging. African American cowboys also created roman racing, a rodeo style where contestants ride standing upright on the backs of two horses. The evolution of rodeo, it appears, is as dynamic as the sport itself.

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History is fickle, constantly subject to reinterpretation: narratives are hidden, then retrieved; memory is pregnant with meaning. In previous interpretations of Western history, African Americans, under a veil of racism, became the forgotten cowboys—their contributions overlooked and underestimated, their place in the wild West ignored. By reexamining Western history, we lift the corner of the veil and begin to see the full picture of the development of cowboy culture. The African American influence reverberates in the twang and rhythm of a hollered “buckaroo!”, in the bittersweet blues of a cowboy ballad, in the dust kicked up by racing rodeo horses. The history of the forgotten cowboys reminds us that the cowboy, a classic emblem of American life, is very much a product of multiethnic and multiracial influences; indeed, it is diversity that makes America so uniquely American.

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