Did You Know, One in FOUR Cowboys Was Black, Despite What They Show On TV?

Black Sheriff, Idaho,1903
Wikimedia Commons / Smithsonian

When most people hear the word “cowboy,” the first image that comes to mind is probably more Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry” and less Laurence Fishburne in “PeeWee’s Playhouse.” 

In pop culture, for every Black cowboy that appears on the screen there are hundreds if not thousands of White ones, which leaves viewers with a false and problematic understanding of American history. According to historians, one in four Cowboys in the 19th Century American Wild West (in states like Texas) were Black, and they worked alongside cowboys who were White, Mexican, and Native American.

Wikimedia Commons / Texas State Historical Association

In the 1800s, Americans who headed west to settle the frontier took slaves with them because someone had to run the cotton farms and cattle ranches. Smithsonian reports that by 1825, a quarter of the population of Texas settlements were slaves, and 35 years later that number grew to 30 percent, which was roughly 182,500 people. When Texans went off to fight in the Civil War, their Black slaves became pros in the cattle industry. So when the cattle population exploded and the slaves became freemen, guess which skilled workforce the former slave owners looked to to help keep things in order.

Over the years the industry changed, and for many, cowboys became a form of entertainment, a myth, and a symbol of the past. Cowboys became toys, games, and figures on television, and rodeos grew in popularity as public spectacles. Discrimination pushed Black cowboys further into the shadows while figures like The Lone Ranger were revered as American heroes, but that didn’t stop the Black cowboys from doing what they were born to do and excelling at it.

Representation of Black cowboys in pop culture is still very one-sided, but there have been a few documentaries over the years that have attempted to educate the masses about the forgotten men (and women). Films like "Buck and the Preacher," "Posse," "Blazing Saddles," "Django Unchained," and the 2016 remake of "The Magnificent Seven" all feature Black cowboys, but Hollywood still hasn't quite matched that one in four ratio yet.

Click here to get alerts of the latest stories