The Fearless Black Cowboy of the Wild, Wild West

From shootouts on horseback to hitchhiking toward a place called Dodge, if ever a life was tailor-made for the movies, it was that of the one-time slave known as Deadwood Dick.

The Fearless Black Cowboy of the Wild, Wild West

On July 3, 1876 — eight days after Custer and his men were killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn — a cattle drive arrived in the Black Hills boomtown of Deadwood, South Dakota. Three thousand longhorn steers had been brought up from Texas via New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. One of the men driving this herd was a twenty-two year old cowhand named Nat Love. A large number of cowboys were already in town and, along with the freshly arrived Texans, they decided to hold an impromptu rodeo to determine the most skilled cowhand in Deadwood. Love, one of six African-Americans participating in the competition, won the roping contest by lassoing and mounting a wild mustang in nine minutes flat. He swept the shooting contests as well, nailing fourteen out of fourteen bullseyes with his rifle, and ten out of twelve with his pistol. Love — who had previously gone by the nickname Red River Dick — was awarded two hundred dollars and a new name: Deadwood Dick.

Love’s shooting skills had been honed over the course of seven long years on the cattle trails. In his 1907 autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” which remains the main source of information on his life, Love writes, “In those days on the great cattle ranges there was no law but the law of might, and all disputes were settled with a forty-five Colt pistol. In such cases the man who was quickest on the draw and whose eye was the best, pretty generally got the decision.” He had become adept with firearms to defend himself and his trail mates against rustlers, Native American raiding parties, saloon brawlers and stampeding animals. The mighty buffalo were still abundant on the plains, and hunting them served as both sport and a source of food on the trail. Love relied on the mass-produced, repeating firearms that defined the era: the Winchester lever action rifle and the single-action, six-shot Colt revolver. ”It was of the greatest importance,” Love writes, “that the cow boy should understand his gun, its capabilities and its shooting qualities.”

While Love was proficient with his firearms and willing to use them if he had to, he was was not one of the many Western lawmen and outlaws who made their names as a killer. Rather, he was an affable, hardworking cowhand who enjoyed sharing the free life of the range with his friends. At one point in his memoir, he describes a fight that broke out between his trail mates and some outlaws at a makeshift saloon. “A fuss was started between our men and some cattle rustlers resulting in some shooting, but fortunately without serious consequences. As we were not looking for trouble, and not wishing to kill any one we left at once for home.” Love would much rather ride off with his pals then have to engage in violence.

This is not say that the man was mild-mannered. He was known for drunken, prankish acts of bravado, such as riding as horse into a saloon and ordering whiskey for both himself and the horse, or lassoing a cannon at an Army fort and attempting to ride off with it. More than these antics, though, Love was known for riding the cattle trails and doing what needed to be done in a rough situation. He prided himself on his “cool head and a steady hand.” Love was a cowboy’s cowboy. The tales of his life, as he wrote them, capture the essence of the cowboy experience in general, and the African-American cowboy experience in particular.

Nat Love is the emblematic African-American cowboy, but he was by no means the only one. While there are no comprehensive records of cowboys — who were by definition transient, and often used assumed names — historians estimate that at least a quarter, if not a full third, of all cowboys in the Old West were black. The first significant number of black cowboys was found in Texas prior to the Civil War. Most of them were slaves owned by white ranchers, but some were freemen. The famous western cattle trails were established in the 1860s, immediately after the Civil War, just as many former slaves were looking to begin new lives. These trails led north from the ranches of Texas to the booming cattle markets of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. It is no surprise that many black men who had been born in slavery, either in Texas or in other Southern states, found work as cowhands.

Nat Love in an undated photo. (Public domain)
Nat Love in an undated photo.

Nat Love’s life fits squarely into this narrative. He was born on a plantation in Tennessee in 1854. He and his family were the slaves of a man named Robert Love. The slave schedules of the 1860 census list a five-year-old male amongst Robert Love’s twenty-two slaves; this is presumably Nat, though the slaves were not listed by name. As a small child, Nat witnessed horrific violence inflicted on his fellow slaves by their overseers. “Young as I was,” he writes, “my blood often boiled as I witnessed these cruel sights.” When Robert Love returned from fighting in the Confederate Army, he did not inform Nat’s family that they were now free, and they remained in bondage for a time after the war. Nat developed useful skills in his youth, such as horsemanship and hunting, but there were few prospects for a young black man in 1860s Tennessee other than a lifetime of backbreaking farm work for former slave masters. In 1869, when Love was fifteen, he left home and headed west.

While the West was by no means devoid of racism, it offered freedoms that the South did not. Back in Love’s home state of Tennessee, he would not even have been permitted to own firearms, let alone compete and make a name for himself with them. As the legal scholar Michael Waldman notes, in the 1860s Southern states “passed Black Codes seeking to restore slavery in all but name. These laws disarmed African Americans but let whites retain their guns.” In the West, though, all men carried firearms, regardless of race. The prevalence of African-American troops — the famous Buffalo Soldiers — in the United States Army acclimated western whites to seeing black men bearing arms. The Buffalo Soldiers served under white officers, but they exercised authority over white lawbreakers and mobs. The regular presence of black soldiers in newly established towns not subject to Black Codes often meant that businesses such as hotels and saloons served black customers, even when they did not serve Mexican or Native American customers.

Black cowhands were particularly embraced by their white peers. The necessities of trail life meant that cowboys of all races had to work, sleep and eat side by side. In their influential 1965 book, The Negro Cowboys, Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones write of the racist social strictures of Reconstruction-era Texas. “Upon Negro cowboys, however, these sanctions fell less heavily than upon many other Negroes, for as cowboys they had a well-defined place in an early established social and economic hierarchy.” Durham and Jones do go on to note, however, that this unique social role did not offer upward mobility. Even experienced and well-respected cowhands and top hands had little chance of ever being promoted to foreman of a cattle outfit.

Love’s range life began when he made his way from Tennessee to Dodge City, Kansas, by walking and hitchhiking on farmer’s wagons. Dodge, he writes, “was a typical frontier city, with a great many saloons, dance halls, and gambling houses, and very little of anything else.” In Dodge, Love found a short-handed Texas cattle outfit made up of white and black cowboys. They fed him breakfast, then gave him a job interview which consisted of mounting a bucking bronco named Good Eye. To the cowboys’ surprise, Love was able to ride Good Eye without being thrown. Having proven that he was a skilled horseman, and no “tenderfoot,” the teenage Love was taken on as a cowhand.

The experiences presented in Love’s memoirs coincide with what is known about African-American cowboy life. The Dodge City that Love walked into was examined by C. Robert Haywood in his journal article, “No Less A Man”: Blacks in Cow Town Dodge City, 1876-1886. While the majority of African-Americans were trapped in menial service and labor jobs, some did fairly well in Dodge during this time period. The racial segregation that came to be enforced at the end of the nineteenth century was not yet present in the early days of Dodge City, and the sight of blacks and whites eating and drinking together in integrated saloons, restaurants and hotels was not uncommon. Black cowboys received more respect than the local black laborers, as they not only worked with white cowboys but also earned the same wages as they did. Haywood writes, “Although subject to some of the same attitudes and customs as the permanent black residents, the black cowboys expected and received better treatment. The freedom and equality of range life had conditioned them to a more integrated relationship.” Dodge City was the terminus of many cattle drives, and cowboys came off the trail looking to spend their money. None of them were turned away.

For over two decades, Love helped drive hundreds-strong herds of longhorn cattle over hundreds of miles of open, lawless land. He took great pride in his work record, stating, “By strict attention to business, born of a genuine love of the free and wild life of the range, and absolute fearlessness, I became known throughout the country as a good all around cow boy and a splendid hand in a stampede.” Stampedes, which were indeed quite dangerous and could easily crush a slow cowboy to death, were only one of the obstacles faced on the trail. Treacherous weather and rugged terrain — such as sudden hailstorms and unmapped sheer cliffs — took their toll on men and beasts. Cowhands would spend upwards of two months on the trail, sleeping on the hard ground in the elements, working every waking hour to keep the cattle from wandering off, being stolen or getting killed.

The image of cowboys — and other Western heroes — as white was enshrined through film and television, but originally in the Western pulp novels that were sold for nickels and dimes throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before the advent of crime and detective stories, Western tales were the dominant form of pulp literature. The original Western novels were not about historical material; they were written at the height of the Wild West period, about contemporary events. Writers back east would eagerly gather news and rumors reported from the West and fill in the rest with their imaginations. At the same time, aspiring heroes and outlaws would devour the pulps in anticipation of their own adventures.

The cover image of Love's autobiography.
The cover image of Love’s autobiography.

It has only been in the past few decades that a strong effort has been made to reclaim the stories of men of color behind many pulp novels featuring white protagonists. For instance, the widely-panned 2013 film “The Lone Ranger,” starring two white men, had the unexpected effect of renewing public interest in Bass Reeves, an African-American United States Marshall whose adventures are believed to have been the inspiration for the white Lone Ranger. Unlike Reeves, and many forgotten African-American frontier figures, Nat Love made sure that his story was recorded by writing it himself. The publication of Love’s book established his claim as a Western hero.

Much of Love’s memoir is unverifiable, and a few episodes are downright dubious. Love claims to have been friends with several legendary Western figures such as Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill, but is unlikely that he had significant contact with any of these people. As Durham and Jones point out, it was something of a literary convention for Western memoirists to present “their travels throughout the Southwest so that they were in the right place and right time to see Billy the Kid in action.” The fact is, not that many people encountered Billy in his brief, twenty-one-year life. Charming as the image is, Billy probably did not take Love to see “the little log cabin where he said he was born.”

It is much more possible that Love did encounter Buffalo Bill (a.k.a. William F. Cody), as Cody spent decades traversing the country and meeting Western figures. However, if Cody did know Love, he didn’t find Love notable enough to mention him in his own, detailed autobiography. Of course, considering the disparaging way Cody writes about African-American soldiers, he would not necessarily have taken note, let alone written admirably, of Love even if he did encounter him.

In one particularly exciting adventure in his memoirs, Love rides off from his outfit in search of stray cattle and is ambushed by a band of Native Americans led by a chief named Yellow Dog. A bullet passes through Love’s leg, killing his horse. He uses the horse’s corpse as a breastwork, holding off his attackers with his rifle for quite a while. Love kills five warriors in the battle, but is eventually captured when he runs out of ammunition. Impressed by the fight that he has put up, the tribe feeds Love and tends to his wounds. He is adopted into the tribe and offered one of the chief’s daughters as a bride. Despite the woman’s attractiveness, Love has no desire to stay with Yellow Dog’s band. He steals a horse and escapes back to his outfit.

While it is clear that Love’s prowess in battle is exaggerated, there is one particularly interesting element of his captivity story that grounds it in some historical reality: “Yellow Dog’s tribe was composed largely of half breeds, and there was a large percentage of colored blood in the tribe.” In fact, Love cites this as the reason he survived the ordeal. “As I was a colored man they wanted to keep me, as they thought I was too good a man to die.” Western dime novels tended to essentialize Native American communities and exclude racial complexity, but Love’s description rings true. The first Africans came to the American West as members of Spanish exploration parties in the early 1500s. As William Loren Katz documents in his book Black Indians, African-Americans frequently joined, and intermarried with, various Native American tribes. Furthermore, many frontier tribes had better relations with black (and mixed-race) scouts, trappers and traders than with the whites they encountered. It is quite likely that Love’s skin color was an aid in his interaction with this Indian band. Katz does not take issue with the general plausibility of Love’s account; rather, he is troubled by the violent racism against Native Americans which Love exhibits throughout his book.

The fact that Love embellished his life story with celebrity encounters and heroic feats does not discredit his core account of range life. Durham and Jones, who enjoyed nitpicking Love’s claims, admit, “Although much of Love’s autobiography reads like a dime novel…there is nothing inherently incredible about any one of his adventures.”

Love’s working life outlasted the Old West period. “With the march of progress came the railroad,” he writes, “and no longer were we called upon to follow the long horned steers or mustangs on the trail.” Always a man of his times, Love moved to Denver, married a woman named Alice and went to work as a Pullman porter on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. It is a bit disconcerting to read about the same man who describes engaging in wild shootouts with rustlers now serving customers in exchange for tips. But the fact remains that cowboys were laborers, even if their labor was especially difficult and glamorous. Love worked very hard for fairly modest wages his entire life. In the 1910 census, Love, though by now a published author, lists his occupation as “laborer.”

To be clear, serving as a Pullman porter — and later a “porter in charge” — carried a sense of pride for Love. He posed for a photograph in his porter’s uniform with the same swagger that he once posed for an iconic photograph in his cowboy gear. The position of the Pullman porter was not a bad job; in fact, it served as an entry point for many African-Americans into the middle class. The company established Pullman, Illinois (now part of Chicago), as a model town for workers and their families. Love visited Pullman, but was not impressed by the fact that the town was dry, and contained no saloons within its limits.

Pullman porters later became known for their role in African-American labor organizing, laying a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement. This began with a strike in 1894. There is no way to know exactly how Love felt about the strike, as his memoirs include no direct mention of the company after 1893. It seems that he was still working as a Pullman porter through the 1890s, because the 1900 census — which spells his name “Natt Love” and finds him and Alice living in Salt Lake City — lists Love’s occupation as “porter.” His omission of the historic strike evidently stems from not wanting to speak negatively about either the Pullman Company or the striking workers. Love does makes vague statements in his book about “the great trusts, corporations and brokers, who have for years been robbing the people of this country,” but stops short of actually endorsing labor organizing. The last mention of the Pullman Company in Love’s memoirs is when he personally approaches George Pullman to appeal for matching contributions for a proposed, collectively-owned “Porter’s Home” on one thousand acres of land.

In the decades prior to the publication of Love’s book, when he was busy working on the railroad, “Deadwood Dick” had grown famous as the name of the star of a series of dime novels by Edward Wheeler. In Wheeler’s books, Deadwood Dick is a daring outlaw who roams the Black Hills, often robbing stagecoaches en route to Deadwood. These robberies tend to end in shootouts, much like the ones depicted in Love’s memoirs. The only real difference is that Love was on the side protecting transports to Deadwood, whereas Wheeler’s Deadwood Dick is on the side attacking them. Dick always stays one step ahead of the law, despite the standing five-hundred-dollar reward “For the apprehension and arrest of a notorious young desperado who hails to the name of Deadwood Dick.” He is frequently shot or stabbed in his adventures but always pulls through. Any adversity or challenge is dismissed with a “wild laugh.”

The connection between Love and Wheeler’s Deadwood Dick character is unclear. Wheeler’s first Dick novel, Deadwood Dick; or, The Black Rider of the Black Hills was published in 1877, the year after Love claims to have won the mantle. It is entirely possible that Wheeler — who lived in Philadelphia, and never traveled to the West — heard an account about Love, and appropriated the name for his character. Wheeler does frequently play fast and loose with the names of real people. Sitting Bull, who was a respected spiritual and political leader, is portrayed by Wheeler as “the fiend incarnate,” bearing no resemblance to the actual man. In the first chapter of The Black Rider of the Black Hills, Sitting Bull and his “score of hideously painted savages” kidnap a white teenage girl, beat her and tie her to a stake, all for no apparent reason. Wheeler also appropriates the identity of the real-life Calamity Jane for a character in his novels.

Edward Wheeler's Deadwood Dick character.
Edward Wheeler’s Deadwood Dick character.

On the other hand, Love could easily be the one playing fast and loose with the name. There is no evidence that Wheeler knew about Love, especially as Love’s name does not seem to have appeared in any newspapers as early as the 1870s. There is a chance that Love was still going by Red River Dick in 1877, and later borrowed the name Deadwood Dick from the novels to help establish himself as a marketable Western figure. The name was used by other men as well, such as Richard Clarke, a miner and pony express rider.

One key detail which circumstantially associates Love with Wheeler’s character is the latter’s identification as the “black rider.” It is made clear in his interactions with people of color that Dick is white, but he is referred to as a “black rider” due to his costume, which includes a black mask that Dick never takes off, even when he is shot in the chest and taken into captivity. It is possible that Wheeler, who had no experience with the racial complexity of the West, had heard rumors of Love and men like him, and thought a “black rider” was — or should be — a white rider cloaked in black, not an African-American rider. In Art Burton’s biography of Bass Reeves, Burton discusses how the “Black Marshall” became transformed into the masked Lone Ranger. “For most African Americans during this time in American history,” he writes, “Their dark faces became a black mask to white America — they became invisible.”

Love died in Los Angeles in 1921. In the years immediately following his death, racist, reactionary movements, including the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan, would sweep the West. Hollywood would churn out scores of cowboy movies, almost all of them starring white actors. Some even featured characters called Deadwood Dick, but none would depict the story of the old cowhand living out his last years as a hired driver down the road from Hollywood, in the beachfront towns of Malibu and Santa Monica. It can be eternally debated whether Love earned his place in the mythology of the West through feats with a horse, rope and gun, or only through feats with a pen, but either way he earned it.

Today, Love’s image is preserved in a portrait from his cowboy days. An enlarged print hangs on the second floor of the Black American West Museum in the historically black Denver neighborhood of Five Points, where Love likely lived during his early days as a Pullman porter. In the black-and-white photo, Love wears his “fighting clothes.” A large white cowboy hat sits atop his long curls. The front of the hat’s brim is folded up to display Love’s face. A jaunty scarf is tied around his neck, and fringe runs along the outer seam of his buckskin pants. The thumb of his right hand is tucked in his bullet belt, while his left hand grips the barrel of his Winchester rifle.

Love’s thoughts, feelings and experiences are preserved in his autobiography. Towards the end of the book, Love acknowledges that, already in 1907, “the cowboy is almost a being of the past.” However, he is not resigned to let his experience pass into obscurity.

“I, Nat Love, now in my 54th year, hale hearty and happy, will ever cherish a fond and loving feeling for the old days on the range.”