Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
>>1866 Afro.-Am. cowboy
Subject: 'negro' cowboy
Culture: African-American
Setting: American West mid 19th-early 20thc

Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)

* Weston 1985 p158
"Where did the almost 9,000 black Texas cowboys who went up the trail come from?  At the outset, one should remember that since many African societies are based on cattle raising and herding, many captives, particularly those from Gambia, came here with skills in managing cattle which could be put to advantage by slave owners or by the slaves themselves if they ran away.  There were several places where black slaves or freedmen or fugitives worked cattle in North America.  First and most important, blacks hunted and worked cattle in the savannahs, pine barrens, and tall grass marshes of colonial South Carolina in gangs on cattle plantations.  This earliest Anglo-American cattle business on open ranges spread with predominantly African herders working in plantation-type cow-pen crews, many mounted, all through the pine barrens that extend in a wide coastal belt south through Georgia and northern Florida and west along the Gulf of Mexico into southern Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and finally into southeast Texas.  As has been noted before, this distinctive Anglo-Afro cattle raising used dogs, bullwhips, and salt to manage cattle in the East but learned roping and adopted horn saddles from Mexicans in the Southeast.  The relevant point here is that there were thousands of black cowboys long before the Civil War in the cattle business of the pine barren belt of the coastal South."

* Durham/Jones 1965 p3-4
"Among the cowboys who went up the trails from Texas during the years following the Civil War, more than five thousand Negroes played a part and did a job -- doing no more and no less than cowboys of other races and nationalities.  The real story is not about one group alone, but about all the men who conquered the grassland of the 'Great American Desert,' a vast area which suddenly became the Western cattle empire.  In perspective, that achievement must be seen as the work of many men engaged in a common enterprise.  It is best understood as a movement of people driven by economic forces, excited by new challenges and eager for adventure.
    "An observer standing on a rise and watching a herd of cattle being driven up a trail could not differentiate one cowboy from another. He saw only a group of men doing a job in a cloud of dust.  Unless he rode down and met them individually, he could not tell whether they were Texans or Mexicanswhites or Negroes.  Yet as he watched the cattle pushing north, he was viewing the making of history.  
    "This history was made primarily by white Southerners who had worn the uniform of the Confederacy.  With them rode men who had fought for the Union.  With them, too, were a number of Mexican vaqueros, as well as an occasional German, Irishman, Englishman or Swede.  But more numerous than Northerners or foreigners, frequently among the most capable men in the crew, were the Negro cowboys."

* Boorman 2004 p106
"The first cowboys were from Texas, where the organized cattle industry in the United States began. ... Small cattle drives were organized before the Civil War, with the help of experienced Mexican 'vaqueros' or cowboys, but in 1867 Joseph G. McCoy persuaded the Union Pacific Railroad to construct a switch or siding at a little place called Abilene, Kansas, to receive cattle from Texas. With former Confederate and Union soldiers and other unemployed workers available to work on ranches and cattle drives, business flourished, and more 'cowtowns' were established. By 1871, 600,000 to 700,000 cattle a year were being moved north. It is estimated that some 35,000 cowboys took part in these drives from 1868 to 1895. One-third were Negroes and Mexicans, and the pay averaged only $30 per month. The big cattle drives ended effectively with a drop in meat prices in the 1890s and the extension of railroads into Texas."

* Jackie Townsell Bear Creek Heritage Resource Center > Bear Creek Masonic Lodge
"After the Civil War, the Texas economy was in ruins.  Returning soldiers often found their homes abandoned and their livestock missing.  In desperation, some Texans made their way to the state's frontier to round up wild cattle and drive them north, where beef was scarce and cattle prices were high.
    "Many young male ex-slaves had learned to tend their masters' herds while the owners were away at war.  These freedmen now saw working cattle as an opportunity to start new lives.  Although race was always an issue, the need for dependable hands made it easier for men involved in ranching to be judged by their abilities rather than their skin color.  About one-fifth of the men who drove cattle up the trail were African-American.
    "Equipped with the necessary skills, black cowboys helped round up and brand wild cattle and drive the herds hundreds of miles through rugged country to railheads in Kansas and Missouri.  The work was back-breaking, but it left men with a feeling of accomplishment and self-respect.  The dangers of life on the trail dictated that the success of the drive, and sometimes men's survival, depended upon working together and trusting each other, regardless of skin color.  In the heyday of the great postwar trail drives, when lasted from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, trail crews drove an estimated five to six million cattle from Texas to distant markets.
    "A few African-American cowboys became wealthy cattlemen in their own right, and all earned a place in the legends of the cattle drives and cowboy life."




* National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum
"Revolvers and rifles were favorite weapons of the cowboy.  With them he shot rattlers and predatory animals and occasionally fended off rustlers or renegades.  He also used his revolver as a hammer to drive in fence staples and the iron-shod butt of his rifle to crush coffee beans when he wanted to boil a pot of coffee."