Black Cowboys, Part I
By Kenneth Wiggins Porter
Excerpt from the book, "Negro on the American Frontier"
Without the services of the eight or nine thousand Negroes - a quarter of the total number of trail drivers - who during the generation after the Civil War helped to move herds up the cattle trails to shipping points, Indian reservations, and fattening grounds and who, between drives, worked on the ranches of Texas and Indian Territory, the cattle industry would have been seriously handicapped. For apart from their considerable numbers, many of them were especially well-qualified top hands, riders, ropers, and cooks. Of the comparatively few Negroes on the Northern Range, a good many were also men of conspicuous abilities who notably contributed to the industry in that region. These cowhands, in their turn, benefitted from their participation in the industry, even if not to the extent that they deserved. That a degree of discrimination and segregation existed in the cattle country should not obscure the fact that, during the halcyon days of the cattle range Negroes there frequently enjoyed greater opportunities for a dignified life than anywhere else in the United States. They worked, ate, slept, played, and on occasion fought, side by side with their white comrades, and their ability and courage won respect, even admiration. They were often paid the same wages as white cowboys and, in the case of certain horsebreakers, ropers, and cooks, occupied positions of considerable prestige. In a region and period characterized by violence, their lives were probably safer than they would have been in the Southern cotton regions where between 1,500 and 1,600 Negroes were lynched in two decades after 1882. The skilled and handy Negro probably had a more enjoyable, if rougher, existence as a cowhand than he would have had as a sharecropper or laborer. . . . Negro cowhands, to be sure, were not treated as “equals” except in the rude quasi-equality of the roundup, stampede, and river-crossing - where they were sometimes tacitly recognized even as superiors - but where else in post - Civil War America, at a time of the Negro nadir, did so many adult Negroes and whites attain even this degree of fraternity? The cow country was no utopia for Negroes, but it did demonstrate that under some circumstances and for at least brief periods white and black in significant numbers could live and work together on more equal terms than had been possible in the United States for two hundred years or would be possible again for nearly another century.