America’s Forgotten Cowboys

Posted on December 3, 2012


Nat Love

Nat Love

Every American kid grows up with stories of cowboys riding the open range.  It’s part of our national culture, our heritage, our folklore.  Kids look up to Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne.

But these films depict white cowboys, while statistics suggest that as many as one in four were African-American — men like William “Bill” Pickett (1870-1932), credited with inventing the sport of steer wrestling, Bass Reeves (1838-1910), the first African-American deputy U.S. marshal in the West and credited with arresting some 3,000 outlaws, and Nat Love (1854-1921) known as “the most famous black cowboy of them all,” born a slave and later a sharp-shooting cowboy who spoke fluent Spanish and would later write an autobiography detailing his adventures.

Now, the sons and daughters of those cowboys are helping to preserve their memory for future generations, giving a more complete picture of what the West really looked like…and how it still looks today.

A new documentary film and multimedia project entitled “The Forgotten Cowboys” will captures this slice of Western life, following acclaimed African-American rodeo stars including Jason Griffin, a four-time world champion bareback rider.

In a CNN article about the new documentary, a photographer for the project named John Ferguson said he got interested in the project when he heard a news article about black cowboys in New York ten years ago.  He did some follow-up research and was inspired to film a documentary about this lesser-known segment of Western history.

One of the cowboys in the film goes by Cowboy Mike to his students, but his real name is Michael Searles, and in addition to recently publishing an anthology of writing on African-American cowboy culture he is Emeritus Assistant Professor of History at Augusta State University.  The article says,

Ferguson talks about a “cowboy code” of equal responsibility, teamwork and mutual protection binding today’s cowboys and their black and white ancestors. Mike agrees that a kind of loyalty developed between cowboys of different races — but suggests that cowboys were initially united by necessity.

“If you’ve got nine or 10 cowboys on a cattle drive, you are interdependent with the folk who are riding with you — they can either save your life or they can let you die.

“There are times when you really need the assistance of another cowboy. That was not the place to be too prejudiced or too hostile to the cowboy riding next to you,” says Ferguson, the filmmaker.

How could such an important part of American history be forgotten?  Ferguson blames Hollywood depictions of the West.  The Western film industry hit its peak during years when America was deeply entrenched in segregation.  Small wonder that most cowboy films starred men who looked like Clint Eastwood.

Hopefully this wrong can be made right with new efforts like “The Forgotten Cowboys” film project and research by men like Searles, who offers a website detailing biographical information of noteworthy African-American cowboys and cowgirls.

Meanwhile, history is in the making at places like Cedar Lane Stables, a 25-acre non-profit ranch in Queens, New York that has been home to The Federation of Black Cowboys since 1998.  The ranch hosts inner city kids, teaching them how to ride and providing an opportunity for them to escape the gang life and troubled streets of the big city.  Thousands of kids have come through the program since it started, and about 25-30 have come back for mentoring.  Inspired by the program, one child became a veterinarian–another, a mounted police officer.

Paris “Rabbit” Parrish is 20 now, but he’s been coming to the ranch since he was just 8.  He talked about his experience in a CNN article entitled “Texas in Queens:”

“I was like, ‘Mama, mama, look, it’s a cowboy!’ And I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy. I watched Westerns. So we pull over, and we talked to him, and he told me to come on down to the stable. Ever since I was at the stable, it’s been like I was at home, paradise.”