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The First Cowboys Were Black, Mestizo, Afro Latino, Multi-lingual and Feared!



Beginning as early as 1500, vaqueros, or Mestizo and Mulatto Spanish cowboys, and enslaved Blacks were engaged in raising cattle for commercial purposes in the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and the America's. During this early period the Spaniards' tradition of open-range herding and horse mounted drovers was influenced by African ranching techniques. Two case studies illustrate how such complementary types of evidence reveal that African and Afro-descended herders took active roles in the processes of innovation regarding use of the lasso from horseback in North America and water-lifting technology in Central and South America. Such contributions were critical to the expansion of open-range cattle throughout the Americas and consequent environmental transformations.


Although wild cattle had drifted northward from ranchos in central Mexico since the 1500s, cattle ranching in South Texas began in 1749, when José de Escandón, the governor of Nuevo Leon, brought 3,000 settlers and 146 soldiers to settle the area bordering the Rio Bravo (now known as the Rio Grande river). Escandon was a slaver and Colonizer who used slaves to round up and maintain his cattle. By 1860 he was running 5,000 head of cattle, which he valued at $35,000, owned six slaves, and was considered a major proponent of slavery and indigenous genocide much like General Andrew Jackson. Most vaqueros were from lower castes or socio-racial classes (meaning they were melanated not white) used by the Spanish government — like mestizo (of American Indian and Spanish ancestry), mulatto (of Spanish and African ancestry), or pure dark skinned American Indian, or Black and Brown Africans and colorism. in short everything pertaining to social standing was based on color.


After Spain/Mexico had outlawed slavery these men worked as independent contractors, owning their own horses, saddles, and ropes but remaining unbound to a hacienda or a patron unless they chose to be. Thus the First people called Cowboys in the USA contrary to popular belief were not Mexican even though the first cattle herders were primarily black people called Vaquero who lived in Mexico and the Caribbean, and many of them were also indigenous, the Spanish called themselves Ranchero which is the term in the Spanish language for a rancher. That's the conclusion of a recent analysis of DNA from 400-year-old bones excavated on the island of Hispaniola and at sites in Mexico. "Vaquero" is the name for a Mexican cowhand and the likely term that evolved from Gullah language Buckra a derisive black term meaning white into the Anglo word, "buckaroo" referring to the European, mixed or light-skinned cowhands or non indigenous Mexican cattlemen (think the Spaniard vice-royalty in the Zorro movies).


Soon the caste system imposed by Spanish aristocracy was too much for the people to take and the turmoil of the Mexican War of Independence beginning in 1810. By the end of the war in 1821, the Spanish ranching economy had effectively dissolved. When Spain lost it sold Florida for 5 million dollars and it became an American territory in 1821, most of its inhabitants fled for other Spanish Colonies. 5,000 Seminoles — including 500 of African descent, stayed on. So did many free black cowboys, even though the American system imposed severe restrictions on them and sought to enslave them and genocide the remaining Seminoles. The war’s end also saw the establishment of the Austin Colony in Texas, led by Stephen F. Austin. Anglo American settlers were attracted by the availability of newly “empty” land for planting and cattle ranching. Over time, their eastern cattle bred with Spanish cattle and the Texas Longhorn was born.


The men in the continental USA originally called "Cowboys' an (also offhand denigrating racial slur" were Black enslaved men stock grazers from what is now Senegal in West Africa who were specifically brought to that colony because of their unique skills. While historians have recognized that Africans and Afro-descendants were involved in the establishment of those ranching frontiers, the emphasis has been on their labor rather than their genius, skills, and creative participation. Like the Gullah rice farmers they taught the Europeans! When these people gained their freedom many of them fought side by side with Black Seminoles, a group of free blacks and runaway enslaved Africans (maroons) that joined forces with the Black skinned Upper Creek and Red Stick Seminole Indians who had migrated from Georgia to Florida from approximately 1700s through the 1850s. The Black Seminoles were celebrated for their bravery and tenacity during the three Seminole Wars."Vaquero" is the name for a Mexican cowboy and the likely term that evolved into the Anglo word for cowboy, "buckaroo."


Florida became a state in 1845. It quickly became a major cattle-producing state. During the Civil War, vast herds of cattle were driven north and men were making a fortune. The Third Seminole War, interrupted that prosperity a series of skirmishes mainly over land, lasted from 1855 until 1858. The war was also known as Billy Bowlegs' War because Billy Bowlegs was the prominent Seminole leader in this third and final installment. Billy Bowlegs real name was Holata Micco (a Muscogee/Creek warrior name translated as Alligator Chief, known in English as Chief Billy Bowlegs or Billy Bolek; c. 1810 – 1859)


During Colonial times by 1740, the followers of the Oconee Creek leader, Cowkeeper, established Florida's largest settlement in the Alachua area. Heavily involved in the cattle economy, by 1775 the Seminoles were working 7,000 to 10,000 head of cattle on Paynes Prairie using trained cow dogs. Repeated attacks by English invaders and their Indian allies took their toll on the rancheros in Florida. Eventually, the Seminole Indians rounded up untended cattle and adopted the Spanish ranching system for themselves. Many slaves and free blacks joined the Seminoles and found work in the cattle business. By the 1800's 25% of the working cowboys in the Old West were Black.


But America always had a fear of these men and would try to use them in any way to maintain power and control especially ever present was the fear they would unite with the natives the USA was so actively trying to kill in fact Andrew Jackson voiced many times the "Native Americans are savage people who do not have a right to the lands they live on." and that his intent was to kill all native Americans, and for that he is considered an American hero. In Antebellum Texas, White ranchers referred to White workers as "cow hands," with Black people in the same position referred to with the pejorative "cow boy." Prior to the abolition of slavery, the cattle trade was considered to offer a high degree of relative freedom to slaves, who would be issued guns, some of these men like Bass Reeves the original source for the Western legend called the Lone Ranger became very proficient in tracking, speaking multiple languages and gunfighting!


Black cowboys like Jesse Stahl inspired the white movie Cowboys, Stahl's riding skills were unparalleled in the 1800s. Another gunslinger is former slave turned cowboy Nat Love, who travelled the frontier and became friends with Billy the Kid. Nat first met Billy in a saloon in Anton Chico when Billy asked him to have a drink with him. Nat who was also known as Deadwood Dick ran into Billy again in the spring of 1881 in El Morro NM, (that may have been Alamogordo, or El Morro?) Billy had to flee to the mountains to escape capture and Nat saw him behind the rocks heavily armed with two Winchesters and two 45 Colt revolvers and plenty of ammo, and no one dared to go up after him, he also spoke with him one other time in June in Anton Chico, and the last time he saw Billy he was dead and he saw his body in Fort Sumner. He also met Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, and others while working the cattle drives in Arizona. Billy (whose real name was Henry McCarty killed 21 men before he himself was shot and killed by Sherriff Pat Garrett)


"In a noteworthy paper by Deborah Liles, "Before Emancipation: Black Cowboys and the Livestock Industry." Liles challenges the historical accuracy of the traditional definition of the term "cowboy" and its source, requiring only a cow and someone to care for the animal to fulfill the definition. Further, using a non-geographic standard for the word, Liles throws a wide loop around the subject, drawing from stories and sources reaching from the eastern seaboard to Texas. She reminds us of earlier research on slaves working cattle by Terry Jordan, Randolph B. Campbell, and James Smallwood, as well as a more recent work on the Hawkins Ranch by Margaret Lewis Furse. However, information about contact between African American and Hispanic cowboys, with their skills of roping and tools like horned saddles, is noticeably absent in the chapter and the book in general."


"A pleasant surprise is Michael Searles's "Nat Love, a.k.a. Deadwood Dick: A Wild Ride. While the chapter presents little new information, Searles combines research from varied sources to create a coherent and realistic narrative of the famous cowboy and performer who was born into slavery."

On the subject of black cowboys into the twentieth century we find the notables of rodeos, music, and the actor and performer Herb Jefferies star of the Race Film Bronze Buckaroo. Of note is "Musical Traditions of Twentieth-Century African American Cowboys" by Alan Govenar. Texas music aficionados will recognize many of the legendary names discussed. Govenar tells us about the background of black Texas musicians who grew up in the agriculture and livestock business. Most readers are probably only familiar with the music of legendary artists like Mance Lipscomb. In Search of the Black Cowboy,"


Searles addresses some of the questions left out of other chapters, in particular the trusting relationships between some black cowboys and their white employers. Included are Bose Ikard and Charles Goodnight, Addison Jones and George W. Littlefield, and the Wild West show operator Zack Miller and his star performer Bill Pickett, to name a few. As new sources and publications seem to come forth yearly, the subject of black cowboys will continue to be an ongoing conversation, and Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, behind the Badge is a good addition to that discussion."


Bruce M. Shackelford Witte Museum Copyright © 2017 The Texas State Historical Association




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