Posted on May 03 2021
By Becky Sicking
During the mid-twentieth century, most kids were familiar with the Lone Ranger, the masked cowboy hero of radio and television. During this same era, Westerns, or movies depicting cowboys, Native Americans, and the so-called “Wild West,” were also extremely popular. The cowboy, who today is known as a cowhand, was a symbol of the American spirit: ambitious, courageous, and hardworking. The cowhands of fiction were likewise depicted as the archetypal American of the time. They were handsome, clean-cut, white men, but what many Americans do not realize is that many cowhands were African American. The story of the Lone Ranger itself is thought to have been inspired by an African American man—Bass Reeves.
Reeves was born a slave in Texas in 1838, but became a legendary deputy by the end of the century. At that time, the West was still largely Native American-occupied territory, but they did not have the authority to arrest those who were not members of their tribes. Instead, deputy U.S. marshals were the law enforcers. Bass Reeves stated in a 1901 interview that he had arrested over 3,000 people, and he was known to have never been shot. He was able to arrest outlaws that his peers could not, by using superior marksmanship and strength. He sometimes employed disguises in order to go undercover. However, Reeves’s legacy is not as widely known today as are the stories of the many other African Americans who helped the country grow to the size it is today.
One of the most well-known African American cowhands was a man named Nat Love. He published an autobiography in 1907. It told of the hardships of being born a slave and also of the heroism of being a cowhand. Love was born in Tennessee and left for Dodge City, Kansas, after being emancipated. He was hired by a crew of cowhands that included several other African Americans.