When I was growing up, we played cowboys and Indians. I always wanted to be on the Indian side because my Daddy would let me put the pheasant feathers, he had from hunting, in my hair. Now I know that was stereotypical but back then in the 50’s we watched the Lone Ranger, Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and Paladin on TV and that’s all we knew.
When I moved to Chicago as an adult and began working at WGCI I was introduced to the Thyrl Latting Rodeo held at the Amphitheater. I saw my first Black Cowboys and Cowgirls and was totally enamored. I felt so dumb, not knowing that there were men and women of color that rode, roped, and handled horses, bulls, and cows in that fashion. Don’t get me wrong, my family is originally from McLemoresville, Tennessee and I have seen my Daddy and uncles ride our mules in the fields, but I never saw anyone with a cowboy hat, jeans, and chaps actually ride a horse like it was their home.
This is the time of year where rodeos, parades, and events that show off the Black Cowboys usually take place but as with everything this summer, COVID has put a halt on so many things.
I ran into a friend of mine named Murdock (no first name), who is one of the Chicagoland Black Cowboys and I talked his ear off asking him all kinds of questions that I had been holding on to for many years.
Did you know that enslaved black people were the first cowboys? Murdock told me that there are many stories on how the Cowboy came to be. He said that the Spanish knew how to rope, and ride and the enslaved people knew how to gather the cattle on foot. The Spanish taught the enslaved men how to rope and ride and in turn, the enslaved men taught them how to collect the cattle.
I asked Murdock how the name became synonymous with white men. “From the very beginning they didn’t call the white guy a cowboy, they called him a cattleman from that standpoint, or he just rode horses and horseman. But the word cowboy came from the uses of using slaves, calling them a boy, telling him to get the cows, and then the words were connected together by calling them, cowboys. Throughout history, they began to call everybody a cowboy that rode horses and participated in rodeos and rounding up and herding cattle.”
Murdock told me the story that Nat won a rodeo competition in the town called Deadwood by “grabbing a mustang, roped him, saddle him, and got a chance to ride him all within nine minutes. And every time he would rope something, he was always right on target, and that’s why they started calling him Deadwood Dick.”
Pickett traveled the world performing with the Miller Brothers’ 101 Wild Ranch Show alongside the likes of Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, Tom Mix, and Lucille Mulhall. He posthumously became the first black cowboy honored in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Oh, but there were some pretty awesome female Black Cowgirls who may not be as well-known as the guys. Mary Fields was best known as Stagecoach Mary. She was the first Black woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service. She was 60 years old when she was hired to carry the mail. She was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. She drove the route with horses and a mule named Moses. She never missed a day or lost any mail, and that earned her the nickname “Stagecoach.”
Then you had Cathay Williams. Murdock tells the story, “Cathay who at the time when the civil war, she joined the Union. During that time, they were not given any physicals. So, she had her hair cut. She looked like a man, so they allowed her to get into the military. It wasn’t until later they finally realized that she was female. She actually fought with them at war and rode horses just like the rest of them did.”
All this history just piqued my interest even more. How do cowboys go from out west to Chicago? Next is part 2 and I will focus on the Thyrl Latting Rodeo and the Black Chicagoland Cowboys.
Until next time keep your EYE to the Sky!