In the years following the Civil War, Americans in the northern cities were willing to pay the highest prices for any kind of beef, and Texas cattlemen were eager to the oblige them. West Texas and northern Mexico were, at that time, teeming with hundreds of thousands of feral longhorn cattle, descended from early Spanish stock. They were there for the taking, for anyone who could round them up and drive them north.
They couldn’t go straight north, however, because that meant crossing Indian Territory, and the tribes required payment to drive the cattle through. Neither could they go east, because there were too many fences, farms and forests in the way. The only way was to head through the open range of the Great Plains, to railroad towns in the west.
The main cattle trails became legendary. Three of the most important were the Chisholm Trail, which ran from the southern tip of Texas through central Oklahoma and ended in Abilene, Kansas; the Western Trail which ended in Dodge City, Kansas; and the Goodnight-Loving Trail which went west to New Mexico, along the Rocky Mountains, and then through Ogallala, Nebraska and on to Wyoming and Montana.
To round up the cattle and drive them north was hardly a one-man job; any cattleman who wished to make the drive needed a good crew of cowboys in order to pull it off.
Horses were a way of life in the Old South, and many former slaves were expert horsemen. These were much in demand as cowboys, especially those former slaves who had worked cattle before the war. While cowboys were usually southern-born white men, most crews included some black cowboys as well.
For black men and white men to work together was an unusual situation in the U.S. of the 1860s, and a rare opportunity for some black men to gain the respect of their white coworkers. On the open range, race seems to have mattered less than skill.
Perhaps the most well-known today of the black cowboys is Nate Love; his action-packed autobiography of 1907 makes no mention that he experienced any white racism as a cowboy. That he was a tough, reckless, freedom-loving American seems to have mattered much more to him than did his race.
Another famous black cowboy was William “Bill” Pickett. After his days riding the open range were over, he gained national fame as a show rider in the early days of Wild West shows and rodeos.
We must be careful not to overemphasize the impact of black cowboys on the general narrative of the West. It is estimated that no more than 25 percent of the cowboys who worked the open range were black. In any case, the era of the open-range cattle drives was short-lived; by the turn of the century barbed wire fences, railroad tracks, the expansion of farming, and the development of the meat-processing industry had put an end to the days of the cowboy. Still, the cowboy crews provide an early example of relative racial egalitarianism in the West.