Tag Archives: texas

Black Cowboys

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.

(Flamming 61-70)

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th Century

Slavery in Texas

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and abolished slavery.

But the sparsely-populated region of East Texas was a temptation to Americans. The area’s rich farmland was ideal for cotton. So although the border between Mexico and the U.S. was officially closed, Southern planters began to illegally populate the area in droves, bringing large numbers of slaves with them to the supposedly free Mexican state. By the 1830s Americans in the area greatly outnumbered the Mexicans.

Eventually these American Tejanos decided to declare themselves politically independent.

Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was determined to crush this rebellion and free the slaves in Texas. With a large army he marched northward to meet the Texans who had occupied the Alamo mission in San Antonio. His army easily prevailed, leaving only one man – a black slave – alive. But Santa Anna was unexpectedly caught by another rebel force, and compelled to accept Texan independence in exchange for his own life. The Texans proclaimed the birth of the Republic of Texas.

Texas quickly legalized slavery, which had become the region’s dominant economic force.

For the slaves who made up more than half of the population of Texas, the geography offered several unique avenues of escape. One could run straight west into the vast territory controlled by the Plains Indians; rumor had it that the Indian warriors would accept blacks into their tribes. Or one could run north into Indian Territory; although the Five Civilized Tribes who occupied the area had their own system of black slavery, it was easier to escape detection there than in the Deep South.

But the best means of escape was to run south into Mexico. The Mexican government generally approved the establishment of runaway settlements, such as the one at Matamoros. Further south, groups of African Americans, Mexicans and Plains Indians established communities together. Although Texas slaveholders could chase runaways across the river, to do so they had to leave the protection of their own jurisdiction and face hostility from the people of Mexico.

The U.S. eventually won Texas away from both the Texans and Mexico, and Texas was made a state – a slave state – in 1845.

After the Confederacy surrendered in April of 1865, news of emancipation quickly spread to slaves in most of the Southeast. But in Texas, most blacks did not learn of their new freedom until June 19th of that year. On that day, General Gordon Granger, with 2,000 Union troops at his command, entered the port of Galveston and issued General Order No. 3, the official emancipation proclamation for all slaves in Texas.

Among black Texans, June 19th became a beloved holiday, known as “Juneteenth.” It was like a Fourth of July celebration that included parades, speeches, festive suppers and rodeos. The holiday eventually spread to other parts of the country and is still being celebrated by many today.

(Flamming 34-58)

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th Century