The Invisible Black Cowboys

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The Invisible Black Cowboys

For many Americans, the image of the cowboy evokes pleasant nostalgia of a time gone by, when cowboys roamed free. The Cowboy is, to many Americans, the ideal American, who was quick to the draw, well skilled in his profession, and yet minded his own business. Regardless of whether the mental picture that the word cowboy evokes is a correct or incorrect view of the vocation, one seldom views cowboys as being black. The first cowboy I met was from Texas and was black. After he told me that he was a cowboy, I told him that he had to be kidding. Unfortunately, I was not totally to blame for my inability to recognize that color has nothing to do with the cowboy profession; most if not all popular famous images of cowboys are white. In general, even today, blacks are excluded from the popular depiction of famous Westerners. Black cowboys were unheard of for almost a century after they made their mark on the cattle herding trade, not because they were insignificant, but because history fell victim to prejudice, and forgot peoples of color in popular depictions of the West and Western history.

Black Americans were in the West with Lewis and Clark, but this was never seen or published until the 19th century (Ravage 26). California was the section of the west that most blacks settled in before the Civil War. The largest concentration of blacks in the state was in Sacramento County, mainly because of the gold rush. Blacks would ride trade ships to the west coast and then desert, if they were slaves, or leave the ship, if they were free men, to settle there (Savage 12). Examples of early black settlers were two ex-slaves named Bob and Kanaska who came to San Diego in 1816 on the schooner Albatross. Thomas Fisher came to California around 1818 but was captured by pirates in Monterey that year. Another Fisher came to California in 1846 while serving on a whaling ship (Savage 13)

Though present from the initial discovery of the West, blacks entered the West in earnest after 1850. Between 1850 and 1910, thousands of African Americans, lured by the promise of land, opportunity, and most importantly, racial justice migrated to the trans-Mississippi West (African Americans). This great migration occurred shortly after the civil war, as thousands of blacks moved West because they were unwanted in the North or South (Dick 30).

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