The Black Cowboys: the African Origins of the Western Cowboy

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In the opening scenes of “Gone With The Wind,” Black slaves are depicted herding cattle on the Tara Plantation, this depiction represents what some believe is the origins of the Black cowboy. There is an earlier origin for the Black cowboy in Africa, and the book, “Nomads of Niger” by American photographer Carol Beckwith and Belgian Anthropologist Marion Van Offelen captures this view quite well. This book presents the history of the Fulani people of Africa by taking the reader back to approximately 5000 years old rock cave paintings in the Algerian Sahara. Van Offelen believes the paintings depict people herding cattle in a way similar to the way the Fulani nomads herd their cattle today, a link that would span from African antiquity through the Euro-African slave trade era to modern times. “Nomads of Niger” also presents the contemporary beauty of the Fulani people in an excellent photo essay and I find the cover photo of a Fulani cowboy herding cattle on a camel most interesting.

The camel “Africa to America” link exists via former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a man named George Perkins Marsh. They spearheaded the purchase of camels to be used by the U.S. military in California, Arizona and Texas before the Civil War, with thirty-three of those camels coming from the African country of Tunisia. The camels brought to Texas came into contact with African-Americans both slave and free according to an article titled: “The Camels Of Camp Verde” by Kenn Knopp.

After the Civil War the Texas camels went into entertainment and were the lead attraction in the Austin Mardi Gras. Thirty-two camels escorted by costumed Negroes pulled the King Of The Carnival’s float of the Austin Mardi Gras. An important side-note to the “The Camels Of Camp Verde,” article is an inference that somehow African slaves were also being brought into Texas under the cover of importing the camels, the following excerpt is from this article:

“In the late 1850’s responding to the publicity that camels were desired in Texas, ship loads arrived at Texas ports. Emmett’s research indicates that these camels were the perfect cover to deflect attention of other “commodities” to Texas ports, namely African slaves. Texans were growing more and more wary of accepting slaves as Federal Law prohibited their importations.”

I’d like to present two sources that also discuss the African/Black cowboy link. The first is an article titled “Africanisms In America” on the Website, transafricaforum; the following is from that article;

“…The annual north-south migratory pattern followed by the cowboy is unlike the cattle-keeping patterns in Europe but analogous to the migratory patterns of the Fulani cattle herders who live scattered from the Senegambia through Nigeria and Niger to the Sudan. Early descriptions of Senegambian patterns strikingly resemble later descriptions of cattle herding in the South Carolina hinterland. Texas longhorns and African cattle were brought to America with Fulani slaves. Many details of cowboy life work, and even material culture can be traced to Fulani antecedents, but there has been little work on the question by historians of the west.”
Researched by Maurice Mitchell and Carrie Solages, Interns-
TransAfrica Forum
November 1999

The second source is from Bennie J. McRae, Jr., who also mentions the Africa/Black cowboy link via Gambia in an article titled “BLACK COWBOYS…. also worked on the ranches and rode the cattle trails ” The following is from his article:

“The history of the Black cowboys began long before the establishment of large ranches with cattle grazing in the late nineteenth century. Gambia and some other African countries were known to be lands of large cattle herds with the natives possessing innate skills in controlling and managing the movement of the animals. They were not called cowboys at that time, but merely herders.

Throughout the slave trade, ranchers and farmers (slaveowners) with large herds of cattle in the lower south were attracted to this particular groups that had been captured in those African countries.”

The cultural exchange between Sub Saharan Africans and North Africans led to some of the greatest horse societies in Africa, the Songhia, the Hausa, the Oyo and the Dahomey, to name a few. While accounts describe cattle herding in some African cultures as gender specific towards the male, a wealth of information exists about gender specific roles for African women and horses. Africa seems to have spurred several epic warrior classes of females, the most famous being the Dahomey Amazon warriors witnessed by Europeans like Sir Richard Burton in the 1860’s.

Information from tells of a Libyan Queen “Myrene” who led a North African female cavalry of thirty thousand into battle in the 6th century. This female warrior mentality made it to the Americas in the name of two Haitian women, Cecile Fatiman and Princess Amethyste, who helped lead the Haitian Revolution of 1791 and one American Buffalo Soldier named Cathy Williams (1866-1868). Cathy Williams served around New Mexico disguised as a man for two years until she became ill and a physical revealed her gender. She eventually settled near the Colorado-New Mexico border town of Trinidad. An excellent site to learn about Cathy Williams is:

There are several ways to approach the origin and evolution of the Black cowboy and one of my favorite documentations about the Black vaquero comes from a paper written by Vincent Mayer Jr. titled “The Black On New Spain’s Northern Frontier – San Jose de Parral 1631 to 1641,” the following is from this paper:

“Apart from the Negro slaves who worked in the mines or on the haciendas of their master, there was also a significant number of free Blacks and mulattoes. In the last quarter of the sixteenth century, many of these Blacks, along with a growing number of mestizos, constituted a vagabond class which plagued the north. However, this group of men also made up an important portion of the wage labor and vaqueros needed on the haciendas. Stockmen were especially dependant on them since no labor was available for the great cattle roundups…. By 1579, they were demanding fifty to two hundred pesos a year. ”

Another reference to African cowboys in the colonial Caribbean comes from the article, “Out Of Many Cultures -The People Who Came-The Arrival Of The Africans,” By Dr. Rebecca Tortello:

“…Up until the early 1690s Jamaica’s population was relatively equally mixed between white and black. (Senior, 2003, p. 446). The first Africans to arrive came in 1513 from the Iberian Peninsula after having been taken from West Africa by the Spanish and the Portuguese. They were servants, cowboys, herders of cattle, pigs and horses, as well as hunters.”

An evolutionary view focuses on a Texas Black cowboy born into slavery in 1860 named Daniel Webster Wallace, nicknamed “80 John” from the ranch he worked on. The information of Daniel Webster Wallace is from the Website: publications/ texansoneandall/africanamerican.htm. Wallace worked his way up as a cowboy working for a White man named Clay Mann, saving his typical cowboy pay until he bought enough cows and land to start his own ranch. Texas historians say that this Black cowboy eventually became “Boss’ and died a millionaire in 1939, a far stretch from the 200 pesos a year the Black vaqueros of sixteenth century New Spain earned.

Africans in the Western hemisphere, even in slave status were not completely mind-washed of their culture and re-made in the image of their masters. Europeanized Africans who came as free colonizers had even less cause to hide their multi-cultural Euro-African agrarian skills. Most sources show that some African migrants to the Western hemisphere were involved with cattle and horses well before the thematic historical intersection of American and Hispanic cattle and horse cultures in what we know as the American West, and I say this not to prove who did what first, but to ask others to always consider this link when writing about the Black cowboy

Thanks for reading, Allen L. Lee

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