Past Is Prologue
In Celebration of Black Freedom, a Cowboy Story
Born a slave, Black cowboy Nat Love died a legend of the Old West
During Black History Month, I noticed a tweet go viral that pointed out how one in four cowboys were Black. No offense, y’all, but I thought this was common knowledge. Guess not.
So, to mark this Juneteenth, and to celebrate the freedom of Black Americans, I thought I’d lay out the story of Black cowboys, to expand and deepen our cultural memory, in the hopes that you add them to your picture of the Old West. It was a far more colorful place than those old-Hollywood, mayonnaise-and-white-bread Westerns portrayed.
The cowboy we’ll ride alongside in this big-sky story of the Old Black West is a legendary cattleman of them lonesome trails, the world’s first rodeo star, Nat Love. Ain’t that a hell of a name? But the dude’s nicknames were all just as sick. Deadwood Dick. Deadeye Dick. Red River Dick. For this story, we’ll call him Nat Love, ’cause if his momma named him Nat Love, I’mma call him Nat Love. His friends can call him Dick.
Nat Love was born in Tennessee on a particularly fertile plot of earth that stretches across the alluvial flood plains where water drains down from the Southern Appalachian mountains, a region of land running from Tennessee to Eastern Texas. The soil’s particularly nutrient-rich, dark in color, and perfect for growing cash crops like cotton and tobacco — especially compared to the red clay of Georgia or that sandbar known as Florida.
You know who was working the fields of this hyperproductive agricultural band of land. That’s right. Black people. Millions of them, enslaved, working on plantations from Virginia to Texas. Nat Love was born on one of those plantations. Born a slave. The year was 1854. No one knows the exact date of his birth because slave births weren’t always recorded like that. But he knew the moon he was born under. That put his birth sometime in June 1854.
Back then, American slaves like Nat Love were predominantly third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation Americans; unlike their Caribbean and South American cousins who, due to the merciless conditions of their plantations, kept dying. In South America and the…