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 Caribbean, there were predominantly large groups of men brought by slave ships across the Atlantic to work and die in the brutal sugar cane fields. They slaved in the punishing, unrelenting heat of those more proto-factory plantations. The South American and Caribbean plantations churned through bodies. Work groups often numbered around 150 African slaves. And more likely than not, the slaves had been brought directly from Africa to the plantation.
But in America, plantations were smaller and more balanced in terms of male and female slave populations, which meant that, through engineered mating, they were also treated as baby-making machines. Their populations were easily maintained and exceeded. Still, few plantations had more than 250 slaves, unlike in the Caribbean and South America.
In order to become the world-dominating economic powerhouse it is today, America forced generations of Black people to work as slaves. This concentration of stolen labor and wealth started in 1619 with a Dutch ship that docked in a port town in Virginia. It was loaded with a cargo of 20 African slaves. When those first 20 slaves set foot in Jamestown, the colony was only 12 years old. Frankly speaking, the British were trailing all the other European powers: The French, the Spanish, and even the Dutch were far better at establishing their colonial footholds in the New World. By the time the British brought slavery to America, the Spanish had been dominating and massacring the indigenous population for a century.
While the Spanish worked with their version of the plantation, which they called missions, the British developed the plantation system across the Southern colonies. The French preferred to trade, typically building posts rather than forts like the British or military presidios like the Spanish. This may be why, ultimately, the French were so easily convinced to leave the American colonies; they didn’t have a strong foothold. The Spanish focused on gold and God, and although they were once the mightiest power to rule the seas, their military might eventually lost out to the slavery-fueled economic engine of North America.
In the colonies of the South, the plantation model created massive agricultural enterprises, settled the territories, and birthed millions of Black Americans to work the evil scheme of its wealth creation: slavery. As the sons and daughters of British colonies became Americans, they first inherited and then maintained this system, even as the nation’s founders declared all men were equal. The trick was who they considered men and who they considered livestock.
Nat Love was born as livestock.
If you don’t remember the dates from history class, the American Civil War began in February of 1861 and raged on until April of 1865, when Gen. Robert E. Lee signed a full surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox Courthouse to the Union’s Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. What that meant for Nat Love: He was six on his way to seven when the Civil War started and 11 when it ended. And suddenly, he was no longer livestock. Now he was an American boy.
After the war ended, his family of newly freed women and men—stuck in the middle of Tennessee and owning little but the clothes on their backs and maybe a sackful of stuff they could call their own—these third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Americans had to find a way to make themselves a life from scratch.
This meant Nat Love’s father, Sampson, agreed to farm for their old owner. He’d offered to let them work his land in a sharecropping arrangement. If you haven’t heard of sharecropping, it’s like going from slave master to pimp but for farming. (A different kind of “hoe.”) The idea is the owner of the land leases his acreage to a sharecropper, who pays off the lease with what he grows. The owner of the land takes the vast majority, leaving just enough for the farmer to pay for the bare minimum he and his family would need to survive the year.
Since the majority of what they grew was used to pay their old master for the privilege of working his land, families had to get creative to survive. Often this meant they grew what they could in the tiny gardens they’d keep next to their shitty little shack of a house. Then they’d take what they grew or had transformed into wine or brandy or pies and cakes, and they’d take those to town and sell them at the market. They could also gather what grew wild, like the blackberries pulled from the brambles that ran along uncultivated sections of land. This side hustle was necessary if they wanted to buy things like spun fabrics to construct new clothes or perhaps — if they saved long enough and didn’t lose what they saved to calamity — farm equipment. This subsistence farming was an everyday struggle for Nat Love’s family, and it only got worse when his father died the first winter they were free.
Nat Love’s father was soon followed into death by his sister’s husband. And then his sister. She left behind their small children for the family to care for. Now that he was free and a young and confident man, Nat Love longed to roam, to see distant vistas, but instead he stayed in Tennessee and took his father’s place as a sharecropper in order to help raise his brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. However, this time period would prepare him for the days when he’d ride herd as a cowboy. This was when he learned to break horses.
There were plenty of horses on the former master’s farm. Studying their nature, Nat Love took to horses immediately. Pair that with a cocksureness that’s as cowboy as they come, and it’s no surprise he felt at home in the saddle. One day, he bet his former master’s sons he could break horses, not knowing if that was at all true. They bet a quarter on whether he could ride Black Highwayman, an enormous black stallion. It turned out he could ride that magnificent beast, and more than that, he could ride any wild horse calm. He could shy a horse just by being more stubborn than the most aggressive bucking bronco you could put underneath him. When he finally did leave the farm, it was this knowledge of horses that set him apart as a cowboy.
Bet you may not have thought about this wrinkle of American history. Who would’ve been working with livestock back then: the masters and their sons or the slaves? Pretty easy question to answer, right? When the Civil War ended and there were suddenly millions of free Black people, a lot of them were really good at working with horses, cows, goats, and sheep. So they went west, where there was a demand for their skills.
We often think of the Great Migration as when Southern Blacks made the trek north to take jobs in the factories of their industrialized neighbors. But after the Civil War, there was also a migration west into the unsettled lands, the Native American nations that had not yet been fully stolen and turned into states. The Old West.
It was there that young Black men found new jobs outside of slavery. And to get there, Nat Love walked. That’s right, he walked to Kansas. Dodge City. That was a major cow town; that’s where the action was. And since he didn’t have any other options, at age 16, he walked from Tennessee to Kansas. By himself.
When he got there, he approached some cowboys — rough characters but the most approachable he’d seen in the Wild West so far. He asked the trail boss for a job. The head honcho took one look at this Southern boy and made him an offer: If he could ride a horse to a standstill, he’d hire Nat Love. What the trail boss didn’t know—that you do know—is that Nat Love was a horse calmin’ motherfucker. But what Nat Love didn’t know is that the trail boss picked the meanest, orneriest horse he had, ol’ Good Eye: a great big hellacious black stallion.
Nat Love had to rope this horse and bring it in close enough that he could get the horse to lower itself so he could climb on its back. Without a saddle. Nothing. Just get a bridle into the horse’s mouth. Hop on its back. Then hold on tight and don’t let go. Nat Love managed all of it. He roped the horse, he stilled him enough to get the bridle in his mouth, he climbed atop the great high-shouldered beast, and then it was “ride, boldly ride.” Which he did. And he held on. He nearly got bucked off, but Nat Love rode that terrifying horse to a standstill.
The ranch boss from the Duval outfit and all the hired hands watching were stunned when this freed black man from Tennessee stilled their most spirited beast. They hired him on the spot and nicknamed him Red River Dick.
We don’t need to go into a litany of his life events as a cowboy. We could go into great detail about that time he had to survive alone on the Plains after he was separated from his outfit of cowboys during a hellacious winter snowstorm. That one series of events would make for a damn fine movie.
Or we could dive into a detailed account of how he once got into a shootout with a Native American war party, barely lived to tell the tale, then nearly froze to death, drinking the blood from a freshly killed buffalo just to survive. But he managed to live, eventually marrying a Native American woman. That could also make a good Western.
Or, there’s the time he passed by Little Bighorn just after the massacre that claimed Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s mean and hateful soul. His arrogant ass died on the Plains not too far from Deadwood, South Dakota, where Nat Love made rodeo history and picked up the nickname Deadwood Dick. Yet another filmworthy episode from his life.
Lastly, there was his time on the Plains fighting against Native Americans to make room for cattle barons only to have the railroad make his whole beloved way of life obsolete. He wound up working on that same railroad, which would eventually come to civilize the West.
In any of these glances at this one man’s life, the shape of the West comes into clear focus — and there, you will see Black cowboys.
Nat Love instantly took to the cowboy life. It was a hand-in-glove fit. And he was good at it. Love was always a cocky man, a confident sort who, when faced with calamity or uncertainty, would assess the situation and then leap into action. In his very first gunfight — he’d only been a cowboy for a few days — he and the Duval outfit ran into a band of Victoria Native Americans. A hundred painted warriors on horseback. And remember: This was their land. The Native Americans of the Plains had seen and heard what was happening elsewhere in these newly created states of America. They were some of the last to lose their land, and thus they often fought the hardest for it.
So there Nat Love was, on like the third day he was a cowboy, when he got into his first shootout. Here’s his recollection of events, as recorded in his autobiography:
There now being nothing to keep us longer in Dodge City, we prepared for the return journey, and left the next day over the old Dodge and Sun City lonesome trail, on a journey which was to prove the most eventful of my life up to now.
A few miles out we encountered some of the hardest hail storms I ever saw, causing discomfort to man and beast, but I had no notion of getting discouraged but I resolved to be always ready for any call that might be made on me, of whatever nature it might be, and those with whom I have lived and worked will tell you I have kept that resolve. Not far from Dodge City on our way home we encountered a band of the old Victoria tribe of Indians and had a sharp fight.
These Indians were nearly always harassing travelers and traders and the stock men of that part of the country, and were very troublesome. In this band we encountered there were about a hundred painted bucks all well mounted. When we saw the Indians they were coming after us yelling like demons. As we were not expecting Indians at this particular time, we were taken somewhat by surprise.
We only had fifteen men in our outfit, but nothing daunted we stood our ground and fought the Indians to a stand. One of the boys was shot off his horse and killed near me. The Indians got his horse, bridle and saddle. During this fight we lost all but six of our horses, our entire packing outfit and our extra saddle horses, which the Indians stampeded, then rounded them up after the fight and drove them off.
Imagine that shit. You walk from Tennessee to Kansas, impress some cowboys, get a job, y’all head out for Texas, and on the third day, you’re fighting for your life against a war party of Native Americans battling for their own survival. Dayum!
To provide some perspective on the rampant violence of the Old West: For a few decades after the Civil War, ending sometime in the 1890s –– not many years when you look at the historic record but long enough that it left an indelible mark on our collective memory — shootouts and gunfights were common. Anyone who’s been in one knows that gunfights are horrific things. People pointing and then firing guns at you: That’s a mental and bodily horror no one should know. But those cowboys of the post-Civil War expansion into the West, they knew the risk of getting in a shootout was as real as the horse underneath their saddle.
First, there were White outlaws, cattle rustlers who would kill to steal a herd. And then, remember, they were all rough riders on stolen land. The Native Americans had every right to shoot any cowboy or rustler to protect their land. In Florida, they call that the Stand Your Ground law, if I’m not mistaken. It was like that. But everyone was on horseback.
That first shootout Nat Love got into was also the first time he’d fired a gun. How could that be? Slavery. Yeah, masters weren’t super cool with slaves owning guns. That seemed like a bad idea since they were being held in bondage against their will. Would you give prisoners guns? It was like that, but worse. And then, after the Civil War, freed families often couldn’t afford to buy a gun if they didn’t absolutely need it. Many did, for either hunting or for family protection or both. But Nat Love hadn’t needed one and his family didn’t have one, so the first time he fired a gun, it was at a Native American firing back at him.
If you were wondering how that first gunfight felt, here’s how Nat Love recalls it:
This was my first Indian fight and likewise the first Indians I had ever seen. When I saw them coming after us and heard their blood curdling yell, I lost all courage and thought my time had come to die. I was too badly scared to run, some of the boys told me to use my gun and shoot for all I was worth. Now I had just got my outfit and had never shot off a gun in my life, but their words brought me back to earth and seeing they were all using their guns in a way that showed they were used to it, I unlimbered my artillery and after the first shot I lost all fear and fought like a veteran.
Wild, right? That was the Old West. Amateurs encountering desperate circumstances and exchanging metal in ugly scenes of violence. But the sunsets were nice.
Yelp review: Very Instagrammable. But kinda bloody. Bring warm boots.
The West had first been mapped and charted by explorers, then the trappers and miners, gold-obsessed prospectors, and, of course, the famous government scouts like Lewis and Clark. Those early settlers were followed by the poor pioneers promised new lands in that distant horizon, those unwashed droves who came to settle the wide-open prairie. Foreigners, all of them, at least to the Native Americans they seized it from. Either way, a good deal of them were born abroad.
They were soon followed by the cattlemen and their free-ranging herds. The cattle barons dominated the early days of the Old West. After the Civil War, waves of unmarried young men — shaped by war, poverty, or slavery, or perhaps, in Nat Love’s case, all three — headed out west to pull opportunity from the ground, to cultivate or cut it out of the earth; they sought raw wealth, or perhaps, they came to feed their growing empire of beasts. Conflict was sewn throughout the social fabric of those wild and untamed territories.
When Nat Love first started riding herd as a cowboy in Kansas with the Duval outfit, the range he covered was so immense that it almost defies comprehension. But let’s try. The outfit would ride on horseback from Texas to New Mexico and on to Arizona, back across what would become Colorado, Oklahoma, and on up through Missouri and Kansas, out to Wyoming and Montana, back across the Dakotas, and then south again, to Texas.
As Nat Love puts it:
Naturally I became very well acquainted with all the many different trails and grazing ranges located in the stretch of country between the north of Montana and the Gulf of Mexico, and between the Missouri state line and the Pacific ocean. This whole territory I have covered many times in the saddle, sometimes at the rate of eighty or one hundred miles a day.
And half of the time, they were walking at cattle speed, through sun and rain, wind and storm, hail and heat, snow and sleet — and, unlike the postman, they had to sleep outside on the ground. It was a body-punishing lifestyle to say the least. Not to mention the shootouts. But that’s why little kids want to pretend-play as cowboys—that romanticized American violence. So, what was it really like for a Black cowboy like Nat Love?
In his own words, Love wrote this in his autobiography:
The life was hard and in some ways exacting, yet it was free and wild and contained the elements of danger which my nature craved and which began to manifest itself when I was a pugnacious youngster on the old plantation in our rock battles and the breaking of the wild horses. I gloried in the danger, and the wild and free life of the plains, the new country I was continually traversing, and the many new scenes and incidents continually arising in the life of a rough rider.
In his willful deeds, Nat Love’s cowboy spirit is most evident. Life on the prairie was not cheap. But one also knew no tomorrows were promised.
When Nat Love and his outfit took a herd up to Wyoming, they were stopped at the first Native American reservation and were charged the price of one steer to cross the land. They had 500 steer in their herd, but the trail boss refused to pay the toll, claiming they were following a free government trail and that if he gave the Native Americans anything, it would be a bullet. The cowboys rode on with their herd.
However, the Native Americans didn’t like how the exchange played out. Later that evening, once the cowboys settled down around the campfire for the night, the Native Americans charged out of the darkness, yelling war cries. A short, sharp gunfight erupted. But then, nearly as soon as they appeared, the indigenous warriors retreated back into the dark and still of the night. On edge from the attack, each of the cowboys slept that night with boots on their feet and a hand on their Winchester rifles.
Sometime around midnight, the Native Americans returned in larger numbers and divided into two bands. One band took cover in the tall grass while the other snuck over to the cattle and stampeded the herd. But this revenge backfired. The herd, in its uncontrollable, willful way, charged back toward the campsite, where the cowboys managed to string out and drive the herd back and forth through the tall grass. This lasted for hours, until dawn the next day. And that’s when they saw what remained of the Native American warriors who’d lain in wait in the tall grass. Tatters of clothing mashed together with shards of bone and flesh into an inseparable mass.
After recovering their herd and making a new campsite, the cowboys were once again beset by calamity. This time in the form of a buffalo stampede.
Just after they’d finish eating supper, it struck. First, it sounded like rolling thunder. But there were no storm clouds on the horizon. The terrific noise grew louder, the ground began to shake. That’s when they knew it was a buffalo stampede.
The cowboys leaped from their bedding, mounted horses, and tried to round up their herd to move it out of the way. When it was apparent that wouldn’t work, at least not quickly enough, Nat Love and the other cowboys charged the buffalo stampede, firing rifles into the face of it. Which also failed to do anything.
One cowboy, a young man named Cal, lost control of his mount and his horse, and, taken with fear, the animal bolted into the path of the buffalo stampede. After the horde of charging buffalo passed, all that was left of Cal was a scrap of his red shirt. His horse had been reduced to a pulpy mash the size of a jackrabbit. With heavy hearts, the cowboys rounded up the herd and headed on up through Kansas and Nebraska to deliver the steer to their new owner.
As a form of work, being a cowboy was one of the more brutal occupations in American history. Armed guards to a slow-moving mass of animals. And yet, hard as their lives were, as savage as their world was, it retains its romanticized charms. There is a unique expression of freedom found beneath a big sky that remains an American ideal—even if the reality of that lifestyle and the work it required most closely resemble the sacrifices modern Americans rely on undocumented people to make. There is a strange irony to the fact that the men most likely to be cowboys today would be immigrants.
But true to the dominating, territorial, aggressive nature of their personal mythos, cowboys were often anti-immigrant. Or so it seems from Nat Love’s perspective. The idea of lateral prejudice between Black and Brown people in America existed then, as it does now. For instance, Nat Love was no fan of Mexicans. Just consider the time he rode his horse into a saloon in Old Mexico and acted like a proper gunfighter, just for the thrill of it.
After a buffalo hunt, he and his outfit were paid to pick up a herd of horses their boss purchased from a ranch in Old Mexico. The Texas cowboys he rode with looked down on their southern neighbors. For some reason, Nat Love decided to impress this upon some drunk Mexicans. He left his outfit and rode for a saloon. It was a clay-floor saloon with a big, wide-open door. As he approached, Nat Love unloaded a few shots from his pistol into the bar, to clear the place out. Then he rode his horse right into the bar and ordered a drink for him and his horse. The man behind the bar didn’t want to pour the drinks, so Nat Love aimed his .45 at the bartender to encourage him. The man rethought his position and poured the drinks.
Meanwhile, the crowd of drunks and vaqueros that had scattered from the bar had returned. They were armed, and they were pissed. They demanded he come out. Nat Love finished his drink, charged his horse out of the bar, and emptied his pistol into the first man he could. Then he hightailed it out of town. The angry townspeople fired their rifles, but nary a one hit Nat Love.
After needlessly shooting and possibly killing an innocent man, and getting a drink for him and his horse, Love returned to his outfit. From there, they took the horses the rest of the way on to Texas. His autobiography is filled with stories like this.
There are also the numerous times when, through providence or chance, Nat Love’s path crossed trails with history. For instance, the Massacre at Little Big Horn, when Lakota, Dakota, and Crow fighters banded together under chiefs Sitting Bull, Old Chief Joseph, Rain-in-the-Face, and Crazy Horse to defeat Custer and his Seventh Cavalry.
On his way to Deadwood, South Dakota, to deliver a herd of steer, Nat Love and his outfit of cowboys were just 60 miles away when Custer was killed. The only reason they weren’t closer was because the U.S. Army held them back. The fact that Custer and his men had drawn so many Native Americans together for a fight meant that, when they decamped and headed north, Nat Love and the cowboys didn’t have trouble bringing their herd to town. Free from gunfights or stampeding, the cowboys arrived in Deadwood on July 3, 1876. By the end of the next day, Nat Love would have yet another nickname.
The next day was the Fourth of July, 1876. It was the 100-year anniversary of America’s founding. That meant that every miner, gambler, cowboy, and cattlemen in the territory was in Deadwood to celebrate. Some of the gold miners and professional gamblers put together a $200 purse for the winner of a roping contest.
Twelve cowboys entered the contest, six of whom were Black like Nat Love. The contest rules were simple. Twelve mustangs were cut out from a herd of wild horses. Each cowboy was assigned a specific mustang, and he was to rope, throw, tie, bridle, saddle, and mount the wild horse. The first one to mount their mustang would win. The cowboy who got second place did it in 12 minutes and 30 seconds. Nat Love did it in nine minutes flat. Dayum. He was crowned roping champion of the West. And his record time stayed the official record until he retired from roping in 1890.
But Nat Love wasn’t done.
The restless cowboys came up with a pair of shooting contests. One for rifles and one for .45 pistols. Nat Love placed all 14 shots with his rifle dead in the bull’s-eye. Second place scored eight bull’s-eyes. With his pistol, he put six of six shots dead center. The same fellow who took second place did it again, that time placing five. Nat Love won all the contests that day. He was the undisputed hero of Deadwood. And as such, the assembled crowd gave him the nickname Deadwood Dick.
To this day, the town of Deadwood has an annual parade and rodeo to mark that moment in history. It’s called ’76 Days. The long shadow of the cowboy past still dances across the American imagination.
As good as he was with a rope and a gun, as masterful a horseman as he was, one of the main reasons we’re able to hear these tales of the real Old West from the perspective of a Black cowboy is because Nat Love was one of the luckiest men to ever ride across the West.
There was that time he got adopted — or abducted, depending on how you look at it — by a Native American tribe. Nat Love was riding alone, hunting stray cattle near Yellow Horse Canyon, which is close to present-day Lubbock, Texas. He heard the familiar war whoop, looked behind him, and saw a band of Native American warriors charging at him. Outnumbered, he spurred his horse, and off they took with the war party giving chase. Nat Love fired back at them a few times. He killed three of them. But then he got shot in the leg. The bullet passed right through and killed his horse. Yet he didn’t give up fighting. As the Native Americans approached, he tried to beat them with his empty revolver. Eventually, he was overcome.
He didn’t expect to wake up, but when he did, he was surprised to have been brought to the Native Americans’ village. They’d admired his bravery and so decided to treat his wounds and gunshot. Nat Love learned that he’d been taken in by Chief Yellow Dog’s tribe. He saw there were many Black “half-breeds,” as he called them. This helped him make sense of why the tribe took in a brave Black man like him.
On his third day there, the tribe pierced his ears and adopted him as an official member. They performed medicine dances around him. Their prairie medicine worked exceedingly well, and his wounds healed faster than he expected.
Soon enough, Nat Love was healthy enough to dance with his new tribesmen. And soon after that, he learned Chief Yellow Dog planned to marry the Black cowboy off to his daughter. She was a beautiful woman as Nat Love remembered her. But this was not the plan he had for his life. So, he made a new one: On a moonless night, he’d make his escape.
He waited until everyone in the camp was asleep. He snuck out of his tent on his hands and knees, moving soundlessly for 250 yards, over to where the horses were picketed to the ground like tent stakes. He loosed the fleetest pony he’d scouted from the herd. He used a bridle but no saddle and climbed aboard the pony’s bare back. And he lit out for his home ranch. It was 100 miles away, but it might as well have been a lifetime away.
Nat Love rode all through the night and morning; 12 hours later, he was back at his home ranch in Texas. The boys he rode with marveled at how the bullet scar –– where a ball had torn into his chest and passed through –– had healed. They also gaped at a similar bullet wound in his leg, the one that had killed his horse but somehow didn’t spell the end of Nat Love. Truly, he was one of the luckiest men to ever call himself a cowboy.
All in all, by his recollection, Nat Love was shot 14 times. He had five horses shot out from underneath him. And there’s no accounting for how many men he shot and killed through his career as a rough rider.
The last thing to say about the great Black cowboy Nat Love: He was also friends with Billy the Kid. His autobiography offered a rare perspective on the notorious gunfighter, the kind of view only a friend would have. He rode with Billy in the Galligan outfit for 11 months. After that, Billy hired out with a man named John Chisholm to rustle cattle. They agreed to a price per head of steer, but when Billy the Kid was ready to be paid for his work, Chisholm cheated him.
The next day, Chisholm escaped town. He headed east to live with his brother. Billy the Kid was known for his quick rage. He swore revenge on Chisholm and all his men. This is when he first made a name for himself as an outlaw. Billy the Kid would ride up to a group of cowboys and ask if any of them worked for Chisholm. If they said yes, Billy the Kid shot them dead. But despite the Kid’s murderous and wicked ways, he and Nat Love remained friends.
In 1888, a couple of years after they rode together, Nat Love crossed paths with Billy again, down in New Mexico. Being old friends, they rode a while together. At some point, in the town of Silver City, New Mexico, Billy the Kid showed Nat Love his childhood home, the little log cabin where he was born. He showed Nat Love how the house was furnished when he was a boy, where the bed was, the stove and table. Still on the run from the law, Billy the Kid tore out for the mountains that night — but that wasn’t the last time Nat Love saw Billy the Kid.
Nat would see Billy one last time: the night the Kid was shot dead by Pat Garrett at Pete Maxwell’s ranch. Nat Love and some other cowboys had ridden into Lincoln County, New Mexico, that day, and after hearing the news as it spread through town, they rode out to see Billy the Kid’s corpse. Many think of that as the end of the Old West.
When 1890 rolled around, the time known as the Old West was coming to a close. The law had “civilized” the land. Outlaws had made that necessary. The Native American tribes that survived this period were pushed onto reservations. The Wild Wild West was no longer so wild. Now it was stitched together with railroad lines and telegraph wires. Cowboys with clear vision and an eye on the horizon, cowboys like Nat Love, saw that they’d come to the end of the trail.
Eventually, he did what many other Black cowboys did: He took a job on the railroad, allowing him to crisscross the wide-open places of this country that he loved. Nat Love worked as a Pullman porter, which connected him to another long and proud history of Black independence and freedom. Decades later, the Pullman Strike would act as the match that lit fires that would burn into the torches leading the early civil rights movement.
From livestock slave to free young man, from brave cowboy to Pullman porter, there is a through-line of Black liberation running throughout Nat Love’s life that best exemplifies the importance of Black cowboys and their contribution to the American character. These men were real as steel and free as any American who ever strode across this stolen land.
“Mounted on my horse my… lariat near my hand, and my trusty guns in my belt… I felt like I could defy the world.” ––Nat Love
If you’d like to read more of his life, here’s a digital copy of his autobiography.