Historians say one in four cowboys were black but you wouldn’t know it from the movies

When you think of Westerns, what images come to mind?

Thanks to Hollywood, you likely think of gun-toting, boot and hat-wearing white guys.

But historians estimate that one in four cowboys were African-American. Why then, has Hollywood whitewashed the American cowboy?

By 1825, Smithsonian magazine reports that nearly 25 percent of settlers, in the region that eventually became Texas, were slaves.

When Texans went off to fight in the Civil War, their slaves stayed back to take care of cattle. During that time, those slaves developed cattle tending skills that made them even more valuable after the war ended.

When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Texans hired their former slaves as paid cowhands, Smithsonian magazine explains. The demand for cowhands increased as ranchers started selling their cattle to customers in northern states.

Rodeo stars emerge

But as the railway system improved, the need for cowhands to get cattle to shipping points dwindled.

Even though working as a cowboy wasn’t as economically viable, the public’s interest in the cowboy lifestyle didn’t fade away and that gave rise to Wild West shows and the rodeo. That opened the door for cowboys like Bill Pickett, who was one of the most famous early rodeo stars.

Pickett, who learned his roping skills from working as a cowboy on a Texas ranch, was known for introducing bulldogging which is better known as steer wrestling, according to the History Channel.

Pickett would ride his horse alongside a longhorn steer, grab its head and bite its upper lip. That steer wrestling technique became known as bulldogging because bulldogs were known for controlling cattle by biting their lower lips, the History Channel explains.

Not as many people are willing to use the risky lip-biting method so that was replaced by other techniques over time.

Who were the buffalo soldiers? 

African-American men also served as buffalo soldiers on the Western frontier after the Civil War.

These soldiers fought against Native Americans, captured horse and cattle thieves, built roads and protected U.S. mail stagecoaches. The buffalo soldiers are believed to have gotten their nickname because of their toughness in battle, according to the History Channel.

Inspiration for “The Lone Ranger”

In addition to overlooking many of these cowboys, the BBC reports that many Hollywood films have used the stories of black cowboys, but have failed to have black actors fill major roles in those movies.

For instance, Bass Reeves, a 19th-century slave who became a deputy U.S. marshal, is said to have inspired the story of “The Lone Ranger.”

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant put Judge Isaac C. Parker in charge of rounding up criminals in the Indian Territory. Reeves became one of the first of 200 deputy U.S. marshals Parker’s court hired to arrest fugitives in the territory.

Reeves had a reputation for catching fugitives that other deputies couldn’t. He was also known for disguising himself to get enough information to capture the outlaws he was searching for, the National Parks Service explains.

“Reeves was known as an expert with pistol and rifle, stood about six foot, two inches, weighed 180 pounds, and was said to have superhuman strength.”

—National Park Service

The National Park Service notes that in 1901 Reeves told a Territorial newspaper that he’d arrested more than 3,000 outlaws in the Indian Territory. Reeves spent 32 years working as a deputy U.S. marshal.

More recently, Hollywood has started to include these often-overlooked cowboys in films like “Unforgiven,” “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight.”

View the full story and video on Circa’s website.

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