Wednesday, September 3, 2014

America's Wild West Was Colorful - In More Ways Than One

Growing up in the late 40s, 50s and very early 60s, like most kids of my generation I was fascinated by westerns. First on radio, and later on TV, I was enthralled by the tales of American’s Wild West. Many days after school and on most Saturdays, you’d find me glued to the radio or TV anxiously absorbing the latest adventure of Red Ryder, the Cisco Kid, the Lone Ranger, and all the other daring heroes of the western plains, deserts and mountains.

I don’t think I really noticed at the time that the old west I saw on our old black and white television set was overwhelmingly white. If I did notice, I probably just thought, ‘that’s the way things were.’ It’s not like there were alternative sources of information or images to compare with. I mean, things weren’t totally white. There were the Indians – or Native Americans. But, with the exception of the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, and the Last of the Mohicans, they were all blood thirsty and portrayed as always wanting to scalp someone. There were also Mexicans, like Red Ryder’s companion, and Cisco Kid’s pal, Pancho – but, except for their overdone Spanish accents, they were pretty white. Lest I forget, now and then a Chinese laundryman or cook, like Hop Sing on Bonanza, would put in an appearance. As for black people, I struggle to remember if there were any with other than walk-on parts as slaves or former slaves who never really did much. The cavalry that came to the rescue of the besieged settlers were all a bunch of white guys.
So, when I left my home in Texas in 1962 to join the army, those were the images I carried with me. I joined the army to see the world, and man oh man did I ever. A whole new world opened up to me – and, not just the fact that there were people in the rest of the world very unlike those I’d grown up around in a small east Texas town, but my access to historical records opened up a whole new window on the past. And, I learned that not only had the past taught to me been distorted, much of it was false by omission.

Men of K Troop, 9th Cavalry. Public
Domain Image. Wikimedia images.
The first unit to which I was assigned after basic and advanced training was the 24th Infantry Division in Germany. You can imagine my surprise when I learned shortly after arriving that the division’s lineage descended from the 24th Infantry Regiment, one of four regiments (9th and 10th Cavalry, and 25th Infantry) authorized by congress after the Civil War to be led by white officers but otherwise made up of black men. They were part of what was then known as the United States Colored Troops. These four regiments were assigned to the expanding frontier west of the Mississippi, and made up ten percent of the army stationed in the west. At one time after 1870, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry were stationed in New Mexico Territory and Texas, so any cavalry coming to anyone’s rescue from about 1874 to nearly 1885 wouldn’t have been white. In addition, the army recruited free blacks who had been members of the Seminole tribe in Florida during the removal of that tribe to Oklahoma Territory, but had fled to Mexico to escape discrimination, to form the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts who aided in the fight against Comanche and other hostile tribes in Texas.

Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts
Public Domain image.
Between the scouts and the Buffalo Soldiers (a name given to the black soldiers by the Native American tribes they fought), blacks were involved in many, if not most, of the battles against the various tribes. In addition, they helped local law enforcement maintain order (such as the Lincoln County War in New Mexico), carried mail and supplies, built roads, and provided security to those building the railroads. After nearly two decades in Texas and New Mexico, they were transferred to the Dakotas where they continued to fight, explore, and build. When the first national parks were established, the army provided security, and Buffalo Soldiers were among those assigned this duty. When President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite Park, for instance, men from the Ninth provided his guard of honor and escort.

Black homesteaders kids in
Nebraska. Public domain image.
 But, people of color were in the west in more than military uniforms. Before the Civil War, Texas had a large number of slaves, who worked the ranches, and continued to do so after being freed. Most ranches had white, black, and Hispanic hands driving cattle, mending fences, and taming horses. When the country was moving westward, black settlers made the long and arduous journey – establishing all-black towns in several places.

The outlaw, Isom Dart.
Bass Reeves
There were even black outlaws and lawmen in the Old West. Ned Huddleston was born a slave in Arkansas in 1849, and accompanied his owner to Texas during the Civil War. After when he was freed, he joined a band of rustlers and changed his name to Isom Dart. Despite wanting to live an honest life, the call of the wild kept luring him back to rustling until he was killed in 1900. One of the most famous black lawmen was Bass Reeves, also a former slave, who became one of the first black deputy US marshals west of the Mississippi. Although he’d never learned to read or write, he spoke six Native American languages, and had an amazing memory. He would have someone read fugitive warrants to him and memorize the contents. During his 30+ year career he brought in over 3,000 fugitives.

Bill Pickett
A bit of trivia about cowboys. How many of you are rodeo fans? Do you know what bulldogging is? That’s where a rodeo rider leaps from a horse going at full gallop, grabs a steer by the horns and wrestles it to the ground. It is now a main event at most rodeos, and it was invented by a black cowboy, Bill Pickett, who was born in Texas in 1870. Because of his race, he wasn’t allowed to compete against white rodeo performers, but he toured parts of the US, Canada, Mexico, England and South America performing for rapt audiences. He died in 1932 after being kicked in the head by a horse. In 1972 he was inducted in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame, and in 1989 into the Pro-rodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy. In 1994, the US Postal Service issued a postage stamp in his memory.  

And, of course, no tale of black cowboys would be complete without mention of Nat Love, known as Deadwood Dick, born a slave in Tennessee.  After freedom and the death of his father, he moved first to Texas where he demonstrated amazing skills as a cowboy, especially breaking horses. After a few years he moved to Arizona where he became even more famous. Deadwood Dick  worked as a cowboy for 20 years before getting married and settling down. He worked a number of jobs in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada before finally settling down in California. In 1907, he published his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick.” While few of the claims in his book could be verified, except his skill as a cowboy, the American reading public devoured his book as avidly as the ‘dime novels’ of the time.

There you have it. The Old West was colorful. And, in a literal, not just rhetorical sense.