Love, Nat 1854–1921
Nat Love 1854–1921
During the 1870s and 1880s, more than 5,000 black cowboys took part in the legendary cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Montana, roping stock, reading brands, and dodging Indian bullets. Among the most famous was Nat Love, better known as “Deadwood Dick,” the “champion of the West.” Born a slave in Tennessee, Love worked as a sharecropper after the Civil War, then headed west in search of better opportunities and adventure. His knack for handling wild horses quickly won him a place with a prominent cowboy outfit, and within a short time he had become a champion rider and roper. He earned the title “Deadwood Dick” in 1876, when during a cowboy tournament in Deadwood City, South Dakota, he succeeded in roping, tying, bridling, saddling, and mounting a wild stallion in nine minutes—four minutes faster than his closest competitor.
Although few histories of the American frontier discuss the contributions of black cowboys, in 1907, Nat Love produced an autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love: Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” in which he recalled the highlights of his 20-year career on the open range. His boastful style and sensational tales led many to question the authenticity of his account—according to William Loren Katz in The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History Love sounded, “more like a dimestore saga of western Americana than a flesh-and-blood cowpuncher” —but few could doubt its historical significance, or the energy and enthusiasm of its author.
“Horses were shot out from under me, men killed around me, but always I escaped with a trifling wound at the worst,” Love recalled in his book. “I gloried in the danger.” When, in the late 1880s, the coming of the railroads made cattle drives obsolete, Love left the range and accepted a job as a Pullman railroad passenger car porter. He felt, according to Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones in The Negro Cowboys, that “Pullman service offered a challenge to an ambitious man,” and that “it was still exciting to ride across the great mountains and wide plains, even if one had to do it for tips.”
Nat Love, the youngest of three children, was born in a slave cabin in Davidson County, Tennessee, in 1854. His father, Sampson, was foreman of field hands on the Robert Love plantation, and his mother worked in the kitchen. Although formal education was against the law for slaves, his father taught him to read and write. After the Civil War, Sampson Love rented 20 acres and struggled to scratch out a living as a sharecropper. He died in 1868, leaving his two sons, Nat and
Born Nat Love, June 1854, in Davidson County, TN; son of Sampson (a slave foreman and sharecropper) Love; died 1921, in Los Angeles, CA.
Worked as a cowboy in the western United States, 1869–89; served as a Pullman porter, 1890–21; published his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love: Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” 1907.
Jordan, to support the family. To earn additional money, Love accepted a variety of odd jobs, one of which helped to prepare him for life on the range. Upon learning of his eagerness to work, a neighbor offered him 10 cents for every colt he could break to ride. After he had proved himself with the more docile animals, the man offered him 25 cents—in advance—for taming a wild, untrustworthy stallion named Black Highwayman.
Love’s fondness for horses, together with his willingness to accept a challenge, made him an ideal candidate for the job. Even Black Highwayman gave in to his master’s powers, though the ride was so long and rough that Love lost the quarter before it was over. Not long afterwards, he won a horse in a raffle. Rather than keeping it to ride, however, he sold it a few days later for $100. He gave half of the money to his mother and kept the other half for himself.
Then, on February 10,1869, Love left his family behind and set off on foot for Kansas and the Wild West, determined to make it as a cowboy. Although he was only 15, he had exhausted the possibilities—both vocational and educational—that Tennessee had to offer. Love, assessed Katz, was “one of many southern blacks who found their opportunities crushed by slavery and the continuation of ‘white supremacy’ that followed the Civil War.”
The day after he arrived in Dodge City, Kansas, the “cowboy capital” of the West, Nat love was offered a $30-a-month job as a cowpuncher with the Sam Duval outfit, based at a ranch on the Palo Duro River in northern Texas. According to his memoirs, he was only one of a number of black cowboys in the company. He won the confidence and admiration of his peers by breaking the wildest bronco in the outfit. During his three years with the Duval company, he participated in dozens of cattle drives from Texas to Kansas and beyond. In the process, he learned to handle a gun, and before long he had become a sharp-shooter. His first Indian attack took him by surprise, however. “At the first bloodcurdling yell, I lost all courage and thought my time had come to die,” he recalled in his book.
In 1872 Love rode up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to southern Arizona, where he accepted a job with the Pete Gallinger Company, a large cowboy outfit on the banks of the Gila River. By this time, he was comfortable with the cowboy life, and embraced the challenge and excitement of mustang hunts, hair-breadth escapes from marauding Indians and outlaws, cattle stampedes, perilous terrain, and inclement weather. “What man, with the fire of life and youth and health in his veins, could not rejoice in such a life?” he asked in his autobiography. Within a short time, he had been named “chief brand reader” for the Gallinger outfit, a position which left him wholly responsible for the identification and care of the company’s livestock during roundups on the open range.
In the summer of 1876, Love and his outfit delivered a herd of 3,000 steers to Deadwood City, South Dakota, a booming mining town that drew gamblers and cowboys from miles around. While they were there, the local men organized a roping and shooting contest and invited the visitors to participate. Love was one of six black contestants in a gathering that included some of the best cowboys in the West. He came in first in the roping competition, lassoing, tying, and mounting an untamed bronco in record time, and won two shooting contests—one with a rifle at 100 and 250 yards, and the other with a Colt. 45 at 150 yards. “Right there the assembled crowd named me ‘Deadwood Dick’ and proclaimed me champion roper of the Western cattle country,” he recalled in his book. The prize money was gone within a short time, but he carried the honorary title for the rest of his life.
After his sensational victory at Deadwood, Love rode back to his home ranch in Arizona. But his adventures, it seemed, were only beginning. A few months after his return, he and his unit were out on the range searching for stray cattle. Each man rode alone to maximize the efficiency of the roundup. Suddenly Love was besieged by a band of Indians. He struggled to escape, but they shot his horse out from under him and then rode in for the capture. According to his memoirs, he used his horse’s carcass as a shield and continued to fire at his attackers until his gun was empty. In the process, he sustained several serious bullet wounds and was knocked unconscious.
When Love woke up, he found himself in the camp of his mortal enemy, Yellow Dog. His wounds had been cleaned and dressed, and the Indians were eager to adopt him as a member of the tribe. Love wanted no part of this, however. At his first opportunity, he stole the fastest horse he could find and galloped off into the night. He rode bareback for 12 hours, covering more than 100 miles. He later described the Indian attack and abduction as his “closest brush with death.”
Love’s grueling battle with Yellow Dog and his miraculous escape from the Indian camp was only one of a host of heroic adventures chronicled in his autobiography. In the preface to the book he insisted that he was including only facts, yet many of his tales challenge credibility. “Nat Love’s story is filled with exciting and almost unbelievable instances of courage,” Katz commented. “Although some might prefer him less of a braggart and more restrained, this was neither his nature nor style. With obvious relish and complete self-confidence he fought off Indians, braved hailstorms, battled wild animals and men—and lived to tell the vainglorious tale.” Over the years, he claimed to have received as many as 14 bullet wounds on different parts of his body. His book also recalled a string of light-hearted escapades, such as his attempt to rope and steal a U.S. Army canon, and the time he rode into a Mexican saloon and ordered drinks both for himself and for his horse.
Yet, according to some historians, Love’s autobiography was as remarkable for the information it omitted as for the adventures it recounted. While the book “confirms the large-scale participation of black cowboys in the long drives up the Chisholm Trail,” Katz suggested, Love “provides little insight into the intricacies of western racial relationships…. From the moment he left Tennessee and went west, he appears to have forgotten he was black. To hear him tell it, he was accepted by all—from the western psychopathic killer, Billy the Kid, to the aristocratic Spanish maiden who was his first passion.” Rather than sympathizing with the red man’s plight in the white man’s world, Love embraced—and helped to perpetuate—white stereotypes of Native American behavior. But according to Katz, this had more to do with the attitudes of Love’s white employers than it did with his own feelings.
“After the Civil War white racial animosity toward both black and red men seemed to rise rather than diminish,” Katz noted. “The economic interests dominant in government circles insisted that the business of America was business. They were interested in the Indian’s land, not the Indian, the black man’s labor, not his rights. The black man became the forgotten man and ‘the only good Indian was a dead Indian.’ The affinity between black and red man was eroded by white pressures. The black regiments on the frontier carried forth the genocidal policies of their white officers and the government in Washington.” In later years, Durham and Jones informed readers, all references to the Negro cowboy and his contributions were simply “dropped” from historical and fictional accounts of the Wild West.
By the end of the 1880s, steel rails had been laid across the western ranges, covered wagons crowded the plains, and the cowboy way of life was rapidly fading. Rather than withering away in a world of dusty memories, Love made up his mind to change with the changing times. In 1890 he left the range and applied for a job as a Pullman porter on the new cross-country trains. Unlike many other railroad jobs, Pullman service offered a certain degree of independence and dignity. It was, at the time, one of the best jobs available to black men.
Love approached his work with pride and enthusiasm, determined to become the best Pullman porter in the country. Love believed, Durham and Jones remarked, that “the qualities which made him a successful cowboy for 20 years made him, in the 1890s, a successful porter. He gloried in the people he met and the tips he earned. He gave no indication that he felt his change from the life of a cowboy to the life of a porter was anything other than the result of the changing times…. He had, he claimed, ridden into the West on horseback, ridden throughout the rangeland as Deadwood Dick and then ridden into the twentieth century on a train.”
Durham, Philip, and Everett L. Jones, The Negro Cowboys, University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Felton, Harold W., Nat Love, Negro Cowboy, Dodd Mead, 1969.
Katz, William Loren, The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History, Doubleday, 1971.
Love, Nat, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love: Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” originally published 1907, reprinted by Amo Press, 1968.
—Caroline B.D. Smith
Nat Love (1854-1921), African American champion cowboy known as Deadwood Dick, was famous for his great skill as a range rider and cattle-brand reader.
Nat Love was born a slave on a plantation near Nashville, Tenn., in June 1854. He had no formal education but, with help from his father, he learned to read and write. When the slaves were freed following the Civil War, Love worked on the small farm that his father rented from his former owner. After his father's sudden death, he became the sole support of his mother and younger brother and sister. He was able to obtain work on various plantations, where he displayed great skill in breaking horses.
In 1869, at the age of 15, Love was strong and alert and looked older than his years. He left his family in an uncle's charge and, with $50 in his pocket, headed west for Kansas, walking most of the way. When he reached Dodge City (a shipping center for the cattle industry), he got his first job, as a cowboy with the Duval Ranch. In the course of his 3 years with the Duval Ranch, Love became their buyer and chief brand reader. He made many trips into Mexico in this capacity and in the process learned to speak Spanish fluently.
In 1872 Love went to work for the Gallinger Ranch in Arizona, where he remained for many years. He became a master range rider and traveled over all the important western trails between the Gulf of Mexico and Montana. His dangerous work involved him numerous times in gun battles with Native Americans, cattle rustlers, and bandits, and he became an expert marksman. In one encounter with Indians he was wounded but taken captive rather than killed because the Indians were impressed with his bravery. He came to know many of the famous men of the West, including Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, and Pat Garrett.
Love acquired the name Deadwood Dick as a result of winning a shooting contest in Deadwood, S. Dak., on July 4, 1876. He became a champion rifleman by placing 14 out of 14 shots in the center of a target at 250 yards.
Love married in 1889, and a year later he left the range to work as a Pullman porter on the Denver Rio Grande Railroad. In 1907 he published his autobiography, which contains photographs of him wearing his western gear. He died in Los Angeles in 1921.
The best book about Love is his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907; repr. with new introduction, 1968). A well-written source of general information about the Afro-American cowboys is Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones, The Negro Cowboys (1965). Also useful is William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (1967). □