IT WAS SAID THAT HE SAW KEENLY THROUGH BLIZZARDS, that he’d studied the stars, that he was curious about archaeology and had an aptitude for buffalo hunting. This skill set had served the Crowfoot Ranch foreman well. But on a fateful summer day in 1908, he was just looking to fix a hole under a barbed-wire fence. A flash flood had torn a gully through an arroyo of the Dry Cimarrón River. As he rode his horse through, scanning the newly shifted landscape, his sharp eyes picked out the bones of a giant prehistoric bison protruding from the creek bed.
The man, George McJunkin, died in 1922, four years before his discovery of the Folsom site rocked the record books. His find proved that people—whose projectile points were found in an excavation of the 8,000-year-old remains—had roamed North America for much longer than previously believed. But the personal history of the ranch hand who set off the biggest archaeological revelation of the 20th century was ignored. For much of that same century, his other claim to fame—as one of the most accomplished Black cowboys in the West—was mostly omitted from the historical record.
According to Outriders: Legacy of the Black Cowboy, a new exhibition at the Harwood Museum of Art, in Taos, historians now estimate that Black cowboys accounted for one in four of the hands who roamed the Western frontier between 1866 and 1895. During the heyday of the Goodnight-Loving, Chisholm, and other cattle trails that ran through the heart of the Southwest, former slaves and their sons rode, roped, and rodeoed, helping to shape the cowboy archetype and the larger mythology of the West: the John Wayne one, that is. The stories told in Outriders—via more than two dozen historical photographs and several contemporary artists’ depictions of the Black cowboy culture that endures—are part of a wave of cultural reckonings with this whitewashed realm of American history.
LARRY CALLIES, FOUNDER OF THE BLACK Cowboy Museum, in Rosenberg, Texas, and a consultant on Outriders, takes issue with that one-in-four figure.
“The word ‘cowboy’ came from slaves,” he says. “You had a houseboy, a yard boy, and somebody who worked the cows. He was called a cowboy.” White wranglers were known as “cowhands,” he explains, since “boy” was a racialized term. “If you saw 10 ‘cowboys’ back in the 1800s, actually, all of them were Black. They were the true cowboys.”
Black cowboy tales and aesthetics have been having more than a moment of late, from Lil Nas X’s 2019 megahit “Old Town Road” to McJunkin’s long-overdue induction, the same year, into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, in Oklahoma City. Callies hosted Jay-Z and Beyoncé at his own museum a few years ago, when the couple were researching Black cowboys for Jay-Z’s producer role on The Harder They Fall (2021). Filmed in New Mexico, that Netflix film is loosely based on the real-life stories of Nat Love, Bill Pickett, Bass Reeves, and “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, notable Black Westerners whose images and exploits are also featured in Outriders. Another recent movie, Concrete Cowboy (2020), spotlights the urban horseback-riding culture of Philadelphia, one of many seemingly unlikely pockets of the United States where the legacy of the first Black equestrians lives on.
In the contemporary section of Outriders, photographs by Kennedi Carter, Ivan B. McClellan, and Ron Tarver reveal thriving Black riding and rodeo communities throughout the country.
HARWOOD CURATOR NICOLE DIAL-KAY SAYS the impetus for Outriders was to acknowledge and add to the growing visibility of its history and culture. “To my knowledge, this is the largest collection of historic Black cowboy photos that’s been put together,” she adds. The show’s newly printed images will be folded into the Black Cowboy Museum’s collection when Outriders closes on May 7. In addition to Callies, the exhibition committee includes administrators from the African American Museum and Cultural Center of New Mexico, and the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center, in Denver, and Taos artist Nikesha Breeze, whose work often engages with generational Black history in the West. Breeze’s great-great-grandfather once lived in the all-Black farming community of Blackdom, near Roswell.
Many cowboys were drawn to wrangler work because it allowed them to escape “life-threatening situations” in the Reconstruction-era South, says Dial-Kay, “to find some level of freedom. They’re reported to have been paid slightly better than their counterparts at home.” Some of the exhibition’s earliest photographs of range life exude this relative relaxation. Subjects squint at the camera, strike a match for a smoke, and chow down on a chuck-wagon supper. Black and white coworkers shared accommodations and even blankets on the trail. “Then they would return to a town and experience that same level of violence and racism that they were fleeing from. So it was maybe a better lifestyle,” Dial-Kay theorizes, “but certainly not one that escaped the American systems of prejudice.”
Hollywood Westerns were shaped by a collective Depression-era nostalgia for the idealized experience of freedom on the open range, the feeling of being out in the “real” America and the Wild West. The personal histories of Black cowboys contributed to these stories—the thickly mustachioed Bass Reeves, a former slave and 32-year deputy U.S. marshal who outwitted outlaws by wearing disguises, is said to have inspired The Lone Ranger. Wayne’s character in The Searchers, Ethan Edwards, is based on the life experiences of Britt Johnson.
Some early movies featured Black stars of the West: Bill Pickett “The Bull-Dogger” (1922) is a lost silent film starring the rodeo legend himself. But due to Jim Crow laws that segregated both movie theaters and the films studios produced, white audiences rarely saw these Black pictures. Near the entrance to Outriders, three John Wayne movies play on a loop, demonstrating the diluted sagebrush sagas that grew out of a diverse cohort of cowboys.
“John Wayne was my idol,” says Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, reflecting on his early affinity for Westerns. The Ghanaian artist’s arresting portraits of bandana-masked men are featured in the contemporary portion of the exhibition, in which seven artists respond to the idea of the Black cowboy. “I was so attracted by the cowboy culture, their way of dressing, the boots, and the way they talked. I was just curious. They were so different from other movies I had watched.” Quaicoe’s cowboy paintings got a jolt of inspiration when he learned about the Compton Cowboys, a group of Los Angeles–based Black riders, during the summer of protests after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. “That pushed me to find out more of this history,” he says, “to create these works.”
Beyond the Horizon, by Alexander Harrison, 2021.
Alexander Harrison’s Beyond the Horizon, another Outriders painting that commands a visitor’s attention, depicts a stylized cowboy wearing high-heeled boots and crouching in a gunfighter’s pose, gripping a revolver. His left hand drips blood onto a plank; underneath it, three watchful, hidden faces gaze outward. His protective pose and fierce expression give him a dual identity—he could be a lawman, an outlaw, or both.
“I was painting that during the George Floyd protests,” says the Brooklyn-based Harrison, who was born in 1993. “That underlies my mindset.” During the process, however, the artist came to be reminded of his grandfather, who always wore a cowboy hat when Harrison was growing up in Greenville, South Carolina. “I just wanted this figure to exude confidence and determination in their glare.”
Some might chalk up the erasure of Black cowboy history to the books and movies that were written and produced by white people. But Harrison and Quaicoe are just the latest generation of Black creators who are telling cowboy stories. One of the first was Nat Love, perhaps the most famous Black hero of the Old West, whose legacy was boosted by his bestselling 1907 autobiography. (Jonathan Majors plays him in The Harder They Fall.) Love dedicated his book:
To that noble but ever decreasing band of men under whose blue and buckskin shirts there lives a soul as great and beats a heart as true as ever a human breast contained—to the cow-boys, rangers, scouts, hunters and trappers and cattle-men of the “GREAT WESTERN PLAINS.”