recess radio program

2/05/04
Nat Love, African American Cowboy
    by Rita Smith

In the mid 19th century, the western frontier drew many adventure seekers, some of them quite young teenagers. Nat Love was born in a Tennessee slave cabin in 1856. It took a long time for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach his plantation, but when it did Love's father rented 20 acres of land, determined to make a go of it as a farmer. The whole family worked hard, growing corn, tobacco and vegetables and making brooms, straw mats and chair bottoms from cane and reeds. Nat was in his teens when his father died. His mother needed money to keep the acreage, and when a rancher offered Nat 10 cents for every colt he could break, Nat went to work for him, displaying a remarkable talent for holding onto the unbridled wild colts.

One day he heard that a man was going to raffle off a horse for 50 cents a ticket, and Nat bought a chance. He won the horse, and promptly sold it back tothe rancher for $50. The rancher raffled it off again, and again Nat won; he sold it back to the rancher a second time for another $50. He now had $100. For some time he had wanted to go west and this money would provide the means to go. He went home from the raffle, gave his mother half the money and told her, [I want] "to go out in the world and try and better my condition."1

"Although young in years," he says in his autobiography, "the hard work and farm life had made me strong and hearty, much beyond my years, and I had full confidence in myself as being able to take care of myself and making my way."2 Although his mother begged him not to go, on February 10, 1869, Nat left home and headed for Kansas where he heard there was work. "I bade mother and the old home farewell," he writes, "and started out for the first time alone in a world I knew very little about."3 He was 15. He landed in Dodge City and thanks to his skill with horses, quickly secured a job as a trail riding cowboy that earned him $30 a month. He thrived on all the rigors of trail riding: the long days in the saddle, the hailstorms, the skirmishes with Indian tribes, the fights with white outlaws. He quickly became respected for his skills with lariat and gun and for his knowledge of cattle trails and ranch brands.

Several years into his new adventurous life Love entered a rodeo contest in Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory. He won all the roping and shooting contests and was thereafter known as Deadwood Dick, the most famous black cowboy in the West.

Notes
1 Love, p. 553.
2 Love, p. 554.
3 Love p. 553.

Sources:
Katz, William Loren. The Black West. 3rd ed. Seattle, WA: Open Hand Pub., c1987.

Love, Nat. "Life and Adventures of Nat Love" in My Soul Has Grown Deep: Classics of Early African-American Literature, John Edgar Wideman, compiler. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2001.

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Copyright 2004 Rita Smith

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