Black History Month: Black Cowboys on the American Frontier

Azure Hall, Public Affairs Specialist

In honor of Black History Month, employees from the Bureau of Land Management recently tuned in a presentation about “Black Cowboys on the American Frontier.”

Historical photo of a black cowboy
Nat Love - Courtesy of privately published autobiography

BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning introduced Zaron Burnett III, host of the podcast Black Cowboys and a descendant of actual Black cowboys. His talk covered the history and legacy of often-overlooked historical figures who helped shape the modern American West.

As a child, Burnett’s father would regale him with tales of Black cowboys that shaped a history of Black culture for him that extended beyond the confines of slavery. These stories, Burnett explained, gave him a “growing sense of community across time,” and a connection to his ancestors on horseback.

Historical photo of a black cowboy riding a horse
Bill Pickett - Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

Burnett brought to life numerous known Black cowboys as well as the thousands who remain unnamed and live on only as “spirits” in the collective whole of history. The historical figures included Nat Love and Bill Pickett in the West, as well as the variations of cowboys who lived in North Carolina and Florida. Burnett pointed out that one in four cowboys in America were Black, a fact that is often whitewashed out of history books and one he hopes to make common knowledge.

Along with ranch hands and buccaneers, Burnett talked about modern-day Black cowboys and their continued prevalence. Herb Jeffries, who passed away in 2014, was particularly important to Burnett due to his fight to represent Black cowboys in cinema.

Jeffries made it his mission to create movies showing Black cowboys on horseback after he encountered a young boy crying over not being able to play pretend to be a white cowboy with the other kids. “Representation, or the lack thereof” has an impact on public perception, Burnett explained.

Historical photo of black cowboy on horseback
Cowboy 1903 - Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

Burnett also talked about Myrits Dightman, a Black cowboy and rodeo star who still lives today. Burnett presented all these examples to reframe the image that comes to mind when one thinks of the word “cowboy.”

Burnett hopes that when people hear the word “cowboy,” they’ll now think of the Black cowboys that permeated the West and live on today in rodeo and ranching. These Black men, and occasionally Black women, exemplify all that America is meant to be. They show that “America is an idea worth fighting for,” Burnett said.