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White kids, black cowboys

Most striking when I arrived in Utah as a 7 year-old was the two-thirds of the state that is Mormon. We were clearly outnumbered. But we missed something even more striking. 94% of the state was white. For the next 14 years I grew up in this land of white bread, white collars, and white skin.

So you might understand why a 6-foot-9 black truck-driving cowboy stood out to a kid. Karl Malone wasn't just an all-star forward for the Utah Jazz, he was also a self-dubbed "African-American redneck." Born in northern Louisiana, not far from Arkansas where he now owns a 180-acre cattle ranch, "The Mailman" is the only black cowboy I'd ever known. Turns out, he's far from alone.

According to an eye-catching story in the Times today there are black cowboys riding the roads of Queens, NY. The story piqued my interest enough to do some digging. Once I found "the premiere black cowboys site on the Internet" I realized how much I've been missing.

Estimates of the antebellum cowboy population in the U.S. (warning: numbers of Internet origin) put African-American men at about 5,000-8,000, or roughly one quarter of all cowboys riding the trails at that time. Many learned herding, roping, and riding skills as slaves working on Southern ranches; others had been Buffalo Soldiers or Black Seminole scouts in the U.S. army who settled their own land in the south and west. There seems to be some agreement that as brutally difficult and demanding as cowboy life was, it beat slavery. They did have an impetus.

Did you know there's a Black American West Museum in Denver, a National Cowboys of Color Museum in Ft. Worth, and books and books and books on the subject? Check out this National Geographic gallery.

I even learned something about Utah. Moab, a town not known for its cowboys of color, was actually settled by two guys, one a French-Canadian and the other a black cowboy by the name of William Granstaff. Utah lore recalls these two by the nicknames given them by their neighbors, "Frenchie" and "Nigger Bill" (clever folks back then). Bill was eventually run out of town for bootlegging liquor to the Ute indians but later honored as the namesake of the canyon where he grazed his cattle - that's right: "Nigger Bill Canyon." At some point in the intervening years someone had the sense to update the name - "Negro Bill Canyon" - which is purported be a lovely little hike today.

Still, after several hours researching this (hours that I'll never get back, mind you), I'm still a bit miffed. What the hell are they doing riding horses in Queens, NY?

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“White kids, black cowboys”

  1. Blogger joanna and marco Says:

    interesting stuff. i guess you've got some time on your hands. and what would your cowboy name be? - wild bleachy jeff, the dissertation dude, the white tshirted man...