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One of the things that is striking about most English-language story-telling endeavors - whether we're talking written fiction, comics, television, or movies - is how uniformly Caucasian the casts of characters are. And if people of color appear, they're in stereotyped roles: the Native American tracker, or the black housekeeper. If the setting is historical, the justification is "that's the way it was then." For IBARW, here's a little online research about the Old West of the United States, and why it's actually more historically accurate to have people of African, Native American, Hispanic, and other types of descent among a cast of cowboys, gunslingers, general store owners, and other classic Western archetypes during the late 19th and very early 20th centuries.

The Real Cowboys

The archetypical cowboy has sun-burned or deeply tanned white skin and piercing blue eyes. He speaks with a Southwestern drawl, an accent that derives ultimately from the Scots-Irish who settled in what become the Southern states. But in fact, cowboys, wranglers, and desperadoes of African, Native American, and Hispanic descent were quite common in the Wild West. In a July 16, 2006 story on SpokesmanReview.com, Jim Austin, founder of the National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, noted that "We can document a third of 40,000 cowboys [as black, Hispanic or Indian] from 1866 to 1870" ("Texas museum honoring Northwest cowboys of color"). Even if Austin's statements are taken with a grain of salt, that's a substantial number of cowboys of color.

Other sources back the basic idea behind Austin's figures. A New York Times article published on January 10, 1892, quoted a cattle ranch owner in Montana, who said that "The native American makes the best cowboy ... their services are so much more desirable that young men of other nationalities are discouraged from getting into the profession ... It's different down near Mexico, where Mexicans and half-breeds are in the majority." Meanwhile, stories of cowboys of African descent are quite common and documented, and photos of cowboys of the time (like this 1902 group portrait, found on a Stanford University web site about cowboys) clearly show African American cowboys alongside their counterparts of other ethnicities.

And Not Just Cowboys

People of color could be found in a variety of professions in the Wild West, not just as cowboys. African American Bass Reeves was a deputy marshall in Arkansas in the 1870s. Ah Bing, born in China, was the nursery foreman at a large fruit farm in Oregon, and had the variety of sweet cherry that he helped develop - the famous Bing cherry - named after him (mentioned in a variety of sources online; this report, Asians and Pacific Islanders in Rural and Small-Town America, is one of the more reputable). Former slave Mary Fields ("Stagecoach Mary") drove a mail coach. Mexican-born Vicente Romero was a prominent rancher. African American Bridget "Biddy" Mason was a midwife and then a landowner and entrepreneur in early Los Angeles. And this list is the result of just an hour or so of online research - there are many more examples on the WWW and elsewhere.

Note: I first came across much of this information when I was researching the short articles that I write for internal circulation each year at my workplace during what our employers call the "special emphasis months": Black History Month, Native American History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, and so on. A lot of it makes really interesting reading. However, as with so much on the WWW, you will need to double-check the sources.



( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 6th, 2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
Very true, yes!

There were also the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry regiments:

Their tasks were to protect settlers, remove settlers who were illegally squatting on reservation land and, most difficult of all, prevent tribal raids on settlers and their herds. They fought Comanche, Sioux, Apache, and Cheyenne tribesmen, including those led by Sitting Bull and Geronimo.

Aug. 9th, 2008 02:25 am (UTC)

Yeah, the Buffalo Soldiers got put in kind of a bad spot, having to fight the Native tribes who were in some cases fighting against what were actual encroachments on their territories. But they were good soldiers and brave men.

So - what is the relationship between you and the authors?

Aug. 9th, 2008 02:44 am (UTC)
William H. Leckie was my grandfather. Shirley Leckie, who I've never met, was his second wife.

I'm actually estranged from that side of the family--my biological father is...well, actually, not entirely unlike William Sanders in some ways.
Aug. 19th, 2008 12:35 am (UTC)
William H. Leckie

I went out of town before I could answer this ... that's rough. I have an uncle like that, but at least he's just my uncle, and he's actually mellowed a bit with age.

Feb. 21st, 2011 04:38 pm (UTC)
William Sanders
A bit late, but the web is vast: William Sanders? Guess I should be flattered. Never a pow-wow dancer, I do occasionally play Comanche war songs on the stereo when my German neighbors ramp up the Schlager and Techno, but otherwise am quite meek.--William H. Leckie
Aug. 7th, 2008 03:39 am (UTC)
here through IBARW link
I finally learned about the true cowboys last year in an upper-level history course (got lucky with a good professor there!). I'm still reeling from trying to readjust my mental image of "cowboy" from the one that fictional representations have given me. The Exodusters also overturned my conception of who were homesteaders.
Aug. 9th, 2008 02:22 am (UTC)
Re: here through IBARW link

The stuff that I've been reading kind of makes me want to write some AU fanfic set in the Old West that uses some of these ideas - I think it could be a lot of fun.

That sounds like a good class!

Aug. 9th, 2008 06:38 pm (UTC)
Re: here through IBARW link
That would be fun! When I was watching 3:10 to Yuma, I kept hoping all the bit characters like the Apache and the Chinese railroad workers would hijack the movie. Like they care who's wearing the white hat.
Aug. 7th, 2008 05:55 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for this. It was awesome reading.
Aug. 9th, 2008 02:25 am (UTC)

I'm glad you enjoyed it! This stuff is one of the better parts of my job ... .

Aug. 7th, 2008 11:23 am (UTC)
Eia mai nâ paniolo pipi, me ka nani o ku`u home
Great stuff! And a related cowboy tradition that's little-known outside of the islands, and actually predates the rise of the American cowboy culture: the paniolo of Hawai'i. During Kamehameha III's reign, Mexican and Spanish vaqueros were brought to Hawai'i to modernize the ranching industry that grew around the feral cattle descended from beasts gifted to his grandfather Kamehameha the Great. The Hawaiian term is believed to come from the Hawaiianized pronunciation of "Español", and along with the cowboy skills and related crafts of saddlery and leatherworking, whip and lariat making, and metalcrafting, the vaqueros brought a Spanish influence to music and fashion that lives on in traditional Hawaiian formalwear and slack-key guitar. The earliest paniolo to learn from the vaqueros were Native Hawaiians, but as the ranching industry grew in the islands, members of the island's many immigrant populations also became paniolo. (And coming around full-circle -- Hawaiian popular music, which incorporated guitars brought originally by the Spanish and Portuguese; ukulele, a local instrument based on the Portuguese cavaquinho, and the locally-developed steel guitar, influenced American country-western; the twangy sliding steel guitar sound that many folks would first associate with country or bluegrass first came to be popularized in the mainland U.S. by way of an early-20th-century fad for Hawaiian music, which led to many island musicians touring the mainland in musical revues)

Na Paniolo Pipi - The Hawaiian Cowboy

Bishop Museum - Na Paniolo O Hawai'i

Paniolo Preservation Society - Ikua Purdy

And going back to the paniolo musical tradition -- some YouTube links, turn up your speakers and enjoy!

Jeff Kamakahi, Kilakila Na Roughrider, a classic song commemorating the 1908 Wyoming rodeo in which Ikua Purdy was named world champion:

(Kilakila Na Roughrider is also the basis of a popular hula auana)

Sol K. Bright, Hawaiian Cowboy -- a classic song in the old-time "hapa-haole" style, performed by the composer:

Howard Ai, Cowboy Hula -- another classic hula auana song, with a dance by the singer's grandson:

Uncle Dave Heaukulani, Na Pipi Hoemoe (The Cattle Asleep), a modern slack-key lullabye:
Aug. 7th, 2008 11:44 am (UTC)
Re: Eia mai nâ paniolo pipi, me ka nani o ku`u home
And a little more that didn't fit thanks to space limits --

Trio Na Palapalai, Waiomina, another song about the 1908 rodeo championship:

Mele.com also has generous sample clips for all of the tracks on the excellent compilation Songs of the Hawaiian Cowboy: Na Mele O Paniolo

Aug. 9th, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)
Re: Eia mai nâ paniolo pipi, me ka nani o ku`u home

What fun these were! I actually did an article on the paniolos for Asian-Pacific Heritage Month a couple of years ago, and talked about Ikua Purdy and his rodeo victory. I wonder if I could make an arrangement to have these permitted through the firewalls next May - we usually block YouTube at the office.

Aug. 7th, 2008 02:02 pm (UTC)
Oh, phooey -- it looks like the Spokesman-Review has thrown your first link behind a registration page! For folks who don't want to have to register with them or try to find logins via BugMeNot, here's the Google cache of that article.
Aug. 9th, 2008 02:36 am (UTC)

Yes - my librarian colleague tells me I should have copied the link from Google instead of picking up the URL when I read the article. I didn't even know it was doing that - good catch!

Sep. 23rd, 2008 12:12 pm (UTC)
A bit of comment necromancy, but too nifty to pass up...
A little something random I stumbled across while looking for something completely unrelated -- http://www.randyjaybraun.com/cowboys1.aspx. Art photography from the islands, with one subsection devoted to lovely modern paniolo images. :)
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )


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