Fragments of the Old West – Cowhands* of Color

Although the precise number will never be known it is estimated that about one in four American cowboys were in fact of African descent.Black Ranch Hands

Cabinet Photograph sized Mounted Photograph. B. F. Craig – Photographer, Ballinger, Texas, United States. c 1900s. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia/

The cattle industry that is so firmly associated with the Old West had its origins in Texas and it can be assumed that prior to the Civil War the overwhelming majority of black cowboys were in fact slaves. With the end of the war and emancipation it would have been natural for these men to continue on in the trade they knew best – but now by choice and for a daily wage.

The era of the great cattle drives from Texas north to Abilene and Dodge City in Kansas did not last long but indelibly shaped the character and reputations of the men who took part in them regardless of race, creed or even national origin.

Taken in the center of Texas cattle country, this photograph depicts two young black men who appear to be late 19th or early 20th Century cowhands.

While their actual trade will probably never be known for certain, the two young men certainly fit the proverbial bill for being cowboys or ranch hands from the early 1900s. Located almost literally “deep in the heart of Texas“, Ballinger (founded in 1886) was home to numerous cattle ranches any of which these men may have been employed. It is also possible that they were working on their own account, the owners of their own spread. Unfortunately, they are unidentified so researching their story will be problematic.

Ballinger Statue

Above: Prominently located in Courthouse Square in the town of Ballinger, the Charles H. Noyes statue honors a young local cowboy who died while roping cattle around 1919. The statue reflects the importance of the local cattle industry and is dedicated to “Spirit of the Texas Cowboy.”  Source:

One interesting detail of the men’s costumes are the decorative buttons arraigned in a trefoil pattern on the seated man’s collar points. They are purely decorative in function and are typical of the small and individualistic sartorial flourishes so beloved by denizens of the Old West.

*During much of the historical period generally considered the “Old West” the term cowboy was looked upon with derision by many. It was often associated with cattle rustlers and outlaw types. A case in point was the so-called cow-boy faction of ner-do-wells who opposed Wyatt Earp, his brothers and “Doc” Holliday in early 1880s Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Those who plied an honest trade in cattle preferred such terms as cowhand, cowpuncher, cattleman, buckaroo (a derivative of the Spanish vaquero) or cowpoke. “Cowboy” would not begin to lose its outlaw stigma until around the time this photograph was taken.

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