Friday Historical – Nat Love, the Cowboy Rock Star

Nat Love, who was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1854, went west to Dodge City after the Civil War and cadged work as a wrangler and cowboy. He was already a pretty good rider and bronco-buster, and in a very short time had picked up the other requisite skills – with a six-shooter and lasso, earning the nick-name ‘Deadwood Dick’ through a contest of cowboying skills at a 4th of July celebration in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. He not only won the roping contest, but the the grand prize pot of $200 in the shooting contest. He was a hit with the audience, as well as with his fellow cattle drovers. He cut a striking figure in his star cowboy days; lean, slim-hipped and cocky, with a mop of long black hair to his shoulders, and a wide-brimmed sombrero with the front turned rakishly up – a Jimi Hendrix of the 19th century rodeo.

As a teenager, Nat Love worked the legendary long-trail cattle drives; when Texas cattle ranchers faced with a glut of native long-horned cattle and no other means of making money in the desperate years following the Civil War thought to trail them north to where the transcontinental railroad was slowly creeping across the upper Plains. There, in the open prairies of Kansas, there was no hazard of infecting local farmers’ cattle with tick fever, and for ten years, millions of Texas cows walked north to the stockyards of Abilene, Hays City, Wichita and Dodge City. For a few years he was employed on the Duval ranch, in the western part of the Texas Panhandle – near Palo Duro, the sheltered canyonlands that were last heartland of the wild Comanche.
His autobiography contained many stories of derring-do familiar to aficionados of classic Westerns; accounts of chasing bandits and Indians who had absconded with the best part of a herd of longhorns. On one memorable occasion, when under the influence of something stronger than lemon sarsaparilla, Nat Love tried to lasso and drag away one of the cannons that sat in the open compound at Fort Dodge; he told the astonished soldiers that he wanted to take it back to Texas to fight Indians with. He was one of those who also were enshrined in cowboy legend by riding his horse into a drinking establishment (a Mexican cantina, location unspecified) and grandly ordering drinks for himself … and his horse. He had cleared the way for himself and horse with a splatter of wild shots from his revolver – which rather excited some wholly understandable hostility from the local citizens, and so he had to depart at speed before having a chance to enjoy his drink. He even claimed to have been captured by Pima Indians while working at a ranch in Arizona. In the best tradition of adventure novels, he was thought so much of that he was adopted into the tribe and only made his escape a year later, presumably leaving several broken hearts behind him.

Even if his life as a cowboy had not been all that eventful … and many of his adventures remembered with advantages … it was still a life better suited to a young man. The work itself was physically hard, most of it in the out-of-doors, and not that well-paid. Most working cowboys only did it for a couple of years until something better came along. So after two decades, Nat Love wisely took up a second career. He became a Pullman porter on the railroad; apparently being just as well-respected by his employers and fellows as in his first career … and with more remunerative and regular paychecks. He died of respectable old age in the 1920s, after completing an autobiography which related his gloriously rowdy days as a cowboy.

I read a good few chapters of his autobiography – he comes across as a very appealing person; unusual in his charm and swagger, but not for his color; something like one in seven or eight cowboys were black, one in seven or eight Mexican. An actor like a young Will Smith could have played him, in the early days. There will be a character very like Nat Love in the next book – I promise.

5 thoughts on “Friday Historical – Nat Love, the Cowboy Rock Star”

  1. I think we need a return to prime time TV of Westerns that take place in an age when all Americans were trusted to own and carry guns – even the young uns – and folks lived by the simple morality enshrined in Blackatone’s Commentaries.

  2. You always tell a good story Sgt – Alway thought the Hollywood portrayal of cowboys and the reality was a bit different –

    I had heard somewhere that Montana was initially founded by Texas ranchers – trying to find new markets for their cattle…

  3. Oh, the real cattle drovers and the ranches across the west were not very much like they are portrayed in TV westerns. I think Rawhide was about the last one to seriously come close. Some aspects were much more prosaic, and some were very much more complicated then they appear in your average standard Western. I went into Marvin Hunter’s Trail Drivers of Texas – this was an account of reminiscences taken down early in the 20th century from ranchers, trail drivers and cattle drovers. That collection was a gold-mine.
    There is one prime-time Western on TV – Hell on Wheels, which is doing one thing that I’d always wished a TV Western would do: be specific as to time and place. In this case, building the trancontinental RR shortly after the Civil War. Unfortunatly the downside for that one is there aren’t really any heroes in it. There is no character in the show who serves as a moral center, really. Which is kind of dissapointing.

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