For no good reason that I have ever been able to figure out – the figure of the cowboy remains about the most dominant figure in our mental landscape of the Wild West – the version of the 19th century American frontier that the public usually knows best, through novels, movies and television. The version of the Wild West which most people have in mind when they consider that period is post-Civil War as to time frame and available technology, and most often centered on aspects of cattle ranches, cow-towns, and long-trail cattle drives – and the hired men who performed the grunt work involved – or those various forces arrayed against them; homesteaders, rustlers and assorted other stock baddies. The long-trail drives actually took place over a fairly limited time; about ten or fifteen years, but those few years established an undying legend, especially in the minds of people anywhere else or at any other time. The realities of it all, of course, are a bit more nuanced, a bit more complicated, and perhaps a bit more interesting.
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.