Mounted on my favorite horse, my … lariat near my hand, and my trusty guns in my belt … I felt I could defy the world.
— Nat Love in The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, 1907
Thousands of black cowboys drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail after the Civil War, but only Nat (pronounced Nate) Love wrote about his experiences. Due to this, Love’s exploits would make him one of the most famous black cowboys in post-Civil War America.
Nat Love was born in June 1854 as a slave on Robert Love’s plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee. His father was a slave foreman on the plantation’s fields, and his mother the head of its kitchen. He was looked after primarily by an older sister when he was young, but she, like her mother, worked in the kitchen so Nat basically looked after himself. Despite the fact that black literacy was banned by law, Nat learned to read and write as a child with the help of his father, Sampson.
When slavery ended, Love’s parents stayed on the Love plantation as sharecroppers, attempting to raise tobacco and corn on about 20 acres, but Sampson died shortly after the second crop was planted. In order to keep the farm going for his family, young Nat took another job on a neighboring farms to help out. During this time he developed a keen skill for breaking horses which would soon come in handy to him. After a period of working extra odd jobs in the area Nat won a horse in a raffle, and then promptly sold the beast back to its original owner for $50. He would use this money to leave town and, at the age of 16, after leaving his family in an uncle’s care, he headed West.
Nat’s first stop was Dodge City, Kansas where he came across the crew of the Texas Duval Ranch (located on the Palo Duro River in the Texas Panhandle). Having just brought a herd to the Kansas railhead, the Cowboys were having a leisurely breakfast when Nat decided to join them. In the range-cattle industry 25 percent of cowboys were black. Usually former slaves many black men had gained experience in cattle handling and horse-breaking. While discrimination was still prevalent, it was not as bad as other industries and a black man was able to generally be treated equal to white men in terms of pay and responsibilities. So it was a not un-toward of Nat to present himself to the trail boss asking for a job. The trail boss agreed to give the young man a job if he was able to break a tough horse called “Good Eye”. The wildest horse in the outfit, Nat would later say it was the toughest ride he’d ever had. But ride the horse he did and was given the job with the Duval Ranch at $30 a month.
According to his autobiography, Love fought cattle rustlers and endured inclement weather. He trained himself to become an expert marksman and cowboy, for which he earned from his co-workers the moniker “Red River Dick.” He soon became known as one of the best all-around cowboys in the Duval outfit. Eventually he became a buyer and their chief brand reader. In this capacity, he was sent to Mexico on several occasion and soon learned to speak Spanish fluently.
By 1872, After three years with the Duval Ranch, Love decided to head off to Arizona, where he went to work for the Gallinger Ranch on the Gila River. There he traveled many of the the major western trails, sometimes working in dangerous situations in Indian battles and fighting off rustlers and bandits. He wrote in his autobiography that while working the cattle drives in Arizona he met Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, and others as well as seeing a soon-after view of the Custer battlefield in 1876.
In the spring of 1876, the Gallinger outfit were given a herd of three thousand steers to deliver to Deadwood, South Dakota. When they arrived there on July 3rd, the locals were busy preparing for a 4th of July celebrations. One of the many organized events included a “cowboy” contest with a $200 cash prize to the winner. Love entered the contest and he subsequently won the rope, throw, tie, bridle, saddle, and bronco riding contests, thus taking with him the grand prize. It was at this rodeo that he claims friends and fans gave him the nickname “Deadwood Dick.” He became known as DD all over the West, “entering into dime novels as a mysteriously dark and heroic presence”, says his autobiography.
Love writes that in October 1877 he was captured by a band of Pima Indians while rounding up stray cattle near the Gila River in Arizona. He claimed in his autobiography: “I carry the marks of fourteen bullet wounds on different parts of my body, most any one of which would be sufficient to kill an ordinary man, but I am not even crippled.” Several of the aforementioned bullet wounds were received in his fight with the Native Americans while trying to avoid capture. Love wrote that his life was spared because the Indians respected his heritage, a large portion of the band themselves being of mixed blood. The Pima nursed him back to health, wishing to adopt him into the tribe. In spite of the warmth shown to him, Love writes, he stole a pony and escaped into west Texas.
By 1889 Nat had decided to leave the cowboy life and settle down and get married. The next year he took a job in Denver, Colorado as a Pullman porter on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. As such, he worked on the routes west of Denver and moved his family several times to Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada before finally settling down in southern California.
In 1907, Nat Love published his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick.” “Written with an air of braggadocio, Love’s story is, in places, of questionable veracity. Nevertheless, it is a charming first-hand account of the life of one cowboy that emphasizes the necessity of cooperation and camaraderie in the performance of work on the trails, ranges, and ranches of the cattle kingdom,” writes American Black History. Love spent the last part of his life as a courier and guard for a Los Angeles securities company.
Nat Love, America’s most famous black cowboy, passed away at age 67 in 1921 in Los Angeles, California.