The Wild West of Yester-Year

Nat Love
By Rachel Kovaciny

I was watching an episode of the short-lived ‘90s TV show The Magnificent Seven the other evening. One of the guest characters kept looking familiar. Not because I knew the actor, Glynn Turman, from other roles, but because they dressed the character distinctively in a way I half-recognized. He was an African-American cowboy wearing a big hat with the brim flipped up flat above his face. He had long hair, a bright bandanna, and a dark shirt. I eventually figured out why he looked so familiar. He looked like a copycat of the famous photographs I’d seen of cowboy Nat Love. I’m convinced the show costumed him that way on purpose, possibly as “a tip of the hat” to the most famous black cowboy from the Old West.


Nat Love (first name pronounced Nate) was born to enslaved parents on a Tennessee plantation in 1854. Although it was illegal for slaves to read and write, Love’s father knew how to do both and taught his three children. His parents remained on the property after Emancipation, working as sharecroppers. Love’s father died only a few years after gaining his freedom, and all three children had to work to help support the family. Love had a natural gift for working with horses and became well known for his ability to break and train them by the time he was in his early teens. When Love was in his mid-teens, he left home and headed west to find work. For twenty years, he worked as a cowboy for various ranches, roaming all over the West in the process and having a variety of adventures. He married a woman named Alice, and they had one child together.


Shortly after marrying, Love quit cow-punching and worked for the railroads instead, mainly as a porter on Pullman cars. In 1907, he published his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” by Himself; a True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the “Wild and Woolly” West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author. They have reprinted it many times. Scholars disagree as to just how much of his book is fact or fictionalized, but either way, it is generally regarded as the only real autobiography of an African-American cowboy.
 Love’s own legends about himself include having been shot multiple times, getting captured by hostile American Indians and escaping, and nearly marrying a chief’s daughter. He says he traveled to Mexico many times and became fluent in Spanish. And he says that he met such famous westerners as Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett.

 According to his autobiography, Love gained the nickname “Deadwood Dick” when he ended up in Deadwood, a wild cow town in the Dakota Territory, just in time for the 4th of July festivities in 1876. He entered the town’s rodeo and won multiple events, including roping, throwing, and bronc riding. His friends then called him “Deadwood Dick,” the name of a popular dime novel character. While no one has verified most of Love’s claims, audiences of the day loved his book so much it became a best-seller. Eventually, Love and his family moved to California, where he became a guard for a securities company. He died there at age 67. If even a tenth of Love’s adventures really happened, he lived a life more exciting than most of us can ever dream of having. His rise from being born in slavery to being the most famous black cowboy was an adventure no one can dispute.