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Culture Black cowboys highlighted at Nevada annual poetry gathering

Black cowboys highlighted at Nevada annual poetry gathering

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ELKO, Nev. (AP) — His leathery hands are worn by years of rope and reins. On his head sits a coffee-brown hat reminiscent of those worn by vaqueros who working the ranges of northern Nevada more than a century ago.

The worn spurs on his dust-covered leather boots clink with every step. Tucked into his faded blue jeans, his white button-down shirt billows, held in by a leather belt with a classic gold buckle.

Pete Taylor, 64, looks every part the cowboy he grew up watching in TV Westerns. Almost. Because with few exceptions, those cowboys did not look like him.

Taylor, who is black, had a “typical” upbringing in Oakland, California. His dad, an executive with the local Boy Scouts chapter, exposed him to horses as a kid. He found himself drawn to shows like “Bonanza” and “The Rifleman.” On his bike, he would ride a bumpy dirt driveway imagining his two wheels were four galloping hooves.

“I didn’t see them as white or non-black. I identified with the horses. All I saw was the activity. It just never hit me that I couldn’t do that until I got older,” Taylor told the Las Vegas Review-Journal during the recent annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko.

Taylor helped highlight this year’s theme about often-overlooked black cowboys and their impact on the Western frontier, where historians say roughly one in four cowboys was black.

“When we celebrate cowboys, we don’t necessarily celebrate these men, who were the original cowboys,” Quintard Taylor, a retired University of Washington professor who has studied African American history in the American West for more than four decades.

“Back then it was a matter of record. It was no big deal that there were black cowboys,” he said during a lecture at the gathering.

Eventually, the railroad wiped out the traditional cowboy lifestyle. Frontier jobs dried up. Cowboys — white, black, Hispanic — moved to cities.

Along the way, cowboys of color disappeared from popular lore while their white counterparts became folk heroes.

Cowboy culture sprang out of Texas after the Civil War. Men who went off to fight left ranches and cattle behind. Untended cows got loose, or were let out, across the state.

When the war ended in 1865, returning ranchers needed help rounding up herds or collecting fresh, wild cattle.

“A lot of African American men decided to go to Texas because there were thousands of jobs all of a sudden created in the cattle industry,” said Roger Hardaway, a Northeast Oklahoma State University history professor and author of “African Americans on the Western Frontier.”

For many, it was familiar work. As slaves, they tended cattle on ranches in the South.

In and around Nevada, African Americans played a prominent role settling the state, but received little recognition.

Ben Palmer, one of the first Carson Valley settlers in the 1850s, owned a 320-acre ranch on the western hills of the Sierra Nevada near Mottsville. Newspaper accounts in the 1860s and 1870s listed Palmer as one of Douglas County’s largest taxpayers.

Dr. W.H.C. Stephenson in Virginia City may have been the first black medical doctor west of the Mississippi, Quintard Taylor said.

James Beckwourth, born a slave around the turn of the 18th century, became a legendary mountain man. Beckwourth Pass in the high Sierra and the town of Beckwourth, located just east of the Nevada-California border, are named for him.

But when “Tomahawk,” the film based on Beckwourth’s autobiography, premiered in 1951, white actor Jack Oakie played the leading role.

“They never had black cowboys in the movies, so you grew up thinking all the cowboys were white because that’s all you ever saw,” said Hardaway.

One black Nevada cattle crew boss has a story unlike any other.

Born in Georgetown, Texas, in the mid-to-late 1860s, Henry Harris worked for John Sparks, the rancher who would become Nevada’s 10th governor in 1903. When Sparks moved to the Silver State around 1884, he brought then-teenage Harris with him as a house servant.

Sparks and business partner John Tinnin amassed a huge ranching empire across northeast Nevada and southern Idaho, and Harris began working with horses and cattle, said Les Sweeney, a historian and author of Harris’ 2013 biography.

Before long, Sparks named Harris a foreman of a cattle crew of black cowboys. Then, the son of former slaves started overseeing black and white cowboys, and commanding respect everywhere he went.

Harris was revered for his ability to break and train the toughest and most stubborn horses, according to Sweeney, and always rode the biggest horse himself. He prided himself on his Spanish vaquero style of dress — classic vest and silk tie or neckerchief.

“When you rode into Henry’s camp you knew who was boss, you didn’t have to ask,” Sweeney wrote in his book.

Sparks came to rely heavily on Harris heading four of his ranches — the HD, Hubbard, Vineyard and Middlestack.

As Harris’ reputation grew, he was called to testify in water rights hearings in Boise, and helped a Nevada deputy sheriff investigate a shootout between Native Americans and horse wranglers, Sweeney said.

Cowboys of all races from across the West wanted to work for Harris because, “it was a notch on their spurs just to say, ‘I worked for Henry Harris,'” Sweeney told a poetry gathering audience.

Hardaway said rapper Lil Nas X and his song “Old Town Road” have helped highlight the historical prominence and contributions of black cowboys.

But contemporary cowboys like Pete Taylor have always existed.

A former firefighter who retired after an on-the-job leg injury, Taylor bought his first horse in 2002 at a stable in Compton, California.

He’s part of an active equestrian group in the Bay Area, a “hidden history” he said he wasn’t even aware of until he was in his 40s. That discovery drove Taylor to learn more about the cowboys he never saw growing up.

“As I studied more history, I found that, well, we’ve always been here,” he said.

With opportunities for exposure to horses at a young age all but gone today, Taylor said he sees it as his responsibility to show new generations something besides basketball, football, baseball or sports.

The sight of him on his horse elicits common questions, he said: “Are you a black cowboy?” “Is the black rodeo in town?”

But with more awareness and exposure, Taylor hopes those distinctions and questions will fade.

“Why do we need this description term in front of our names, like black cowboy? He’s just a cowboy. He’s a professional,” he said. “I’m just a guy from Oakland who now cowboys.”

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