Excerpt from The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick"
Originally published in 1907
The cowboy is considered the hero of the American West. A tough, straight-talking man who spent long days on the range driving cattle to market, the cowboy maintained a sense of honor and decency and was often perceived as a protector of women. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, this American cowboy is a myth—only a reflection of what people would like to think about the past. Real cowboys were more complex. Many, like Nat Love, were rowdy, fun-loving men unlikely to be pointed out as role models to anyone. And as an African American, Nat Love does not fit the cowboy stereotype portrayed in old movies. Love's story indicates that the cowboy life may have been quite different than what we usually imagine.
Love's memoirs are filled with fantastic stories of his adventures. He tells of his winning the name "Deadwood Dick" in a shooting contest that pitted him against the most famous cowboys in the West, and of his capture and later escape from a band of Indians. "Horses were shot out from under me, men killed around me, but always I escaped with a trifling wound at the worst," recalled Love. The excerpts from The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the CattleCountry as "Deadwood Dick" relate his cowboy training and several of his more colorful adventures.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Life and Adventures of Nat Love:
- Nat Love was only fifteen when he left home and headed west to become a cowboy.
- Nat Love was one of several cowboys who claim to have been "Deadwood Dick," the winner of a famous shooting contest.
- Some readers have doubted the truth of Love's stories. Do you find elements of his stories that are not trustworthy? What makes them troublesome? How might you confirm their accuracy?
- Readers of Love's account have marveled that he never speaks openly about any racism he encountered.
- Historian Kenneth Wiggins Porter, quoted in Jack Weston's The Real American Cowboy, asserts that in Texas black cowboys "frequently enjoyed greater opportunities for a dignified life than anywhere else in the United States. They worked, ate, slept, played, and on occasion fought, side by side with their white comrades, and their ability and courage won respect, even admiration."
- Love is no humanitarian: when he talks about Indians "made good" in battle, he means they were killed. Readers have often been struck by his harsh opinions about Mexicans and Indians, especially since Love himself must have encountered racial discrimination.
Excerpt from The Life and Adventures of Nat Love
CHAPTER VI: THE WORLD IS BEFORE ME. I JOIN THE TEXAS COWBOYS. RED RIVER DICK. MY FIRST OUTFIT. MY FIRST INDIAN FIGHT. I LEARN TO USE MY GUN.
It was on the tenth day of February, 1869, that I left the old home, near Nashville, Tennessee. I was at that time about fifteen years old, and though while young in years the hard work and farm life had made me strong and hearty, much beyond my years, and I had full confidence in myself as being able to take care of myself and making my way.
I at once struck out for Kansas of which I had heard something. And believing it was a good place in which to seek employment. It was in the west, and it was the great west I wanted to see, and so by walking and occasional lifts from farmers going my way and taking advantage of every thing that promised to assist me on my way, I eventually brought up at Dodge City, Kansas, which at that time was a typical frontier city, with a great many saloons, dance halls, and gambling houses, and very little of anything else. When I arrived the town was full of cow boys from the surrounding ranches, and from Texas and other parts of the west. As Kansas was a great cattle center and market, the wild cow boy, prancing horses of which I was very fond, and the wild life generally, all had their attractions for me, and I decided to try for a place with them. Although it seemed to me I had met with a bad outfit, at least some of them, going around among them I watched my chances to get to speak with them, as I wanted to find some one whom I thought would give me a civil answer to the questions I wanted to ask, but they all seemed too wild around town, so the next day I went out where they were in camp.
Approaching a party who were eating their breakfast, I got to speak with them. They asked me to have some breakfast with them, which invitation I gladly accepted. During the meal I got a chance to ask them many questions. They proved to be a Texas outfit, who had just come up with a herd of cattle and having delivered them they were preparing to return. There were several colored cow boys among them, and good ones too. After breakfast I asked the camp boss for a job as cow boy. He asked me if I could ride a wild horse. I said "yes sir." He said if you can I will give you a job. So he spoke to one of the colored cow boys called Bronco Jim, and told him to go out and rope old Good Eye, saddle him and put me on his back. Bronco Jim gave me a few pointers and told me to look out for the horse was especially bad on pitching. I told Jim I was a good rider and not afraid of him. I thought I had rode pitching horses before, but from the time I mounted old Good Eye I knew I had not learned what pitching was. This proved the worst horse to ride I had ever mounted in my life, but I stayed with him and the cow boys were the most surprised outfit you ever saw, as they had taken me for a tenderfoot, pure and simple. After the horse got tired and I dismounted the boss said he would give me a job and pay me $30.00 per month and more later on. He asked what my name was and I answered Nat Love, he said to the boys we will call him Red River Dick. I went by this name for a long time.
The boss took me to the city and got my outfit, which consisted of a new saddle, bridle and spurs, chaps, a pair of blankets and a fine 45 Colt revolver. Now that the business which brought them to Dodge City was concluded, preparations were made to start out for the Pan Handle country in Texas to the home ranch. The outfit of which I was now a member was called the Duval outfit, and their brand was known as the Pig Pen brand. I worked with this outfit for over three years. On this trip there were only about fifteen of us riders, all excepting myself were hardy, experienced men, always ready for anything that might turn up, but they were as jolly a set of fellows as [one] could find in a long journey. There now being nothing to keep us longer in Dodge City, we prepared for the return journey, and left the next day over the old Dodge and Sun City lonesome trail, on a journey which was to prove the most eventful of my life up to now.
A few miles out we encountered some of the hardest hail storms I ever saw, causing discomfort to man and beast, but I had no notion of getting discouraged but I resolved to be always ready for any call that might be made on me, of whatever nature it might be, and those with whom I have lived and worked will tell you I have kept that resolve. Not far from Dodge City on our way home we encountered a band of the old Victoria tribe of Indians and had a sharp fight.
These Indians were nearly always [harassing] travelers and traders and the stock men of that part of the country, and were very troublesome. In this band we encountered there were about a hundred painted bucks all well mounted. When we saw the Indians they were coming after us yelling like demons. As we were not expecting Indians at this particular time, we were taken somewhat by surprise.
This was my first Indian fight and likewise the first Indians I had ever seen. When I saw them coming after us and heard their blood curdling yell, I lost all courage and thought my time had come to die. I was too badly scared to run, some of the boys told me to use my gun and shoot for all I was worth. Now I had just got my outfit and had never shot off a gun in my life, but their words brought me back to earth and seeing they were all using their guns in a way that showed they were used to it, I unlimbered my artillery and after the first shot I lost all fear and fought like a veteran.
We soon routed the Indians and they left, taking with them nearly all we had, and we were powerless to pursue them. We were compelled to finish our journey home almost on foot, as there were only six horses left to fourteen of us. Our friend and companion who was shot in the fight, we buried on the plains, wrapped in his blanket with stones piled over his grave. After this engagement with the Indians I seemed to lose all sense as to what fear was and thereafter during my whole life on the range I never experienced the least feeling of fear, no matter how trying the ordeal or how desperate my position....
....[It was] absolutely necessary for a cowboy to understand his gun and know how to place its contents where it would do the most good, therefore I in common with my other companions never lost an opportunity to practice with my 45 Colts and the opportunities were not lacking by any means and so in time I became fairly proficient and able in most cases to hit a barn door providing the door was not too far away, and was steadily improving in this as I was in experience and knowledge of the other branches of the business which I had chosen as my life's work and which I had begun to like so well, because while the life was hard and in some ways exacting, yet it was free and wild and contained the elements of danger which my nature craved and which began to manifest itself when I was a pugnacious youngster on the old plantation in our rock battles and the breaking of the wild horses. I gloried in the danger, and the wild and free life of the plains, the new country I was continually traversing, and the many new scenes and incidents continually arising in the life of a rough rider....
EN ROUTE TO WYOMING. THE INDIANS DEMAND TOLL. THE FIGHT. A BUFFALO STAMPEDE. TRAGIC DEATH OF CAL. SURCEY. AN EVENTFUL TRIP.
After getting the cattle together down on the Rio Grande and both man and beast had got somewhat rested up, we started the herd north. They were to be delivered to a man by the name of Mitchell, whose ranch was located along the Powder river, up in northern Wyoming. It was a long distance to drive cattle from Old Mexico to northern Wyoming, but to us it was nothing extraordinary as we were often called on to make even greater distances, as the railroads were not so common then as now, and transportation by rail was very little resorted to and except when beef cattle were sent to the far east, they were always transported on the hoof overland. Our route lay through southern Texas, Indian Territory, Kansas and Nebraska, to the Shoshone mountains in northern Wyoming. We had on this trip five hundred head of mostly four year old longhorn steers. We did not have much trouble with them until we struck Indian Territory. On nearing the first Indian reservation, we were stopped by a large body of Indian bucks who said we could not pass through their country unless we gave them a steer for the privilege. Now as we were following the regular Government trail which was a free public highway, it did not strike us as justifiable to pay our way, accordingly our boss flatly refused to give the Indians a steer, remarking that we needed all the cattle we had and proposed to keep them, but he would not mind giving them something much warmer if they interfered with us. This ultimatum of our boss had the effect of starting trouble right there. We went into camp at the edge of the Indian country. All around us was the tall blue grass of that region which in places was higher than a horse, affording an ideal hiding place for the Indians. As we expected an attack from the Indians, the boss arranged strong watches to keep a keen lookout. We had no sooner finished making camp when the Indians showed up, and charged us with a yell or rather a series of yells, I for one had got well used to the blood curdling yells of the Indians and they did not scare us in the least. We were all ready for them and after a short but sharp fight the Indians withdrew and every thing became quiet, but us cow boys were not such guys as to be fooled by the seeming quietness. We knew it was only the calm before the storm, and we prepared ourselves accordingly, but we were all dead tired and it was necessary that we secure as much rest as possible, so the low watch turned in to rest until midnight, when they were to relieve the upper watch, in whose hands the safety of the camp was placed till that time. Every man slept with his boots on and his gun near his hand. We had been sleeping several hours, but it seemed to me only a few minutes when the danger signal was given. Immediately every man was on his feet, gun in hand and ready for business. The Indians had secured reinforcements and after dividing in two bands, one band hid in the tall grass in order to pick us off and shoot us as we attempted to hold our cattle, while the other band proceeded to stampede the herd, but fortunatelythere were enough of us to prevent the herd from stringing out on us.... Back and forward, through the tall grass, the large herd charged, the Indians being kept too busy keeping out of their way to have much time to bother with us. This kept up until daylight, but long before that time we came to the conclusion that this was the worst herd of cattle to stampede we ever struck, they seemed perfectly crazy even after the last Indian had disappeared. We were unable to account for the strange actions of the cattle until daylight, when the mystery was a mystery no longer. The Indians in large numbers had hid in the tall grass for the purp
we could only find a few scraps of poor Cal's clothing, and the horse he had been riding was reduced to the size of a jack rabbit. The buffalo went through our herd killing five head and crippling many others, and scattering them all over the plain. This was the year that the great buffalo slaughter commenced and such stampedes were common then. It seemed to me that as soon as we got out of one trouble we got into another on this trip. But we did not get discouraged, but only wondered what would happen next. We did not care much for ourselves, as we were always ready and in most cases anxious for a brush with the Indians, or for the other dangers of the trail, as they only went to relieve the dull monotony of life behind the herd. But these cattle were entrusted to our care and every one represented money, good hard cash. So we did not relish in the least having them stampeded by the Indians or run over by the buffaloes. If casualties kept up at this rate, there would not be very many cattle to deliver in Wyoming by the time we got there. After the buffalo stampede we rounded up our scattered herd and went into camp for a couple of days' rest before proceeding on our journey north. The tragic death of Cal Surcey had a very depressing effect on all of us as he was a boy well liked by us all, and it was hard to think that we could not even give him a Christian burial. We left his remains trampled into the dust of the prairie and his fate caused even the most hardened of us to shudder as we contemplated it.... [The cowboys made the rest of their journey and delivered the herd to Mitchell in Wyoming having lost only five cattle.]
To the cow boy accustomed to riding long distances, life in the saddle ceases to be tiresome. It is only the dull monotony of following a large herd of cattle on the trail day after day that tires the rider and makes him long for something to turn up in the way of excitement. It does not matter what it is just so it is excitement of some kind. This the cow boy finds in dare-devil riding, shooting, roping and such sports when he is not engaged in fighting Indians or protecting his herds from the organized bands of white cattle thieves that infested the cattle country in those days. It was about this time that I hired to Bill Montgomery for a time to assist in taking a band of nine hundred head of horses to Dodge City. The journey out was without incident, on arriving at Dodge City we sold the horses for a good price returning to the old ranch in Arizona by the way of the old lone and lonesome Dodge City trail. While en route home on this trail we had a sharp fight with the Indians. When I saw them coming I shouted to my companions, "We will battle them to hell!" Soon we heard their yells as they charged us at full speed. We met them with a hot fire from our winchesters, but as they were in such large numbers we saw that we could not stop them that way and it soon developed into a hand to hand fight. My saddle horse was shot from under me; at about the same time my partner James Holley was killed, shot through the heart. I caught Holley's horse and continued the fight until it became evident that the Indians were too much for us, then it became a question of running or being scalped. We thought it best to run as we did not thinkwe could very well spare any hair at that particular time, any way we mostly preferred to have our hair cut in the regular way by a competent barber, not that the Indians would charge us too much, they would have probably done the job for nothing, but we didn't want to trouble them, and we did not grudge the price of a hair cut any way, so we put spurs to our horses and they soon carried us out of danger. Nearly every one of us were wounded in this fight but Holley was the only man killed on our side though a few of the Indians were made better as the result of it. We heard afterwards that Holley was scalped and his body filled with arrows by the red devils. This was only one of the many similar fights we were constantly having with the
CHAPTER XI: A BUFFALO HUNT. I LOSE MY LARIAT AND SADDLE. I ORDER A DRINK FOR MYSELF AND MY HORSE. A CLOSE PLACE IN OLD MEXICO.
....[After going on a buffalo hunt with a group of cowboys from the home ranch] we were sent down in Old Mexico to get a herd of horses, that our boss had bought from the Mexicans in the southwestern part of Old Mexico. We made the journey out all right without special incident, but after we had got the horses out on the trail, headed north I was possessed with a desire to show off and I thought surprise the staid old greasers on whom we of the northern cattle country looked with contempt. So accordingly I left the boys to continue with the herd, while I made for the nearest saloon, which happened to be located in one of the low mud houses of that country, with a wide door and clay floor. As the door was standing open, and looked so inviting I did not want to go to the trouble of dismounting so urging my horse forward, I rode in the saloon, first however, scattering with a few random shots the respectable sized crowd of dirty Mexicans hanging around as I was in no humor to pay for the drinks for such a motley gathering. Riding up to the bar, I ordered keller for myself and a generous measure of pulky for my horse, both popular Mexican drinks.
The fat wobbling greaser who was behind the bar looked scared, but he proceeded to serve us with as much grace as he could command. My forty-five colt which I proceeded to reload, acting as a persuader. Hearing a commotion outside I realized that I was surrounded. The crowd of Mexican bums had not appreciated my kindly greeting as I rode up and it seems did not take kindly to being scattered by bullets. And not realizing that I could have killed them all, just as easy as I scattered them, and seeing there was but two of us—I and my horse—they had summoned sufficient courage to come back and seek revenge. There was a good sized crowd of them, every one with some kind of shooting iron, and I saw at once that they meant business. I hated to have to hurt some of them but I could see I would have to or be taken myself, and perhaps strung up to ornament a telegraph pole. This pleasant experience I had no especial wish to try, so putting spurs to my horse I dashed out of the saloon, then knocking a man over with every bullet from my Colts I cut for the open country, followed by several volleys from the angry Mexicans' pop guns.
The only harm their bullets did, however, was to wound my horse in the hip, not seriously, however, and he carried me quickly out of range. I expected to be pursued, however, as I had no doubt I had done for some of those whom I knocked over, so made straight for the Rio Grande river riding day and night until I sighted that welcome stream and on the other side I knew I was safe. [Love, pp. 40–3, 44–5, 58–63, 64–5, 73–7]
What happened next . . .
After the mid-1880s a variety of conditions made the cowboy obsolete. A series of blizzards in 1886 and 1887 killed off thousands of cattle; rail lines extended into cattle country, making the cattle drives unnecessary; and the growth of farms—with their barbed-wire fences—closed off open range land. With the cowboy era over, in 1890 Nat Love left the range and applied for a job as a Pullman porter on the new cross-country trains. Pullmans were luxurious railroad passenger cars that offered passengers one of the most comfortable modes of travel available at the time. Unlike many other railroad jobs, Pullman service offered a certain degree of independence and dignity. It was, at the time, one of the best jobs available to African American men.
Love approached his work with pride and enthusiasm, determined to become the best Pullman porter in the country. As Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones remarked in The Negro Cowboys, "the qualities which made him a successful cowboy for 20 years made him, in the 1890s, a successful porter. He gloried in the people he met and the tips he earned. He gave no indication that he felt his change from the life of a cowboy to the life of a porter was anything other than the result of the changing times.... He had, he claimed, ridden into the West on horseback, ridden throughout the rangeland as Deadwood Dick and then ridden into the twentieth century on a train." Love wrote his memoirs in 1907 and died in 1921.
Did you know . . .
- The Texas longhorn was a mixed breed created when British cattle brought west by Texans met up with wild Spanish cattle. The result was a tough, durable animal that could handle the most difficult environment.
- The first cowboys were called vaqueros (pronounced vahkair-ohs). They were generally Indians who tended cattle for Spanish ranchers in California and present-day Texas in the late 1700s.
- In less than two decades, more than six million steers and cows were moved north along the main cattle trails.
- The four main trails on which cowboys led cattle north to the railheads were the Chisholm, the Shawnee, the Western, and the Goodnight-Loving.
- Twenty-five percent of the cowboys participating in cattle drives between 1866 and 1895 were African American.
Consider the following . . .
- How does this excerpt support or challenge your views about cowboys?
- Can you trust that this author is telling the truth? Why, or why not?
- Love speaks very harshly about Mexicans and Indians. Is this surprising to you? Why?
For More Information
Cromwell, Arthur, ed. The Black Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Television, 1970.
Dary, David. Seeking Pleasure in the Old West. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Durham, Philip, and Everett L. Jones. The Negro Cowboys. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Dykstra, Robert R. The Cattle Towns. New York: Knopf, 1968.
Felton, Harold W. Nat Love, Negro Cowboy. New York: Dodd Mead, 1969.
Granfield, Linda. Cowboy: An Album. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1994.
Katz, William Loren. The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Landau, Elaine. Cowboys. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.
Love, Nat. The Life and Adventures of Nat Love; Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick." 1907. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Monaghan, Jay. The Book of the American West. New York: Bonanza Books, 1963.
Place, Marian T. American Cattle Trails East & West. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.
Rosa, Joseph G. The Taming of the West: Age of the Gunfighter, Men and Weapons on the Frontier, 1840–1900. New York: Smithmark, 1993.
Savage, Jeff. Cowboys and Cow Towns of the Wild West. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1995.
Savage, W. Sherman. Blacks in the West. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.
Seidman, Laurence I. Once in the Saddle: The Cowboy's Frontier, 1866–1896. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Steckmesser, Kent Ladd. The Western Hero in History and Legend. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
Weston, Jack. The Real American Cowboy. New York: Schocken Books, 1985.
Yount, Lisa. Frontier of Freedom: African Americans in the West. New York: Facts on File, 1997.