Ad Astra: Minorities made up big part of cowboy life

Ben Hodges was a well-known black cowboy who had something of a questionable reputation.
Ben Hodges was a well-known black cowboy who had something of a questionable reputation. Courtesy photo

Because of decades of Hollywood Westerns, the image of the Old West cowboy is often stereotyped as strictly a white man.

But according to some historians, nearly a quarter of all cowboys who came into Kansas from Texas trails came from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds: black, Mexican and American Indian. Often it was a combination of more than one.

After the Civil War, when beef was in demand on the East Coast, black, Mexican and American Indian – and, by then, white – cowboys were hired by Texas cattle owners to drive the herds of cattle from Texas to Kansas.

“There were definitely a good number of black cowboys on the trails,” said Jim Gray, a Kansas cowboy historian. “It is not an easy number to say how many.”

Few were as well known as Ben Hodges, who had a reputation as a cheat, swindler and cattle thief when he walked the dusty streets of Dodge City during the 1870s and 1880s.

“Ben Hodges was a bit of a character around town and was always in and out of trouble,” Gray said.

Hodges arrived in Dodge City in 1872, according to John Young, who wrote “Likeable Old West Swindler Ben Hodges.”

According to Young, Hodges arrived in Dodge City penniless. But hearing of land deals in Gray County that might be part of an old Spanish Land Grant, he traveled to San Antonio and set about forging documents indicating he was the sole heir of the lands in Gray County.

He then returned to Dodge City with the documents and set about securing loans and moving in and about Dodge City’s social elite. He was soon found out, though, when a huge fire destroyed the Wright, Beverly and Company Store, which had the rightful documents in its vault.

Among the black cowboys, men such as Hodges; Nat Love, sometimes known as “Deadwood Dick;” Bill Pickett, the rodeo celebrity who invented bulldogging; and Eugene Lowery, known as one of Greenwood County’s “best cowboys of all time,” stand out.

“With plenty of whites competing for work, the African American cowhand became more of an anomaly in the Great Plains by the mid-1870s,” according to the website “Encyclopedia of the Great Plains on African American Cowboys” at the University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies. “But anomalies are often remembered, and plenty of African American cowboys entered regional folklore.”

According to a Wichita Eagle article about Lowery published in 1997, “Gene, as he became known to local ranchers and cattlemen, was said never to have forgotten a brand and never to have failed to account in the fall for every single head of cattle unloaded in the spring. He had, it was said, more cattle under his care than any one man in the world.”

When he died of appendicitis at the age of 42 in 1922, the new First Presbyterian Church at Reece overflowed with mourners. Area cattle giants donated money to make sure he had the finest granite tombstone in the town cemetery and that provisions were made for his widow.

The 101 Ranch – 12 miles southwest of Ponca City, Okla., in Kay County, just south of the Kansas border – was named for its cattle brand, the “101.” The ranch was established by Col. George Washington Miller in 1879.

A self-contained ranching empire, it was one of the great ranches of the West and one of the best known for hiring black cowboys. Among them: rodeo great Pickett; Henry Clay, the cowboy who taught Will Rogers roping tricks; George Hooker, a trick rider; and Lon Sealey, an expert bulldogger.

Barred from amateur rodeos in the U.S. because of their talent, the 101 Ranch cowboys displayed their skills in the Miller Brothers’ 101 Wild West Show from 1905 to 1910. The show became world famous.