When you think of cowboys do you ever envision African-Americans? Most likely not!
You won’t find black cowboys in Hollywood’s old Western movies, except maybe as slaves or comics. You won’t find them in history books either. They are the black cowboys of the late 1800s. From the plantations of the South to the plains of Texas, black cowboys made their mark on the subduing of the vast western territories, keeping the peace with indigenous peoples, “putting out fires” as buffalo soldiers sent to hot spots, and later as cowboys in America’s cattle industry and — gaining fame and glory in the rodeos of our nation.
It has been estimated that at least 1/6 and perhaps as high as 1/3 of all the emigrants to the West were African-American, and/or mixed blood individuals. Some traced their citizenship / freedom to colonial times, others bought themselves from their masters, some were freed by law or proclamation, others “purchased” their freedom with their feet. Their story is an exciting saga of challenge, adventure, and triumph. It is an all-American story that is integral to the history of the land itself — and surely part of us all.
Little is known about Addison Jones’ early life. On his death certificate, his wife (whom he met late in life) wrote that he was born in 1845 in Gonzales County, Texas. This would make sense for his chosen profession (or the profession that chose him) as Gonzales County was the starting point for many of the first cattle drives. Boys who grew up in the area grew up riding horses and caring for cattle.
Addison Jones eventually became a range boss for a crew of African-American cowboys, working for George Littlefield. (One writer speculates that the Littlefields were comfortable with an all-black workforce because they had lived in the South and probably had slaves.)
The Littlefield family began ranching in west Texas before the Civil War. One of the sons, George Littlefield, joined the Confederacy but he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Mossy Creek in 1863, and he returned to recuperate and eventually run the family ranch. Most cowmen in the “trailing business” made their money by running other men’s cattle to market; Littlefield decided to invest in his own cattle. The risks were greater but so were the rewards. His business went well and so did his land investments In 1877 he established the LIT Ranch in the panhandle of Texas near Tascosa; four years later he sold that property for $248,000. George went on to acquire other properties and become a legendary cattleman, banker, and philanthropist.
Littlefield’s fortune depended on having the best cattle and the best men to handle them, and Addison Jones was part of this crew.
Addison Jones was clearly a fine cowboy. While most men had their specialties—roping or bronc riding, or managing the cattle on the trail, Addison excelled in all areas, and he became a legend throughout west Texas and eastern New Mexico. When he showed up at a roundup, everyone was relieved because he could top off horses that other cowboys feared, and unlike most cowboys whose bodies couldn’t take the punishment once they reached their late thirties, Jones was still working for Littlefield, “taking the sap” out of high spirited horses until he was in his early 70s.
Haley is quoted in Black Cowboys of Texas, a collection of articles edited by Sara R. Massey, on a roping technique Addison used:
“He [Jones] would tie a rope hard and fast around his hips, hem a horse up in the corner of a corral or in the open pasture, rope him around the neck as he went past at full speed, and where another man would have been dragged to death, Add [nickname] would, by sheer will and power on the end of the rope, invariably flatten the horse out on the ground.”
Haley noted that anyone who saw it stood in amazement that it was humanly possible. The trick required strength, skill, confidence, an understanding of the animal, and impeccable timing
Addison’s fame was furthered when N. Howard Thorp composed and popularized a song that celebrated Jones’ talent for remembering and identifying more branding marks and earmarks than most cowmen were capable of. The song was entitled “Whose Old Cow?” Thorp later wrote of him: “he was one of the best cowhands on the Pecos River.”
White vs. Black Cowboys
Black cowboys who worked on the range enjoyed certain freedoms and often received pay parity with the white cowboys, they were still considered “less than.” Black cowboys knew in advance that the less pleasant tasks were always given to them. This meant taking night watches, fording the streams first to test the waters, and being responsible for horse breaking, which was difficult, unpredictable, and dangerous work. Even the “broken” horses often needed to “topped off” in the morning; this involved one of the black cowboys getting on the more spirited mounts to get the early morning bucking out of their systems.
And while the white and black men could co-exist decently on the range where there was constant work to do, life in town was very different. If black cowboys were permitted into a barroom, they had to stay one end of the bar; they were frequently subject to being taunted or spat upon, and violence was threatened and did occur. Their lives were also very lonely. White prostitutes were definitely off limits, and there were few African-American women in the West. Mexican men were very possessive of their women, so black cowboys had little opportunity to have any sort of normal life.
Because Jones held a respected position with Littlefield, he usually didn’t run into any problems, but one day he was visiting a neighboring ranch to check on some LFD (Littlefield) horses. The day was hot, and Jones was thirsty and the water bucket was empty. Cowboy etiquette was that you re-fill the bucket to leave for others, but at this particular ranch the hose that fed the bucket required a man to use his mouth to get the water flowing by suction. Addison put his mouth to the hose so the water would flow and he could refill the bucket. He was immediately whacked on the back of the head by one of the white cowboys. When Jones regained consciousness, he got up and went back to the Littlefield Ranch. Even a cowboy like Addison Jones knew not too push some limits.
In 1899 Addison Jones met Rosa Haskins, a cook at a rooming house in Roswell, New Mexico. When they married, Addison was 54 and Rosa was 36. Jones eventually retired, and the couple lived in Roswell, New Mexico. He died in 1926.
The Roswell sheriff noted that Addison died knowing than he had been recognized as one of the really great cowmen of Texas and New Mexico.
What amazing facts have you learned about Black History?