By Alexander Hawksville
Deadwood, aka Deadeye, Dick was a black cowboy hero. Why this should seem such a bold statement is beyond me. Most cowboy stories are set after the American Civil War (1859–1865) at the end of which the slaves were freed. This meant that many black men in the South-western states were liberated to look for work, with the big plantations unwilling to pay wages for what they once got for free – labour.
This meant that a lot of cowboys were black, and riding the range was an obvious place to employ their talents, but this is something that we rarely see in cowboy movies.
Nat (pronounced Nate) Love was born in a plantation owned by Robert Love in 1854, just a few years before the Civil War. (It was common for slaves to taken on the names of their owners.) Nat was a bright young man and he learned to read and write with the help of his father, who was a foreman at the plantation. His mother was a cook in the kitchen at ‘the big house’ and his sister worked there too. Nat was to become one of the most famous cowboys who ever lived.
From Slave to Free Man
When the slaves were freed after the war, Nat’s father set up as a small farmer in a holding he rented from his former master, Nat became very skilled at breaking in horses, a skill that was to prove useful when his father died when Nat was just fifteen years old. He took various jobs to help support his family, working in various plantations, and was looked after by his uncle for a while, but decided to go and work on the Duval Ranch for just $30 a month. He soon showed that he was good at handling a Colt .45, displaying his shooting skills at every opportunity. He quickly rose to become a buyer for the Duval ranch and often went to Mexico to buy cattle, learning to speak Spanish in the process.
After a few years he moved to the Gallinger Ranch on the Gila river. This was where he lived the life we often attribute to fictional cowboys, dealing with attacks from Native Americans, capturing rustlers and fighting off bandits. During this time he claimed to have met such Western luminaries as Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett. During this time he became known as Red River Dick.
Nat Gets a New Nickname
Red River Dick and his fellow cowboys of the Gallinger Ranch were tasked with taking three thousand steers to Deadwood in South Dakota. When the outfit arrived on the third of July, they found there was to be a contest on the fourth for those who considered themselves to be ‘real’ cowboys. The events consisted of roping, shooting, bridling and saddling. There was a prize of $200, which Nat won by showing off his skills in all these areas. This was where he became ‘Deadwood Dick’, later on to be called ‘Deadeye Dick’.
He lived in various states after this, including Utah, Nevada and Wyoming, leaving behind him the life of a cowboy after fifteen years. Being a cowboy was a young man’s game and he had married by then. Nat finally settled down in California, having worked on the Denver and Rio Grande railroads. He wrote his book autobiography in 1907, which was bought in reams by a public hungry for information about the Wild West.
Many of the exploits related in his book could never be verified. For instance, he talks about the time he was captured by a bunch of Indians led by Yellow Dog. According to Nat, Yellow Dog promised him his daughter, and offered him a hundred ponies. But Nat bided his time, then stole a saddle and a horse, and rode away in the middle of the night to gain his freedom, riding 100 miles in just twelve hours.
Nat also pointed out in his book that in the Wild West his hard work and abilities gained him money and fame, and he never encountered any racist behaviour once he was away from the plantation states.
His book was entitled Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’, and was a success because it was a pleasing and vividly told narrative that gave its readers a vicarious thrill. It helped to boost the growing mythology of the Wild West – one that still pleases readers today.