The celebrated culture of the Wild West has been prominently displayed on the big screen and in popular fiction. In the late 1930s, stories of the Lone Ranger galloped across the screen, leaving only dust in their trail. But the omission of Black culture and its contributions to the Wild West’s legacy is undeniably clear. With the popularity of white heroes in the American West, the fact that the stories being celebrated were often those of Black cowboys, African-American soldiers, and native men and women was generally hidden.
Popular storylines like that of Deadwood Dick were plucked directly from the real-life story of Nat Love, born in 1854 into slavery on a plantation near Nashville, Tennessee. Following the emancipation of his family, a young and determined Love made his way to Dodge City, Kansas, where he acquired several skills that made him incredibly valuable to local ranchers. In his autobiography, Nat tells the story of a classic Western brawl in a Durango, Colorado saloon in May 1882: “The drinks had been circulating around pretty freely when Cannon and Woods got into a dispute over Cannon’s niece, to whom Woods had been paying attention, much against that young lady’s wish. After some hot words between the men, Woods drew his 45 colt revolver, remarking as he did so, ‘I will kill you,’ and in raising it his finger must have slipped, as his gun went off and the bullet hit a glass of beer in the hand of a man who was in the act of raising it to his lips, scattering the broken glass all over the room, then passing through the ceiling of the saloon. In an instant Woods threw three bullets into Cannon, remarking as he did so, ‘I will kill you, for your niece is my heart’s delight and I will die for her.’ Buck Cannon’s dying words were, ‘Boys, don’t let a good man die with his boots on.’”
Tomahawk, a 1951 film about a white character named Sol Beckworth, was based on the story of James Beckwourth, a well-respected Black mountain man, fur trapper, army scout, and explorer. The Searchers, a 1956 film starring (the openly racist) John Wayne, was based on Britt Johnson, a Black man celebrated for his courage and bravery on the Western Front. The Lone Ranger himself is believed to be based off of the first Black US Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi, Bass Reeves.
The whitewashing of Black Western stories in American pop culture contributed heavily to what we now see as a gaping hole in our collective memory of the immense contributions they made to Western culture and the dynamic stories their lives have told.