Nat Love: Adventures of a Former Slave, Black Cowboy, and Teller of Tall Tales
By Karen Harris
Nat Love, the former slave turned Old West cowboy, lived a colorful life during a pivotal time in U.S. history, but it was his knack of storytelling that made him one of the Old West’s most memorable cowboys.
He retold many of his adventures in his 1907 best-selling and incredibly long-titled autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’, by Himself: A True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the ‘Wild and Woolly’ West, Based on Facts and Personal Experiences of the Author.
In his autobiography, Nat Love recounts his early childhood in slavery, his parents’ struggles as sharecroppers after the end of slavery, and his own search for freedom and equality in the western frontier.
He found steady work herding cattle across the Great Plains, hobnobbed with famous outlaws, fought off attacks by Native Americans, and earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” which was not near as sophomoric as it sounds.
The beauty of recounting one’s cowboy tales, as Nat Love learned, is that no one can prove or disprove the larger-than-life. Most of what we know about the “wild and woolly” exploits of Deadwood Dick come from his own self-promoted writing.
Nat Love: Born into Slavery
Nat Love’s father, Sampson Love, and his mother, whose name has been lost over the years, were slaves owned by Robert Love of Davidson County, Tennessee. Like most slaves, they took the last name of their master.
Sampson Love was the slave foreman on the Love plantation, while his wife worked in the master’s kitchen. Sampson Love and his wife had three children, a daughter named Sally, and two sons, Jordan and Nat, whose name was pronounced as “Nate.”
The youngest child, Nat Love was born in June 1854 in his father’s log cabin on the plantation.
In the pre-Civil War South, there were laws and statues that made it against the law for a slave to become literate. Despite this, Sampson Love taught his children how to read and write. Young Nat excelled in his lessons, and learning to read and write helped him greatly as an adult and enabled him to write his own memoir.
Black Cowboys of the Old West: True, Sensational, And Little-Known Stories From History
“This is a difficult subject to research due to discrimination of the days following the Civil War but Wagner has compiled a set of biographies that demonstrate the accomplishments of a few of the best of the cowboys of the late 1800’s.”
– Amazon review
Nat Love was just nine years old when President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing all slaves. Even though they were no longer slaves, Nat’s parents remained living in their same cabin on their former master’s plantation.
They worked as sharecroppers, tending to a twenty-acre parcel of land. Sampson Love, however, struggled to turn a profit on the corn and tobacco he raised. After just a few years, he died.
A young teen at this point, Nat Love took some odd jobs to help his mother. Working for a local farmer, Love discovered that he had a knack for breaking horses. He seemed to have an innate understanding of horses and the ability to calm and tame the animals.
This, too, was a skill that would serve him well later in his life.
Head West, Young Man
According to Nat Love’s autobiography, he was 15 years old when he made the decision to head west. In the western frontier, he knew he had more opportunities and could enjoy his freedom more so than he could as a Tennessee sharecropper.
Soon, Love had a stroke of good luck: he claimed that he won a horse in a raffle. Immediately, he sold the horse back to its owner for $50. Then, miraculously, Love won the same horse in a second raffle!
Once again, Love sold the animal back, again for $50. Now Nat Love had an unexpected windfall of $100. In 1869, Love gave his mother $50 to help her make ends meet and left home with the other $50 in his pocket.
Dodge City or Bust
Nat Love’s first stop in the west was Dodge City, Kansas. He happened upon a large group of cowboys from the Texas Duval Ranch who were enjoying breakfast after herding cattle to the Kansas railyard.
Brash and eager, Nat Love approached the group and asked to speak to the boss. He introduced himself and asked for a job. When he admitted that he had no experience working as a cowboy, the whole crew erupted in laughter.
The boss pointed to Good Eye, the wildest, most untamable horse in the area.
He told Nat he would give him a job if he could break that horse. The boss, unaware that Nat Love was a horse whisperer, got the shock of his life when the arrogant young African American mounted Good Eye and rode the wild beast until he was saddle-broken.
Amazed, the boss kept his word and gave Love a job.
Learning the Ropes
Sixteen-year-old Nat Love accepted a job as a ranch hand at the Duval Ranch that paid him $30 a month. A natural horseman, he took to the job quickly. He impressed his bosses with his tremendous work ethic and his eagerness to learn.
That desire to learn extended beyond his on-the-job training. In his down time, he honed his shooting skills with his .45 revolver and taught himself lassoing and rope tricks.
The African American Cowboy Experience
Nat Love was not the only African American cowboy working at Duval Ranch. There were several others, which was not uncommon. In fact, historians believe that as many as one-quarter of Old West cowboys were freed blacks.
In the years following the Civil War, more and more former slaves sought work on the ranches of the Old West. One of the few well-paying jobs available to freed African Americans was working as a ranch hand. Cowboy culture was such that men were valued for their skills and work ethic and not by the color of their skin.
Cowboys drove their herds of cattle across the Great Plains to market. As the cowboy crews traveled through various towns, the men might stop at a restaurant for a hot meal. From time to time, black cowboys were refused service at these dining establishments while their white coworkers were well-treated.
As a member of a ranch crew, however, most black cowboys were respected. They experienced a degree of equality that was completely foreign to other African Americans of the day.
This was Nat Love’s experience. In his autobiography, Love described his time as a cowboy by using words such as “camaraderie” and “respect” and “admiration.”
He quickly proved his worth to the team, and as a trusted member of the crew, Love became one of the best cowboys of the Duval Ranch. He was promoted to cattle buyer and served as the ranch’s chief brand reader.
His boss sent Love on buying missions to Mexico so many times that he became fluent in Spanish.
Rustlers, Outlaws, and Indians
Nat Love spent three years with Duval Ranch. In 1872, he left to work for the Gallinger Ranch, located on Arizona’s Gila River. In Arizona, Love traveled along the western trails that wound through the region.
Driving cattle through the wilderness, Love had several encounters with Native Americans living in the area. When retelling his exploits in Arizona, Love claimed to have found himself in the middle of shootouts with indigenous groups of the region.
The hidden canyons and valleys of Arizona were popular hideouts for cattle rustlers and outlaws alike. In his memoirs, Nat Love stated that, during his time in Arizona, he met some of the Old West’s most famous characters, such as Bat Masterson and Pat Garrett.
He even claims to have had a few drinks with Billy the Kid.
The Birth of “Deadwood Dick”
The cowboys and ranch hands from Gallinger Ranch were tasked with driving a herd of more than three thousand head of cattle from Arizona to Deadwood, South Dakota. The cowboy crew left Arizona in the spring of 1876 and arrived in Deadwood on July 3, just in time to participate in the town’s Independence Day festivities.
The next day, Nat Love and a few of his fellow cowboys from Gallinger entered Deadwood’s “cowboy contest.” Participants had to compete in various competitions, including saddling, bronco riding, lassoing, shooting, and roping.
Nat love won every single event with ease. He was awarded the $200 prize money and was given a memorable nickname: “Deadwood Dick.”
A Dime Novel Character
The moniker “Deadwood Dick” was not a derogatory nickname or an insult when it was given to Nat Love. It was actually the name of a well-known fictional character that appeared in a series of dime novels between 1877 and 1897.
One of the most popular literary forms of the late 1800s, dime novels were inexpensive, sensational, action-packed tales. “Deadwood Dick” was the creation of author Edward Lytton Wheeler.
Although he never ventured further west than Pennsylvania, Edward Lytton Wheeler was fascinated with the Wild West. Many of his characters were composites of real-life figures, such as Sitting Bull.
His “Deadwood Dick” character was one of his most popular literary characters in dime novels. He appeared in 33 of Wheeler’s more than one hundred dime novels. A brave and bold character, “Deadwood Dick” found himself in one hair-raising situation after another, but used his sharp-shooting skills, his wit, and his charm to emerge unscathed from each one.
Nat Love embraced the comparison to “Deadwood Dick.” After he was given the nickname in 1876, things got murky. It is likely that Edward Lytton Wheeler wove real-life stories of Nat Love’s adventures into his Deadwood Dick tales, meaning that Love influenced the writings of Wheeler and helped to shape and develop the Deadwood Dick character.
Nat Love’s Daring Escape
Nat Love understood that people loved tales of outlandish and daring exploits and, in his autobiography, he told a thrilling, albeit hard to verify, one. Love claimed that during one foray near the Gila River in October of 1877, he was set upon by a band of Pima Indians.
He said he was shot fourteen times, and the Pimas captured — rather than killed — him. As Love later stated, his life was spared because of his dark skin. The Pima people, according to Love’s memoir, respected the heritage of the African Americans. They believed the black man’s struggle against their white oppressors was similar to their own.
In captivity with the Pima, Love recovered from his bullet wounds and became acclimated to life in the tribe. The tribe’s chief, Yellow Dog, greatly admired him. Once Love regained his health, Yellow Dog offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage.
The chief and other members of the tribe began to make plans to adopt Love into the tribe and for the marriage ceremony between him and Yellow Dog’s daughter. Love did not want to join the Pima tribe but feared he would be killed if he declined their offer.
One night, in the cover of darkness, Love stole one of the tribe’s ponies. He rode the animal without a saddle for more than twelve hours straight, covering a distance of about one hundred miles, until he reached the safety of Texas.
The Life of a Retired Cowboy
In the 1890s, innovations and advances took place that marked the end of the cowboy era. The railroad stretched across the Old West, bringing the trains closer to the cattle ranches.
The introduction of barbed wire fencing also ended the long-distance cattle drives of the Old West. Nat Love understood that the need for cowboys was quickly declining. He retired from the profession in 1890 and took a job as a Pullman porter in Denver.
The previous year, Nat Love married a woman named Alice. The couple had one child. In the early 1900s, the family moved to California. Love penned his long-winded autobiography, which brought renewed interest to the larger-than-life story of Nat Love.
Although it has almost certainly been embellished and exaggerated, his life and adventures made for good reading. His was the first memoir about Old West cowboy life actually written by an African American.
Nat Love lived to be 67 years old. At the end of his life, he lived in Los Angeles and worked as a guard for a security company. Love lived during an interesting period in American history, from slavery and emancipation, to the cowboy lifestyle and its decline in the Old West.
Nat Love — Deadwood Dick — left an American West legacy that remains to this day.
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by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.