Black cowboys: Exhibit showcases forgotten range riders

2012-02-11T00:00:00Z 2012-11-28T22:01:13Z Black cowboys: Exhibit showcases forgotten range ridersBy MARGARET MATRAY Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
February 11, 2012 12:00 am  • 

CASPER — When Jimmy Simmons travels the state, he stops at museums to look for artifacts and materials detailing black history in Wyoming. Almost always, he finds nothing.

"I think it's appropriate to say they're the forgotten people on the plains," Simmons said.

Three years ago, Simmons heard radio and television advertisements for a black cowboy exhibit opening at Casper's National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. It was created by interpreter Alex Rose.

"He had two 5-by-8 photos on the wall, and that was it," Simmons said.

Simmons and Rose got to talking. Simmons wanted to expand and build an exhibit that included more stories. Stories of men like Bill Pickett, who invented the technique of bulldogging, wrestling cattle to the ground with his teeth. Or rider Jesse Stahl, who in the early 1900s was awarded second place for a first-place ride because he was black. To protest, Stahl proved his talent by riding his next bronc backward, while holding a suitcase in his hand.

"I wanted to portray the forgotten heroes in a certain way," said Simmons, former bull rider and president of the NAACP Casper chapter. "I wanted to honor them."

Simmons' temporary exhibit, "Black Cowboys: The Forgotten Range Riders," shows through February at the Trails Center. It shares the histories of black cowboys and homesteaders from the 1850s to 1990s in 23 panels of photographs and text.

An estimated 25 to 30 percent of cowboys who brought cattle to Wyoming along the Texas Trail were black, according to the exhibit, but the stereotype of the West depicts "white cowboys and blond schoolmarms."

"Approximately a third of all cowboys in the West were not white. They were black predominantly, Mexican or Indian. That's one of three," said Rose. "Why is it when we think about cowboys, it's a bunch of white guys? We often have an incorrect perception of history."

Todd Guenther, director of Central Wyoming College's Western American Studies program, refers to this phenomenon as a white-washing of history, where black contributions have been painted out of the picture.

"They just didn't make it into our stereotype," said Guenther, whose work is included in the exhibit.

Simmons' research took him to the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver and to the Association of Black Cowboys. History and pictures were limited, and it took about a year to gather enough material for an exhibit, Simmons said. He hopes to someday expand the exhibit to include a broader and more complete view of black history in Wyoming.

The exhibit starts with photos of Simmons and a shadow box that includes the rope and glove he used in his last bull ride in 1983 in Edgerton.

Simmons rode his first bucking bronc in Texas when he was 12. His father's friends had a ranch, and on the weekends they'd saddle up the horse and Simmons would ride for entertainment. He moved to Wyoming in 1971 and roughnecked in Linch.

He rode his first wild bull on a $20 bet.

"I got on him and rode it, and I won," Simmons said. From then on Simmons chased the adrenaline rush, paying the entry money to compete in any rodeo that came along.

Simmons' exhibit highlights a few well-known cowboys, such as Nat Love, who was born a slave and later got his nickname "Deadwood Dick" by winning a roping, bridling, saddling and shooting contest in Deadwood, S.D.

But many featured in the display will be new to visitors. Take Eliza "Big Jack" Stewart, known as inmate No. 459. The outlaw served 21 months in the Wyoming State Penitentiary for shooting a man in the throat while at a dance in Hanna. In her mug shot, she wears pearl earrings, juxtaposed against a heavy, man's fedora.

Also included is Guenther's research on Jim Edwards, once dubbed "the greatest negro cattle rancher in all the West" by Ebony Magazine. Edwards moved to Wyoming to mine coal but was rejected by white miners.

No money in his pocket, Edwards searched for work and began herding sheep, cattle and horses. He became a foreman, instructing white men under him, and within 10 years had his own place. Edwards branded his livestock "16-1," the ratio of local whites to himself.

He soon owned and leased land north of Lost Springs and built one of the most elaborate homes in rural Wyoming, according to the exhibit. The house had running water in the bathroom at a time when most in the state used outhouses.

Despite his wealth and success, Edwards was discriminated against. One day in a saloon, he told those harassing him, "Y'all call me ‘N----- Jim' today, but someday you'll call me ‘Mr. James Edwards,'" according to the exhibit.

Years ago, Guenther mapped the site of Edwards' home and conducted interviews with those who knew him.

Guenther has dedicated years of research to studying black ranchers and landowners in Wyoming. He was first inspired as a kid in the 1960s, part of a farm family in Nebraska. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Guenther's grandmother sat him down and explained that during World War I, it was illegal in Nebraska to speak German, his family's native tongue. "Yankee Americans," his grandmother explained, tied a rope around the neck of the local 80-year-old minister who preached in German and dragged him through town, nearly killing him.

"What she told me at the time was, ‘If they could do that to us as white Protestants, imagine what it must be like to be colored.' It really got me fascinated in that," Guenther said.

Through his research, Guenther discovered Wyoming held the highest lynching rate in the country from 1910 to the 1920s, he said. In the South, lynching was used to inspire fear, but black labor was still needed. Guenther theorizes that Wyoming wanted to keep its white society, and the best way to achieve that was to frighten black people away.

"The lynch rate averaged about 100 times greater than the national average. This was a dangerous place to be a black person," Guenther said.

"Even though we call it the Equality State, it was not."

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