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Nat Love

Nat Love
~June 1854 – February 11, 1921
Notable: Cowboy & Writer
Nationality: American

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YouTube Video

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Show Notes

Nat Love was the youngest of three children born to his enslaved parents on a plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee that was owned by Robert Love. His father, Sampson, was a slave foreman while his mother worked in the kitchen of the big house. Due to his parents’ responsibilities, Love was primarily cared for by an older sister in between her responsibilities until he was old enough to look after himself.

Despite being born into slavery and growing up during the Civil War, Love’s father taught him to read and write. When the war ended, Love’s father became a tenant farmer, renting land from his former slave master. Like many other tenant farmers and sharecroppers, Love’s father struggled to make a profit growing corn and tobacco. He died within a few years leaving the family in an even more precarious financial position.

Love began doing odd jobs on local plantations to help support his mother and family. He found work on a farm as a ranch hand where he displayed a talent for breaking horses. Despite his youth, Love seemed to have a natural ability and knowledge of putting horses at ease and taming them.

There were many limitations for Love in the local area and working on farms meant back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk. After winning $100 in a raffle, Love decided to head west in search of work and more opportunities. He gave $50 to his mother and left the family in the care of an uncle. Love set out with the other $50 to make his way in the world.

At just 15 years old, Love arrived in the infamous frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas. In the early 1870s, Dodge City was a recently established town that lacked law enforcement or any official judicial structure. An outpost of America, the town was largely visited by cowboys and other people on the move. The lack of infrastructure and a transient population created a reportedly lawless environment.

Love approached the leader of a crew of cowboys who were in town from the Texas Duval Ranch. Self-confident he introduced himself and inquired about work. The men laughed when Love explained that he was an inexperienced cowboy. Likely in jest, the crew’s leader told Love he would be hired if he could break Good Eye, a horse regarded as being the wildest in the area. After Love rode and tamed the horse, he was offered a job at a rate of $30 per month.

Whether working on the ranch in Texas or moving cattle with the other cowboys, Love distinguished himself as a hard worker. He was also open to learning new skills and quickly became adept at shooting guns and using rope. Love spent three years working for the Duval Ranch before moving on to other cattle companies. In time, he became a cattle buyer and brand reader, one responsible for keeping track of a ranch’s cattle during drives. He competed in a rodeo in Deadwood, South Dakota where he won $200 and earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick”.

On occasion, Black cowboys experienced discrimination during cattle drives. But as many other newly freed Black men of the time found, being a ranch hand was one of the best-paid jobs available for Black men. Working as a cowboy offered Love the freedom that he yearned for. He worked on ranches in and moved cattle through Texas and Kansas as well as what would become Arizona and the Dakotas. Love spent so much time in Mexico purchasing cattle that he became fluent in Spanish.

By the late 1880s, long cattle drives were no longer necessary as barbed wire now kept cattle in place and railroads extended deep into the West. Love married a woman named Alice in 1889 with whom he would have one child. He retired from being a cowboy in 1890 and found work as a Pullman Porter on railroad routes west of Denver, Colorado. The family moved around to various parts of the West before settling in Los Angeles where Love worked as a security guard.

In 1907, Love published The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick”, an autobiography about his life. The book received a positive reception as people clamored for stories about cowboys and the Wild West. It’s unclear how much of the book is factual versus exaggerated for excitement.

Nat Love died in Los Angeles on February 11, 1921. In 2021, Netflix released The Harder They Fall, a Western featuring a character named “Nat Love” portrayed with great creative license.

Sources

  1. Alexander, Kathy. 2023. “Nat Love, Aka: Deadwood Dick – Greatest Black Cowboy in the Old West.” Legends of America. February 2023. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-natlove/.
  2. Harris, Karen. 2023. “Nat Love: Adventures of a Former Slave, Black Cowboy, and Teller of Tall Tales.” OldWest. August 22, 2023. https://www.oldwest.org/nat-love/.
  3. Helm, Matt. 2007. “Nat Love (1854-1921).” Blackpast.Org. November 17, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/love-nat-1854-1921/.
  4. “Love, Nat .” Westward Expansion Reference Library. Encyclopedia.com. (April 15, 2024). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/love-nat/.
  5. Mack, Emily. 2022. “Nat Love: The Real Old West Cowboy Featured in ‘The Harder They Fall.’” Wide Open Country. WOMG. May 9, 2022. https://www.wideopencountry.com/nat-love/.

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