Edmond P. DeRousse

Nat Love Legendary Cowboy

He was born the youngest of three children on Robert Love’s Tennessee plantation in June 1854. His father, Sampson, had become the slave foreman and his mother worked in the kitchen of the “big house”. His older sister also had duties in the same kitchen. This left him to primarily look after himself. He had no formal education but did learn to read and write with the help of his father. Nat Love became one of the Old West most famous cowboys.

When the Civil War ended and the slaves freed, Nat’s father rented a 20-acre farm from his former master. He died, unfortunately, shortly after the second crop of corn and cotton was planted. To help support the family, Nat took on various jobs on area plantations. One of his jobs was breaking horses. He discovered that he excelled in that skill.

In 1869, at the age of sixteen, he took that skill and headed West with $50 in his pocket. In Dodge City, Kansas he asked a trail boss for a job.  The Duvall Ranch located in the Panhandle of Texas had just delivered its herd. The boss agreed to hire him only if he could break a horse, the wildest one in the outfit, named Good Eye. Love got the $30 a month job and later said it was the toughest ride he ever had. While working on that ranch he quickly developed a reputation as one of the best all-round cowboys in the outfit. The sixteen-year-old became a buyer and their chief brand reader. On several occasions, he was sent to Mexico in that capacity and soon learned to speak fluent Spanish. 

In 1872 he left the Duvall ranch and moved to Arizona to work for the Gallinger Ranch on the Gila River. There he travelled many of the Western trails fighting off hailstorms, Indians, bandits, and rustlers. Love admitted the first time he met hostile Indians; he was too scared to run. During his time on the Arizona ranch, he claimed to have met many of the famous men of the West, such as Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, and Billy the Kid.  

On July 3, 1876, Love and the Gallinger cowboys delivered 3,000 steers to Deadwood, South Dakota. The town was preparing for a 4th of July celebration. One of the organized events was a “cowboy” contest with a cash prize of $200 to the winner. The contest included competitions in roping, bridling, saddling, and shooting. Since becoming a cowpuncher he had established a reputation for his abilities with those skills. Nat Love won the $200 prize and walked away with the nickname “Deadwood Dick”.

According to Nat Love’s autobiography, he was captured and severely wounded in October 1877 by Indians while rounding up stray cattle near the Gila River. His life was spared, he wrote, because they respected his heritage. A great number of his captors were of mixed heritage. He was nursed back to health and almost married the chief’s daughter. Eventually, though, he stole a pony and escaped into west Texas.

Love worked as a drover for twenty years moving cattle and horses through various locales. Those locales included the Texas Panhandle, Kansas, Arizona Territory, and Dakota Territory. He was the first black cowboy to achieve prominence and become known as one of the times legendary western figures. 

In the 1890s dime novels were written about a hero named “Deadwood Dick.” Love claimed those novels were about him. Many of the adventures he related were similar to those of the protagonist of that series. 

By the 1890’s the Old West had changed. The open land and extensive cattle ranching that Love promoted in his 1907 autobiography had drastically changed. Long cattle drives had become unnecessary because of railroads and fencing off lands. Love retired from cow-herding and worked on the railroads as a Pullman sleeping car porter. He adapted to a new life and gave up riding horses to begin riding trains across America. He worked that job for the next fifteen years.  

This career was almost exclusively occupied by black men and barred him from becoming a more highly paid manager or mechanic on the railroad. Regardless he expressed no dissatisfaction or resentment about his position. Instead, he insisted that riding the rails provided opportunity to travel extensively, come in contact with a variety of people, and justly appreciate the grandeur of the country.

Nat Love wrote about his adventurous lifestyle in his autobiography entitled, “Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself.” The American public had a voracious appetite for stories of the West and his book fed that appetite. No one knows for certainty, how much of the adventures of Nat Love are true are fiction. But he had the ability to tell and write a good story. The American public, after all, was hungry for tales of the West.

In 1889, Love married a woman named Alice and the couple had one child. Nat Love died in 1921 in Los Angeles, California. He was 67.