The Blacks in America who headed west did so for much the same reasons that other folks packed up and started towards the land of the setting sun. Some of them, whether they were African American, Irish, or originated from one of the Scandinavian or European countries, had the idea of free, or nearly so, land to farm or start a town on, usually with the idea of raising families. That was the concept of living in the West that a group of people had that stopped in Kansas. They started the all Black town of Nicodemus.
Of course, there were always those of a variety of nationalities who moved west seeking ill-gotten gains or to escape confinement by court order because they had all ready done some ill-gotten gaining. The reasons for going west were nearly as numerous and varied as the varieties of folks that hit the westward trail somewhere between the early 1800s and the end of that century.
Some others sought a place in the Army where three square meals, or a close resemblance there of, were to be had as well as a bed and a uniform. But most of all, signing up for a hitch in the Army meant a steady job and this again was true for the Irish, the Scandinavians, and the Blacks as well as any other nationality that chose to put on a uniform.
The Army didn’t just draw men to the West. For a time there was a certain Black enlisted soldier who was not quite the normal type that chose Army life. This Black American enlisted under the name of William Cathey. In truth, the soldier’s real name was Cathay Williams. Cathay was a female.
Even before the hay day of the cowboy pushing cows across the prairie, or of the soldiers trotting out across the plains to protect settlers and travelers from Indians, some Blacks had already gone west. Being a Mountain Man wasn’t an occupation that only drew whites westward. Standing tall amongst these often shaggy-haired, beaded buckskin clad fellows, and some early explorers, were two outstanding Blacks. York, no other name known, was William Clark’s slave who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition across the continent and back. One other notable that comes to mind, though there certainly were others, is James Beckwourth. Old Jim was a member of William Ashley’s 1823 expedition into the upper Missouri river country to trap beaver. According to legend or truth, which ever you decide to hold with, Beckwourth became a chief of one of the Crow Indian bands. [Just for reference, calling a Mountain Man “Old” this or that, what ever his name might be, didn’t mean that the fellow was actually old. Hitching an “Old” onto the front end of a name was a title of distinction and honor, meaning that this fellow was an accomplished and experienced Mountain Man and that anyone would be honored to go tromping through the wilderness with such a person watching his backside for danger.]
Later on, after the beaver was all but gone, and a lot of the Mountain Men had “gone beaver”, meaning they had cashed in their pelts for the last time and were pushing daisies up somewhere, other fellows saw the life of the cowboy as their western destiny. Such was the case of two cow-poking Black people known as Nate Love and Bill Pickett.
It was Nat Love who supposedly summed up just what the cowboy code was when he said there was, in reference to cowboying, “a man’s work to be done, and a man’s life to be lived,” and when death was to be met, “a cowboy met it like a man.” I think what Love was getting at was something to the nature of when those longhorns started stampeding on a dark moonless night out on the prairie, it didn’t much matter what color a cowboy’s skin was. What mattered was that he knew his job, did it, and if he was scared to death by all those pounding hoofs and clashing horns he didn’t let it get in the way of doing his job. For, to be sure, those ornery horned beast didn’t care what color a cowboy was. And its certain that a crackling dry lightening storm or a prairie fire didn’t bother with any distinction or preference. There were many more Blacks, besides Love and Pickett, that strapped on chaps and spurs and pointed longhorns north. As a matter of fact, by the time the wild and wooly cattle drives began to dwindle down there were at least 5,000 Black men who were, or had been, working as cowboys.