Nate Love has often been referred to as the most famous black cowboy of all. He was born a slave in June of 1854, and was raised in an old log cabin in Davidson County, Tennessee. Both of his parents, also slaves, were owned by Robert Love who was an extensive planter and owner of many slaves.
Nate had an older sister, Sally, and a brother Jordan. As their mother worked in the Big House, Nate’s sister was often the one who watched over him. Later, the toddler learned to care for himself. Much of his early years was spent raiding the plantation garden, taking onions, watermelons, turnips, and sweet potatoes.
When Nate was about fifteen-years-old his father died. The year would have been about 1869 and slaves had been freed. Ready to experience that freedom, Love gathered up his few belongings and headed for the rip-roaring cattle town of Dodge City in Kansas. His aim was to work as a cowpuncher where the going rate of monthly pay was about $30.00. It is said that, as a ranch hand, Love was excellent at everything concerned with cattle punching.
Some accounts state that after a few years Nate left Kansas, in 1876, and headed north for Deadwood City, South Dakota to enter a cowboy competition.
Other accounts of Nate Love’s adventures says that he found a Texas outfit that had delivered its herd [place of delivery is not stated] and was getting ready to head back to Texas. Noting that there were several black cowboys already working in the outfit, Nate hung around. He managed to have some breakfast with the crew, then asked the boss for a job. The man consented as long as Nate could break an ornery horse the outfit had. The horse, named Good Eye, was the wildest four-legged critter, not counting some also ornery longhorns, in the outfit. One of the other black cowboys, Bronco Jim, was willing to give Nate some pointers. Well, Nate rode that ornery cuss of a horse and got the job.
If Nate Love figured he’d done some hard work in the past, he was mistaken. While pushing cows for this Texas outfit he rode through hailstorms said to be so violent that only strong men could withstand them. But Nate showed his grit the first time he come up face to face with hostile Indians. He didn’t run, he couldn’t. Like he later admitted, he was to scared to run. There’s no word as to whether he actually came to a bullet and arrow swapping contest but at some point Nate made sure he’d be ready if such an event came about. He got himself a forty-five and never missed an opportunity to get in some practice. It’s said, either by others or himself, that he got really good with his shooting iron and after a bit he could out shoot any of his friends.
Nate eventually left the Texas Panhandle. He headed for Arizona this time and landed a job working for an outfit on the Gila River. While he was in Arizona he had the opportunity to be working with Mexican vaqueros. He learned to speak Spanish “like a native” he or someone else said.
Here, another account of Love’s life has him leaving Arizona and heading for Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory. So, I guess its safe to say that at one time or another, Nate Love wound up in that rip-roaring, whiskey-soaked, pistol-firing town.
What seems to have taken place, by several accounts, is that Nate was helping to drive three thousand steers to Deadwood. When they got there, on July 3rd, the town was revving up for a big 4th of July celebration. Now, at that time Deadwood was a new town, seeing that there had been the recent discovery of the Homestake Mine. In other words, there was a gold rush on in the Black Hills. And like all other gold rushes the area of interest was not only crawling with miners but also gambler and other sorts out for ill-gotten gains.
For part of the celebrating events for the 4th the mining men and the gamblers had gotten together and were setting up a contest for cowboys, and anyone else crazy enough to give it a go, to do some wild horse roping and riding, then a bit of shooting. About a dozen men were signed up to participate for this contest which carried a purse of $200.00 prize money. About half of those rangy range riders were black cowboys.
Each contestant had to rope, throw, tie bridles, and saddle a mustang. And of course, the wildest horses to be found were on hand for the opposition. When it came Nate’s turn to do his stuff, he roped, threw, tied bridles, saddled, and mounted his mustang. And he did it in exactly nine minutes–the fastest time of any of the contestants.
The next event was a shooting contest involving both the rifle and Colt revolver. Again Nate took top honors by sinking 10 of his 12 shots in the bulls eye. Of course Nate won the prize money.
Nate liked to brag that he carried the scars from fourteen bullet wounds, claiming that any one of them could have killed an ordinary man. He also like to tell how he was adopted by a tribe of Indians and that, at another time, he rode a hundred miles, all in twelve hours and on an unsaddled horse. He claimed to know Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, too. Well, perhaps he did.
The story of Nate Love is certainly an adventurous one. It is also one that makes you wonder just how far the yarn is being stretch. But there is no doubt that Nate Love stood out as an outstanding cowboy, among black, white, brown, or red.
Yes, Love was a great cowboy. But like a lot of other cowboys of the time his long days of driving cattle across the plains came to a halt when the railroad came through.
Nate Love left the range in 1890. He joined the competition–the railroad. Sadly, the job he took was one of the few, at the time, that was available to black men. Nate became a Pullman porter. He died in 1907. He was fifty-three-years-old. That same year his autobiography appeared for sale.