Deadwood Dick
Black Facts in Wax:

Nat Love was born in an old log cabin in Davidson County, Tennessee, in June, 1854.  He never knew the day of his birth, for “in those days no count was kept of such trivial matters as the birth of a slave baby.”  His parents were owned by Robert Love: his father was a foreman of the slaves, and his mother presided over the kitchen at the big house.  He grew up with very little education, “as smart Negroes were not in much demand at the time.”

…When Nat [later] left the Texas Panhandle, he rode into Arizona, where he worked for an outfit on the Gila River.  By this time he had ridden many of the trails of the Southwest, and felt that his competence as a cowboy was no longer in doubt. 


In Arizona he proved his worth to his employer by adding two talents, one cultural and one practical.  Through his association with Mexican vaqueros he learned, he said, to speak Spanish like a native.  More important for his boss, he became especially adept at reading brands, becoming the outfit’s chief authority.  Sometimes when he had identified a steer, he had to cut it out of the heard, by throwing it if necessary…

Like many another cowboy who wrote about his adventures on the range, Nat bragged of some of his escapades while drunk.  Once in Mexico he rode into a saloon while firing his forty-five and enjoyed the exhilarating ride out while the Mexicans were firing at him.  On another occasion he rode by Fort Dodge while full of whisky.  He suddenly conceived the “fool idea” that he should rope a cannon.  It would not budge, and Love was arrested by the soldiers.  When he explained that he wanted to take a cannon back to Texas to use against Indians, they laughed and let him go.

…In the spring of 1876, Love’s outfit received an order for three thousand three-year-old steers to be delivered at Deadwood.  The route took them through New Mexico and Colorado, to Cheyenne and into the Dakotas.  On June 25, while Nat and the other cowboys were within eight or nine days’ drive of their destination, General Custer and his troops, over to the west on the Little Big Horn, were eliminated by the Sioux under Sitting Bull.  (“We did not know at the time,” Nat wrote, “or we would have gone to Custer’s assistance.”)  Arriving near Deadwood on July 3, the cowboys delivered the herd and got ready for the fourth.  Deadwood, on July 4, 1876, was a brand new town, booming because of the recent discovery of the Homestakes mine.

The town was ready for the cowboys when they rode into it on the morning of the fourth.  The mining men and gamblers organized a roping contest, and collected two hundred dollars for prize money.  Six of the contestants, Nat reported, were Negroes.  Each cowboy was to rope, throw, tie, bridle and saddle a mustang in the shortest possible time; and the horses were not chosen for gentleness.  Nat told what happened: “I roped, threw, tied, bridled, saddled and mounted my mustang in exactly nine minutes from the crack of the gun.  The time of the next nearest competitor was twelve minutes and thirty seconds.  This gave me the record and the championship of the West, which I held up to the time I quit the business.”

With the roping contest completed, a dispute arose over who was the best shot.  So a shooting contest was arranged for the afternoon.  A range was measured off for the rifle contest at 100 and 250 yards.  And the range for the Colts was set at 150 yards, a distance which appears to be one of Nat’s fancier exaggerations.  Each contestant had fourteen shots with the rifle and twelve shots with his Colt.  Nat placed all of his rifle shots in the bull’s eye and ten of his twelve pistol shots in the center!  His nearest competitor hit only eight with the rifle and five with the forty-five.  The winner, and “hero of Deadwood,” was Nat Love, the Negro cowboy and former slave.  Along with the prize money, the grateful and excited men of Deadwood conferred on Nat the title of “Deadwood Dick,” a name which he carried with “honor” ever after.

Excerpted from the book THE NEGRO COWBOYS by Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1965