Nat Love, alias Deadwood Dick, was one of the early prototypes for the American Cowboy, though not the one that predominated in Hollywood.
Born a slave on a plantation in Tennessee, he left home in 1869 and headed West to find a better life. He wasn’t alone in making the migration from postbellum South to the Wild West, many cowboys at the height of the first great Western cattle boom were black.
His legend began in and around Dodge City, Kansas and picked up steam in Texas, where, according to his autobiography “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love,” he became Red River Dick, and word of mouth about his mastery of horses began to spread. In the employ of a Texas panhandle ranch he referred to as the “Duval outfit” he made journeys herding cattle and horses from Texas to Wyoming and the Dakotas. “By strict attention to business, born of a genuine love of the free and wild life of the range, and absolute fearlessness, I became known throughout the country as a good all around cow boy and a splendid hand in stampede.”
Later on as a chief brand reader for another cattle baron his territory expanded from Montana to Mexico, growing his notoriety for squaring off with bandits, rustlers, and at least one buffalo stampede. He was known to play as hard as he worked, hitting cattle towns between runs with the “ambition to paint the town a deep red color and drink up all the bad whiskey in the city.”
He secured his status in the folklore of the West in Deadwood, where he arrived in July of 1876, days after a coalition of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho forces routed Custer’s 7th Cavalry. At an impromptu Fourth of July roping contest, he “threw, tied, bridled, saddled and mounted” a particularly “vicious” mustang in the best time. For his exploits, legend has it he was given the title of Deadwood Dick — the first dime novel in Edward Lytton Wheeler’s Deadwood Dick series, “Deadwood Dick, the Prince of the Road; or, The Black Rider of the Black Hills” was published the following year.
According to his memoir, he held the title of champion roper until his retirement from cowboying in 1890. Among other exploits, he claims to have been present when Sheriff Pat Garrett of Lincoln County, New Mexico shot and killed Billy “The Kid.” He may or may not have spent some time among the Pima, or Akimel O'odham people in Arizona. Like many figures in Western folklore, some of the tales told by and about Love may be tall, it can be hard to separate life from legend.
Love met and married his wife in 1889, and hung up his spurs to work as a Pullman Porter. With his keen workman’s sense for where industry was headed, he anticipated that with rise of the railroads the culture of the American cowboy had already seen its zenith. when he published “Life and Adventures” he waxed eloquent — enthralled to the scenery of the American landscape he criss-crossed first as a cowboy then as a porter — about the railroad as a way to “See America.” “I have seen a large part of America, and am still seeing it, but the life of a hundred years would be all too short to see our country.”
In his short 67 years — Love died in 1921 — he saw more America then most freeborn Americans will in their lifetimes.