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AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum

Horses and the Black West

From Africa To The American West
Horses and the Black West

I was going through some of my old VCR tapes and discovered an ESPN recording of a Black History tribute in February 2001. The video focused on the history of Black jockeys as athletes and how horse racing was “The Sport” rather than football, basketball or baseball in states like Tennessee, Kentucky and the Carolinas. It was presented as a general fact that American slave owners purchased their slaves based on their cultural attributes inherited from the slaves particular African culture. Several African cultures employed equestrian resources to establish wealth and operate effective militaries. The journey from Africa to the American West for the African Horse Culture people is a clear and obvious one. However, I have learned that historical perspective can differ from historical fact due to cultural bias. Once while talking to a person about African-Americans and horses in California history, this was the response I got:

“…I can hardly believe that these people (Blacks and Indians) had an influence on horsemanship and horse breeding in California - an influence that would be visible and contributing to today's horseworld in California.”

This is not an insulting statement but a true perspective of the reviewer. I presented the A-List easy picks for California Black history: Stagecoach driver George Monroe, Northern California Black Cowboy Rolf Logan, Black Pony Express rider William Robinson, and James Beckwourth, who presumably used a horse to traverse the pass in California named after him, but the author of this statement was un-impressed.
I made the statement in my article “Origins Of The Western Cowboy,” that “…Slave cowboys were not glamourized, nothing in slave status was.” I’d like to state that this is a personal perspective and not without exception. In feudal America documents show that some slaves were held to the images of Knights of the Realm, Gladiators, Heroes of the Day, and Champions. This glamorization of slaves seems to be more apparent in the horse racing history of the U.S. My perspective of glamorized slavery deserves a closer examination.

To begin in Africa, Robin Law and S.I. Biobaku wrote extensive histories of the Yoruban Oyo Empire during the early years of the slave trade. The next excerpt discusses an observation of an Oyo horse keeper known as the Olokun Esin:

“… The Olokun Esin resided in his own compound outside the palace, but went to the palace daily to supervise the stable slaves. The Landers in 1830 met the ‘Master of Horse” at Oyo, and describes him as ‘an elderly man that possesses some influence over his master’.”
“A ki i ba onwa jagun odo - One cannot beat a warrior who is a swimmer in a river - Tani i ba elesin jagun papa? Who shall beat a warrior who is a horseman on the plains?”

“The Oyo Empire c.1600-1836 by Robin Law

The Oyo Empire was one of several horsed Yoruba peoples during the time of contact with the Europeans. Next to the trans Saharan salt and gold trade, trade for horses was one of the most important exchanges between sub-Saharan Africans and North Africans. Pre-Columbian horse cultures in Africa seem to be restricted to the northern half of the continent, the southern half acquiring horses after European contact.
The slave trade had the ironic result of slaves being exchanged for European and American horses and equipment such as saddles and carriages as well as the traditional commodities such as cloth, guns, and beverages.
Once these Africans came to America, their horse skills were employed to the profit of others as well as their own. Some took refuge with Southeastern Native Americans like the Tunica who were known to have acquired horses from New Mexico and traded them to Europeans in the Louisiana area. When the horse racing sport took hold in Kentucky and the Carolinas, African-Americans slaves were not only the primary jockey athletes but trainers as well. An interesting excerpt about the status of African-Americans in slave-era horse racing comes from a 2003 Paris-Bourbon County Public Library in Kentucky:

“…Racing histories relate that the best trainers were given their freedom and paid for their services, sometimes by their former owners. Because Kentucky's antebellum slave laws required freed men to leave the state, some trainers were nominally slaves although their status and earning power made them well-respected members of the racing community”

Bringing the horse skills from Colonial America to the American West can be found in several accounts. Since we are on the topic of California and jockeys it is prudent to note that Santa Cruz, California, historian Phil Reader documents Black jockeys engaging in horse racing activities near Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz during the 1860’s .

Another source of information covers horse trainers in Idaho. The next excerpt explains:

"…Black history in Idaho began with York, the black man who came west with Lewis and Clark in 1805. After York, there came black trappers, fur traders, miners, soldiers, railroad workers, horse trainers, and rodeo riders. Idaho never had a lot of black people. Records showed only 60 black people in Idaho in 1870, and only 53 in 1880."
From Idaho Ebony: The Afro-American Presence in Idaho State History, by Mamie O. Oliver

A site called has an excellent photo collection of African Americans in Western history. One photo in particular is that of Black jockeys engaging in horse racing in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The photo is grainy and undated, but other photos on the page are reliable and accurate, so I have some confidence in it. The photo can be viewed by clicking 18TH 19TH AND 20TH CENTURY IMAGES DEPICTING ENSLAVED AND FREE BLACK AFRICAN AMERICAN LIFE AND HISTORY , then click LEGENDS OF THE WEST .

In conclusion: Did African-Americans have a significant role in horse culture in the American West? This adjective allows for the cultural bias I discussed earlier and I can’t answer how significant their role was from a multi-cultural perspective. I can say that it was significant from an African-American perspective, especially since the same ESPN video I referred to, which spurred me to write this article, specifically indicts the Ku Klux Klan as the main instrument in removing and prohibiting Black jockeys and trainers from participating in a sport which they prevailed in since the days of slavery. Perhaps the forceful removal of people of African descent from an American cultural tradition made their collective contributions insignificant to some, and very significant to others. Perhaps it is just an issue of a population size which determined significance, but writers, myself included, should sometimes re-visit their historical perspectives and reasonably adapt them to historical facts.

Thanks for reading,
Allen L. Lee

Messages In This Thread

Horses and the Black West
Re: Horses and the Black West

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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