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Nat Love, 1854-1921
Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick," by Himself; a True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the "Wild and Woolly" West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author
Los Angeles, Cal.: s.n., 1907.


Nat Love, the son of enslaved parents Sampson Love and a mother whose name is unknown, was born in June 1854, on Robert Love's plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee. After Emancipation, Nat Love's parents remained on the plantation as sharecroppers. In February 1869, Love left Tennessee and headed west. He found work as a cowboy, first on the Duval Ranch in the Texas panhandle, then on the Gallinger Ranch in southern Arizona (1872-1890). During these years, Love traveled extensively throughout the western U.S. as he helped herd cattle to market. In 1889, he married a woman named Alice, and the couple had one child. In 1890, Love retired from cow-herding and worked on the railroads as a Pullman sleeping car porter. His last job was as security guard with the General Securities Company in Los Angeles, California, where he died in 1921.

Love's story, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, was published in 1907, and has been reprinted several times since the 1960s. Scholar William Loren Katz describes it as "the only full-length autobiography by an African-American cowhand" (p. 150). But while Love claims that his book is intended for "those who prefer facts to fiction," several scholars express doubts about the book's veracity (p. 3). Katz, for example, claims that the "typical Western braggadocio" with which Love recounts his abilities as an expert horseback rider, marksman, drinker, and fighter makes him appear "more like a dime novel hero than a flesh-and-blood cowpuncher" (p. 150). This comparison between Love's autobiography and the mass market adventure novels popular in the late nineteenth century is apt, given that Love is one of many men who claimed to be the "real" Deadwood Dick. According to Durham and Jones, Deadwood Dick was the literary creation of Edward L. Wheeler, a best-selling dime novelist who never traveled west of Pennsylvania. Many scholars believe that Love laid claim to Wheeler's character's nickname to sensationalize the events of his own life; yet, they also argue that Love's larger-than-life feats "do not automatically discredit his book, for they differ only in degree from the kind of hyperbole to be found in many otherwise credible books of Western reminiscence" (p. 192).

Love's account of his "unusually adventurous life" begins with his birth in a slave cabin (p. 3). Although Love describes his owner, Robert Love, as "a kind and indulgent Master" (p. 7), he also insists that the institution of slavery is a great evil that excuses physical abuse, separates families, and exposes African American women to "the licentious wishes of the men who owned them" (p. 13). Love praises Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe for their efforts to end a system that he says made the status of the slave, even under a kind master, "the same as that of the horse or cow" (p. 13).

After Emancipation, Love's family struggles to make ends meet, and his father soon dies. The "hard work from morning to night" that sharecropping demands makes Love begin to think "about going west" because "freedom is sweet," and he wants to "make more" of his life (p. 37). After winning a horse in a raffle, Love sells the horse back to its owner for $50. Love then wins the same horse in a second raffle and again sells it back for $50. Taking his $100 home, Love, then 15 years old, gives half of the money to his mother and leaves to "go out in the world" and "better [his] condition" (p. 39). He ends up in Dodge City, Kansas, which he describes as "a typical frontier city, with a great many saloons, dance halls, and gambling houses, and very little of anything else" (p. 40). Here he is hired on with a crew of cowboys that already includes several African-Americans. Love's new coworkers give him the nickname, "Red River Dick" (p. 41).

Love continues to tell about the years he spent as a cowboy, describing his transformation into a veteran cow-poke who "had lost all sense of fear" (p. 70). The adventures that Love describes include fighting with hostile American Indians, chasing stampeding cattle, roping wild mustangs, sharing drinks with Billy the Kid, and besting "all comers in riding, roping, and shooting" (p. 97). The latter accomplishments result in his being given the name Deadwood Dick "by the people of Deadwood, South Dakota, July 4, 1876" (p. 97). Perhaps the most sensational adventure Love describes involves his being wounded and captured by a band of American Indians led by a man named Yellow Dog. Because the tribe is "composed largely of half breeds," and people "of colored blood," they nurse Love back to health and ask him to join them (p. 99). They promise him 100 ponies if he marries Yellow Dog's daughter, but after about a month in captivity, he steals a pony and makes his escape, riding 100 miles in 12 hours without a saddle to return home.

Eventually, Love recognizes that "the march of progress" is bringing railroads to the West and that the railroad will make the cowboy's job obsolete (p. 130). In response, he settles down in Denver and accepts a position as a Pullman sleeping car porter. Towards the end of his book, he declares that he loves America, the "Sweet land of Liberty, home of the brave and the free" (p. 147). This statement is characteristic of the patriotism and optimism that pervade Love's narrative. For while he condemns slavery, he never mentions an instance of racial inequality after he travels west. Love consistently characterizes America's Western frontier as a place where his talents, hard work, and ingenuity were always appreciated. Indeed, in Love's telling, the West is a place that allowed him to be not just a man, but also a hero.

Works Consulted: Durham, Philip, and Everett L. Jones, The Negro Cowboys, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1965; Katz, William Loren, The Black West, Rev. Ed., New York: Broadway Books, 2005, first edition published 1971; Mugleston, William F., "Love, Nat (June 1854-1921)," in American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 952-953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Harry Thomas

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