Few records of black Cowboys have made it to the present day intact. In truth, most all records of trail driving cowboys are nonexistent. The reasons vary but simply put, the Eastern press was more interested in Dime novel hero’s than every day working cow punchers.
In a past blog, I wrote of Charles Goodnight from the great State of Texas and his contributions to the West. Goodnight not only preserved the cowpuncher life on paper in writings but he used photography (stills and movies) to document it all. While Goodnight preserved history on film, the artist Charles Russel, captured it on canvas. Without these two and others who saw fit to shy away from exploitation, we would have few truthful facts of our Western past.
What is known as fact, is that at one point over 5,000 cowboys out West were black. Many were slaves or sons of slaves that previously escaped the Southern plantations before the war and headed into Mexico. While in Mexico, they learned the art of horsemanship and cattle wrangling from the Mexican cattle ranchers on large haciendas.
While the Mexican Vaquero Cowboys were considered excellent wranglers in Mexico, in Texas and other western States they were looked upon as lazy and inept, too concerned about their wardrobe and not enough on actual labor. In truth, many Mexican wranglers did in fact quit the trail drives before reaching their destination. Why? Possibly the weather, possibly the trail drive life itself. Much more likely though it was a cultural thing. While many were the butt end of jokes for their fancy dudes or their lack of, Mexicans did not need to drive their cattle any great distance to market. In Mexico, a hundred mile drive was considered a long drive while in the Western States, a thousand mile drive was not out of the question. The vaquero was not used to camping out for months at a time.
After the Civil war, many slaves who had escaped slavery by heading into Mexico, headed back into the western states looking for work on the cattle drives. Their experience in wrangling and their willingness to work hard were much appreciated by both the trail boss and their fellow white wranglers. True, there was still discrimination of sorts but it was more a cultural segregation rather than a dislike for the blacks in general. Whites had their way of enjoying their off time as did the blacks. On the trail, discrimination was not in evidence as much as in town. On the trail, the value of the cowboy was determined by his experience, abilities and willingness to put in a long day without complaint. All hands ate together, rode herd together, entertained each other in song and doctored each other without consideration of race. These values did not transfer to conditions in many towns though. In town, each race generally went their own way and a Black cowboy was pretty much expected to follow many protocols formed by southern values while in town . Blacks were expected to bed black whores, drink in saloons that served “greasers” (Mexicans), Blacks and the town’s less fortunate folk. The more “civilized” the town was, the greater the segregation. Mining camp towns were much more liberal. This might have been due to the fact that many miners were from Europe and China and were considered low lifers anyway.
Before one judges the Western States too harshly though, facts show that those Blacks living in the East experienced much fewer personal freedoms and dealt with more open hostility than those who worked on the Western Trails.
Many a firm bond of friendship was formed on the trail. There are documented examples of cowboys of different race becoming “pards” (best friends for life) and even business partners. Race played little part in their friendship. Each described the other as,”one to ride the river with”. (it was the highest of compliments given in the days of the Old West).
This is a story based on one of those friendships. While I tried my best to discover and tie together as many facts as possible, I regret that much of it had to be interpreted through the eye of poetic license and my own imagination. Still, the photos and places are real as is the lone Cowboy buried under the sky of Arizona.
The first of the eighty five head of cattle topped the rise on the mountain trail and began their march downhill towards the rickety creosote drenched wooden cattle pen below. Having scoured the hills and arroyo’s west of Fish Creek in the Arizona Territory for the last three weeks, the three wranglers drove the J_E branded cattle they found down the trail they called the New Wagon Trail (Now named the Apache Trail or State Rt 88 out of Apache Junction just east of Pheonix).
Fifty five of the fattest beeves rounded up would be sent off to the market at Mesa, the rest would be driven a short distance to graze on better grass to fatten up. The fifty five head sold would help pay some of the J Bar E’s ranching bills and put some jingle of coin in everyone’s pocket.
As trail drives went, it was a short one. Once the cattle were rounded up and corralled near the Superstition Mountains, only twenty miles remained. Rounding the beeves up and getting them gathered at the separating corral though was another story. First, one had to find the beast hidden among the mountainous crags and peaks, then try and convince it to leave the protection of high brush, cacti, rock formations and mesquite trees for the open trail. Second, the Wranglers had to keep them from wondering off on their own as they were driven.
The three J Bar E hands, two brothers and the son of runaway slaves, yipped and howled at the cattle as they made their way downhill to the open gated pen below. Once the cattle were penned up, the three could pitch a tent, eat a real meal and let down their guard a bit. They knew within a day or two the rest of the J Bar E hands would arrive from the ranch to help drive the cattle into town.
While most Yavapai and Apache Indians had been moved north into the territory near Fort McDowell, enough still remained hidden in the mountains to be cause for concern.
In most cases, the Indians still hidden in the Superstition Mountains kept to themselves. There were however the inevitable run in’s with ranchers and miners. Sometimes a gift of a cow or two given to the band would be sufficient to stave off any violence, other times a few gunshots directed their way would suffice. And sometimes there was a killing needed.
The two brothers, Cody and Shane Clemans had been hands on the J Bar E ranch for nearly fifteen years. Neither could tell you their exact age but it was known Cody was the oldest by a year. It was thought they were in their early forties. Both brothers were of wiry build. No taller than six inches over five feet, they yet had the strength and endurance that surprised many. Neither were married and had no inclination to ever being so. Like many other area cow pokes, a trip now and then to the copper mining town of Globe or the flat dusty town of Mesa satisfied any carnal needs at the local whore house.
The brothers were simple men with simple needs. To the Clemans, right was right, wrong was wrong and there was no need for the color grey. While Shane owned the only Bible, both believed it was the word of God and the way to salvation but neither had ever been inside a church. The two accepted their lonely roles in life from atop of a saddle and never complained of their station. They rarely socialized with other groups but had a common friend they called Elly.
Elly was black. As black as coal is to marble. Unlike many Negro’s, Elly had no brown whatsoever in him. His heritage was Mexican, his ancestry African.
Elly’s parents had fled slavery in 1850 from Virginia with their infant son Ebenezer. They made their way on foot to Mexico by skimming the coastal areas of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. The trip took two and a half years to complete. In the swamps of Georgia, Ebenezer fell victim to swamp fever and passed away. He was buried alongside the banks of the Ogeechee River. The parents continued on to Mexico abstaining from intimacy along the way to prevent further pregnancies while on the run.
Elly was born and grew up in Guasave, Mexico where his parents named him El Negro… “The Black One”. He spoke excellent Spanish as well as English and an African tribal language taught to him by his parents. He had no siblings and when his parents passed away he was left alone. At the age of twenty two, the War between the States ended and Elly made up his mind to leave the Hacienda he was employed at and head north into the United States.
Smartly dressed in the Vaquero fashion he reached the Arizona territory. There he found employment at the recently formed J Bar E ranch. Folks at the J Bar E took to him right off even if they had reservations about calling him, “El Negro”. To ease their discomfort, Elly told them to just call him Elly. Everyone breathed easier after that. They admired his roping skills and determination to see a job well done. While many cowhands shied away from work off of the saddle, Elly had no such qualms. He appreciated the fact that hard work made him a valuable hand.
Within a year of starting his employment, the owner of the J Bar E ranch built comfortable wooden bunk houses for his hands. No one made a fuss when Elly threw his bedroll onto a top bunk in one of the bunk houses and then told everyone he chose that bed because he was afraid of being pancaked if the whole thing collapsed. The only comment was from his bunk mate below who asked in good humor if Elly ever wet the bed. “I don’t need no watering, I ain’t no plant!” Elly was easy going and had a quick smile. He took a ribbing and gave it out in equal amounts.
The hands at the ranch were not immune from Elly’s practical jokes nor was Elly immune from theirs. A respect had been formed for the young black man among all the hands. In particular, the two Clemans brothers seemed to gravitate to Elly’s company.
In a short time, the three were inseparable in work and play. The Ranches in the area got to know Elly too and had no qualms with “ El Negro” showing up at social functions and get together’s thrown by them.
“Shane!” Elly shouted, “Drop back and scoot that brindle cow back onto the trail, she’s lookin’ to head into that high brush over yonder!”
Shane yanked the reigns left to head off the escaping brindle cow.”Yee cow, Yee ha, git on cow!” Shane yelled while twirling his lariat rope in circles to frighten the cow back onto the trail. Once the brindle was back with the heard, Shane pulled up again alongside the cows. Whacking his lariat loudly against his chaps, he kept the attention of the heard focused in heading to the corral below. “I sure am glad to see that pen!” Cody commented, “I’ll go on ahead and raise the barrier pole to guide ‘em on in.”
Cody spurred on ahead in order to reach the corral and lift the long wooden pine tree pole in place. The pole extended the gates length giving it a funneling effect. “C’mon cow! Git on down there,” Elly and the Shane shouted as the herd picked up speed as they sensed an end to their travels.
Quickly, the herd made it to the trails bottom where a short rock strewn trail led to the corral. Cody held up the rail while Elly and Shane pushed the cattle towards the open gate and into the pen. A small stream not thirty feet from the backside of the corral gave birth to the corrals location alongside the Apache Trail. Once inside the corral, the cattle moved in a clockwise motion calming them down.
An empty wooden water trough and pail stood at the far end of the corral where the stream was closest. The three waited until the cattle had settled a bit before filling the trough from a small nearby stream fire bucket brigade style. Once watered, the cattle seemed content to stare vacant eyed at the three as the made camp.
That night after a meal consisting of Cowboy beans*, bacon, biscuits and coffee, Elly brought out a small tinned can of buttermilk. The three friends sat across from each other as the campfire dwindled to glowing coals. Sitting cross legged, Elly raised the buttermilk tin as if to make a toast, “Ah…buttermilk, the true gift of the cow gods! “
Elly removed his left boot and using the rowel of his spur, he punched a hole in the tin can’s top and lifted the can to his lips. After taking a long swig, Elly put the half empty can down next to where he sat and placed a flat stone on it’s top and told his friends, “…Keeps the scorpions out’a my milk at night.”
Cody pointed to the can and asked, “Y’all gonna finish it off in the morning then? Won’t it be spoilt by then?”
“Shoot, it’s already spoilt Cody. Go ahead, Elly, let’m smell that stuff.”
“It ain’t already spoilt, just smells that way.” Elly responded.
“Then why drink it if it smells so bad,” asked Cody.
“If the two of you hadn’t been raised by a she badger, your Mama would have introduced you to the cow gods nectar when you was young. That’s the thing. You gotta start drinkin’ it young. At your ages, what are you two now, 97…104? Anyway, at your ages that ‘ol slab of leather you two call your tongues couldn’t rightly tell the difference between a lemon and a cows butt hole!”
“Speaking of butt holes,” Shane said, I can still remember years ago when we met, the trick old John Morrow played on you the first night we all met.”
“What was that? Asked Cody.
“Shoot Code, you remember don’t you? About the North star?”
Elly sat grinning at the fire and chuckled, “Hell, if he don’t, I do! I can’t believe I fell for that one.”
“Be pals an’ remind me.”
Elly looked over at Shane and nodded saying, “You tell ‘em Shane, I ain’t one to add to my own foolishness.”
“Well”, started Shane, When we all set up that first night at the J Bar E, Old John Morrow was ranch boss back then. You remember Ol’ John don’t you Cody?”
“Sure, he was one man I thought would never die…too tuff. He probably went on down ‘an beat ‘Ol Satans ass then took over hell for himself!”
“Yup,” Elly said, “that was old John all right, but he had a sense of humor too.”
“He sure did. Come time to hand out job duties, ‘Ol John asked Elly here if he knew how to tell the time of night by the stars. Now, Elly here is one smart Mexican transplant but he’d never knowed about readin’ the star clock back in Mexico. So ‘Ol John Morrow says to Elly, “I want you to take first watch.” He then points at the North Star and says to Elly, “When that there star sinks down below the horizon, it’ll be time to change watches. When it does, come and wake me ‘an I’ll take your place. Then you can sleep like a baby till sunrise”. Well, that sounded just grand to Elly here. If you recall, that first day we all busted butt and was pretty much wiped out.
So, there sat Elly, hour after hour watchin’ an’ waiting for the North Star to sink itself below the horizon when up comes the sun! ‘Ol John come out his bed role yawning like a newborn calf ‘an walks on over to Elly and says, “Well?” Elly responds, “I don’t know what happened Mr. Morrow, I watched that there star all night like you wanted me to but she never moved!” By now the others was up ‘an movin’about and had heard the conversation. They all fell over laughin and carryin’ on. Elly sat there lookin’ confused when ‘Ol John tells him. “Son, I was yankin’ yo’ leg! That ‘ol star is the North Star ‘an she ain’t never gonna move from that there spot! But thanks for standin my watch, I sure did enjoy getting’ myself a full nights sleep!”
The three sat laughing at the thought as the moon rose over the desert causing the coyotes to yip and yelp and the cattle moo’d contentedly in return.
Morning broke and Elly was the first to open his eyes. What he saw froze him in his bed role. Indians.
As quietly as he could, Elly spoke through unmoving lips trying to wake and warn his two friends. “Shane, Cody, wake up, wake up but don’t move…Indians!”
Cody popped his eyes open and moving only his eyes looked up the trail where they had come from. There he saw what Elly had been warning them of. Four Indians on horseback sat on the rise looking down on them.
“They look like Apache” Cody whispered to Elly. “Either that or Yavapai. I hope they’re Yavapai, they’s somewhat friendly to whites.”
“How do they feel about negro’s? “ Elly whispered back.
“Sorry, you know what I meant Elly.”
“Yea, just trying to calm my nerves by bein’ funny. You think we should wake up now?”
Without answering, Cody rose up and stood looking at the group on the rise. When no one reacted to his movement, Cody strode over to Shane and nudged him with his foot. “Shane, wake up bro. We may have some trouble comin’ on. Take a look up yonder at the rise in the trail.”
Shane rose and stood next to the now standing Elly.
“What do you think El?”
“Beats me, that one fella there that looks like he’s had a bad night’s sleep got a nice Henry long gun on his lap though. The others look less aggressive but don’t let that fool nobody.”
“Look, here they come an’ our rifles are still over there by the saddles from last night.”
“Cody”, said Elly, “You’re just full of good news this mornin’ ain’t you?”
The four Indians slowly made their way into the camp. Shane raised his hand in greeting. The four stopped fifteen feet from the trio.
As luck would have it, the one who Elly had said looked as if he had a bad night’s sleep moved forward.
Stopping less than the length of a man away, the foul looking leader pointed his Henry rifle at the cattle and said. “Want cattle.”
Elly stepped forward saying, “Well friend, if you’re interested in buying…”
The rifle moved from the cattle to face Elly. “Chookna want all cattle. Give.”
“They’s J Bar E brand Chookna, they ain’t mine to give or sell.”
The leaders dark face became red with anger. Shane swore later it turned purple.
“Chookna take, you go.”
“I ain’t goin’ no where’s without my cattle friend.” Elly replied,” Now if you had asked nice like I might’a looked the other way while you drove one or two off. But now you’re pissin’ in my boot an’ I don’t take to that.”
Losing face, Chookna quickly turned in the saddle to speak to those behind him. As he did so, his horse took that moment to shift from one front leg to another causing Chookna to partially lose his balance.
He grabbed the reigns and in the process of twisting back to face Elly, began losing the grip on his rifle. The Henry slipped further and as Chookna grabbed for it he hit the trigger.
One can think of a million reactions to seeing their best friend’s life snuffed out before your very eyes but until that day ever happens, whatever you thought you’d do isn’t what’s going happen.
The three Indians behind Chookna sat wide eyed and jaw dropped.
Cody stood staring in unbelief at his friend laying on the ground as Elly’s legs shook violently then stilled.
Chookna realizing his mistake opted to act as if it were all Elly’s fault. “Teach dirty Nigger give cattle. No anger Chookna”.
Shane went insane.
Without even a pocket knife to attack with, Shane resorted to his hands to avenge his friend’s death. Having been using the corral fence to lean on, Shane now turned to it. Grabbing the old weathered top rail, Shane tore off a six foot splintered piece and ran headlong to where Chookna still sat smugly on his horse. Screaming and pointing the splinter as a spear he ran and yelled, “He ain’t no Nigger damn your heathen ass!” Before Chookna could react, the six foot long splinter entered his throat. As Chookna’s eyes widened in surprise, the pointed splinter continued its journey until over a foot protruded past the back of his head. With only a gurgle, Chookna slid off his horse and lay on the ground. The smell of blood frightened the horse causing it to stomp onto Chookna’s head. The sound was like a melon being dropped.
Within seconds of Chookna’s death. Shane and Cody were at Elly’s side. Both knew Elly was gone. But that didn’t prevent Cody from lifting his friends head onto his lap. Rocking Elly back and forth as one would rock a baby, Cody grieved. So profound was Cody’s grieving moans, the three remaining Indians dismounted and with looks of shock and tears streaming, joined Cody in his grief. When he could, Shane took Cody by the hand and led him off to regain what composure he could, Shane then turned to the Indians still kneeling alongside Elly.
An old Indian lifted his tear stained face and spread his hands out towards the other two. “No want kill man. Want eat cattle. Hungry. Young hungry. No can buy. Please. Forgive.”
Shane’s rage cooled as he realized the Indian before him had no intention of causing anyone harm nor had they intended to. It really was just a horrible accident. What he could not forgive was Chookna calling Elly a dirty Nigger. He knew the type of person Chookna was, he’d seen it in whites plenty of times… they were called cowards and bullies.
Having regained some composure, Cody stepped up to Shane and the grieving Indian and asked Shane. “What we gonna do now Shane? Oh God I can’t believe this happened. Oh my God, poor Elly.”
Ignoring the Indian standing next to him for the moment, Shane stepped over and bent down to straighten his friends clothing. Death being what it is does not mean you still can’t be cared for. After fixing Elly’s collar, he removed his own bandanna and placed it over the gaping chest wound. He brushed the dust from Elly’s short kinky hair and using his hand, closed Elly’s eyes.
“Should we bring Elly back to the ranch Shane?”
“No, it’s a two day ride back. Besides, the rest of the hands are headed our way here. No tellin’ who would be left at the ranch when we arrived.”
Cody nodded his head in agreement,” That and it’s well over a hundred out here. Elly’d never make it back proper like. As far as I know, Elly had no kin. We was his only real friends.”
“True Cody, then let’s bury him right here where we had us a good time tellin’ tales last night. I think He’d like that.”
“Yeah, we did us a bunch of laughing for sure. I know he only knew about cattle, so bein’ near the cow pen’ll be good too.”
Before Shane could answer Cody in agreement, the Indian who had spoken earlier approached Shane.
He held out his two hands as if they had been tied together. “Jail. Fort MaDoowl. Kill man, kill Appapka.
“What are you sayin? You want me to take you to Fort McDowell so they could hang you? You didn’t do nothin’.”
The Indian looked flustered, “Appapka talk sad.” Pointing to his two friends the Indian repeated. “Talk sad. No kill man. Cattle for young. I trade Appapka for cattle.
“What? You want to trade yourself for a few lousy cow?”
Shane reached over and turned Cody to face him. “Cody, what I think we got here is a group of Indians starving to death somewhere in the hills tryin’ their best to avoid bein’ sent to the Reservation. Appapka here is willing to trade himself to be hung for Chookna’s killin of Elly. He ask that we give him a cow in return. Not for him mind you but for those kids they got starvin’ up there in the hills somewhere. Right is right and wrong is wrong Cody. I can’t set the value of anyone’s life under that of a cow. We can’t do a dang thing for Elly, but we can pass on some good from all this by helpin’ this here group out. Savages or not, I’m for given ‘em a few head and forgiven ‘Ol dead Chookna here so it don’t weigh upon my soul.”
“We ain’t done nothin’ in our life to be ashamed of, Let’s not start now Shane. I’m with ya’ in this. Let’s tell these folk to haul Chookna on out’a here, give ‘em a few head and let bygones be gone for good. We need to tend to Elly here and it’s gonna be a scorcher come an hour from now.”
Between sign and broken English Cody and Shane conveyed their intentions to the three Indians. As they were heading off with three cows, one of the Indians that had stayed silent through the entire process stopped his horse, dismounted and ran back to where Cody and Shane stood watching them go.
“Allanipi speak small your tongue. I have young one. Him Gunaratna, no cattle,Gunaratna die. Me, Allanipi die.” With that he reached out and grabbed Shane by the arm and squeezed it tightly then reached out and placed his hand over Shane’s heart, then placed the same hand over his own heart and smiled.
“You’re welcome Allanipi. Maybe someday we’ll bump on into each other along the trail. If we do introduce me to your son Gunaratna.”
Allanipi looked a tad confused by Shanes long words but smiled anyway, turned and caught up to the others.
Left alone, Shane and Cody suddenly felt the weight of Elly’s death upon them. Without speaking more than a few words, they went about digging a grave near the corral. The desert being what it is, they could dig no more than a couple feet down before hitting bedrock. They spent the afternoon in the intense heat looking for suitable stones to cover Elly’s grave with.
“Well, I think we gathered enough stone Shane, let’s say goodbye to him and cover him up.”
“Yeah, I just still can’t believe all this happened. If only Elly was standin’ a couple more feet right or left, he’d be alive right now.”
“That’s the way it is bro. Both you ‘an I someday will be laid down ‘an if we’s lucky, someone will be sayin’ the same thing over our graves too.”
They placed Elly into the shallow grave, covered him with his bedroll and patted where his head was before placing dirt then the stones on top of him. When it was all done Shane said. “I wish I had my Bible. I feel we should say some words over him or somethin’.”
“You go ahead Shane, you memorized more of the Lords word than I ever did. I got myself another idea though for sayin’ goodbye to him.”
So Shane spoke the Lords words of passin’ through the valley of death as best as he remembered while Cody nodded in agreement.
As Shane turned to walk away, Cody said, “ Not yet Shane, I got somethin’ here I want to give ‘Ol Elly.”
Cody walked over to where Elly had put his can of buttermilk with the rock on top and picked it up.
“Seems only fittin’ that he have somethin’ he liked a lot to be with him.” At that Cody poured the half full warm can of buttermilk into the pile of stones that covered Elly. “Here ya’ go old friend, drink up an’ may you never get thirsty again. May the Good Lord have plenty more of these up there in Heaven.”
The two stood there for a moment before Shane replied, “That was nice Cody, real nice. Elly’d be happy the way we sent him off that way.” After saying that, Cody secured the empty buttermilk can within the stone pile so animals couldn’t dislodge it.
That evening the rest of the J Bar E ranch hands showed up earlier than expected at the corral. Saddened by the news, each paid their respects over Elly. By mornings light the corral stood empty. A cloud of dust a few miles away told any onlooker that the J Bar E ranch had moved the herd out. Only Elly was left behind to watch over the empty corral.
Before saddling up and heading out. Shane took the time to carve Elly’s name and birthplace in one of the corral’s planks near Elly’s grave for his grave marker. Meanwhile, Cody had thought to add his and Shane’s name on another plank to let folks know that they were El Negro’s forever pards.
Today, that old corral could still hold a herd…with a few minor repairs. Nearby, partially hidden under a small desert tree and scrub lies Elly’s remains along with an old buttermilk can still stuck within the stones. Through internet research, it was determined the construction of that style of can by it’s solder joints and bottom lid dated between the years 1879 and 1887. Over the years others have found and carved their names into the corral. Those, like the grave of El Negro, Cody and Shane are still perfectly legible as their knives would etch off the old creosote exposing the still fresh looking yellow Poderosa Pine underneath.
The latest date was carved into the old fence rail was from S. C. in 1938…Shane Clemans?
* The recipe for real Cowboy Beans is now posted on my heritage and trail cooking blog at : http://cookingonthetrail.wordpress.com/