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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes Nat Love (1854-1921)

[5307] Anonymous, Deadwood Dick (Nat Love) in My Fighting Clothes (c. 1870-90), courtesy of Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

Born into slavery in Tennessee, Nat Love eventually found fame as “Deadwood Dick,” the cowboy celebrated in western lore, dime novels, and his own autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907). Because of Love’s tendency toward hyperbole, his account of his life is sometimes understood as part of the western “tall tale” tradition. But his story also reflects the important reality of African American participation in the culture of the American West and functions as a crucial corrective to the stereotype of the “Old West” as the exclusive dominion of white men. In fact, at least five thousand African American men worked as cowboys, while countless others traveled through and settled in western lands in the nineteenth century.

Freed from slavery as a boy at the close of the Civil War, Love soon moved west to seek adventure and employment. He quickly found work as a ranch hand, cattle rustler, and “brand reader” (the skilled hand who sorts cattle in mixed herds) in Texas, Arizona, and throughout the West. As Love’s narrative demonstrates, the life of a nineteenth-century cowboy was a difficult one, demanding specialized knowledge and skills. Responsible for driving herds of cattle from the western ranches to the northern stockyards over hundreds of miles of arduous terrain, cowboys spent months at a time on the trail. Love was deservedly proud of his survival skills on the trail and his mastery of cattle-driving techniques. His talents at roping livestock and his skill on a horse earned him the moniker “Deadwood Dick”–a nickname he retained all his life–when he won a rodeo competition in Deadwood, South Dakota. Love’s narrative indicates that he found a deep satisfaction in western life, celebrating the freedom of the open range and the “brotherhood of men” which bound cowboys to one another. Aside from his opening chapters, which critique the institution of slavery, Love does not often address issues of race except to express contempt for Native Americans and Mexicans. It seems clear that his solidarity with other cowboys and his pride in his individual accomplishments are more central to his narrative than a critical analysis of interracial relationships and tensions on the frontier. For Love, the frontier seemed to function as a place where he could be valued for his skills rather than his skin color.

By 1890, the Old West of open land and extensive cattle ranching that Love celebrates in his autobiography had changed dramatically. Railroads had made long cattle drives unnecessary, and the increasing settlement and fencing off of land had blocked the old cowboy trails. With his occupation outmoded by technology, Love responded by finding new employment and new challenges as a “Pullman Porter” on the Pullman rail line, a service job occupied almost exclusively by black men. Although the color line barred him from becoming a more highly paid manager or mechanic on the railroad, Love does not record dissatisfaction or resentment over his relegation to a service position. Rather, as his descriptions of his exciting adventures on the range give way to tame accounts of customer service and rail line procedure, Love insists on the gratification he finds in his role as a porter. For him, riding the railroad provided an opportunity to travel extensively, come in contact with a variety of people, and “justly appreciate the grandeur of our country.”

Teaching Tips

  • During both his career as a cowboy and his stint as a railroad worker, Love records his feelings of awe for the natural beauty and vast expanses of the United States. Ask students to think about his relationship to the western landscape and to America as a nation. At the close of Chapter XX, after detailing the beauties of the land, Love exhorts his reader to “let your chest swell with pride that you are an American.” He goes on to proclaim, “I have seen a large part of America, and am still seeing it… America, I love thee, Sweet land of Liberty, home of the brave and the free.” How does the landscape contribute to Love’s sense of pride in his country? How does Love’s status as a former slave complicate his celebration of the “liberty” and “freedom” of the United States? You might ask students to look at images of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon as they think about this issue.
  • When Love is taken captive by the Native Americans he calls “Yellow Dog’s Tribe,” he attributes their generosity in sparing his life both to his own bravery and to the fact that he is black, since, as he puts it, the tribe “was composed largely of half breeds, and there was a large percentage of colored blood in the tribe.” Despite this acknowledgment of shared racial heritage, Love conspicuously distances himself from the Native Americans who adopt him. Ask students to consider the racial politics of this scene. How does Love respond to his captivity? How does he portray his Native American/African American captors? What seems to be his role within the tribe’s social hierarchy and how might it be influenced by race? How and why does he escape?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What kinds of labor does Love perform over the course of his life? How does he make his career choices? What motivates his transition from one job to another?
  2. Context: Readers might expect Love to be somewhat bitter about the development of the railroad since it led to the demise of his cowboy lifestyle, yet he embraces his career as a Pullman Porter. What does Love find appealing about the railroad? Does his attitude reflect a typically American attitude toward technological change? What insights do his discussions of rail line procedure give us into the corporate structure and philosophy of the Pullman Company in the nineteenth century? What is Love’s attitude toward the management of the railroad? How does his portrait of the railroad compare to Ruiz de Burton’s?
  3. Context: Examine the photographs of Nat Love featured in the archive, particularly the image of him in his cowboy gear and the image of him wearing his Pullman Porter uniform. In what kinds of conventions of portraiture do these photographs engage? How do Love’s different “costumes” impact viewers’ understanding of his identity in these pictures? Where are there points of overlap between these photographs of two very different stages in Love’s life?
  4. Context: In 1880, George M. Pullman, the president and founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company, began to transform the prairies south of Chicago into a model town for his railroad-car production workers. By creating the town Pullman hoped to improve the morale and health of his workers, while simultaneously increasing productivity and decreasing strikes and labor unrest. This model extended to the other workers for the Pullman Company, such as porters like Love. Compare Love’s view of working for the Pullman Company to Pullman’s philosophy.
  5. Exploration: Why do you think pop cultural representations of the “Old West” usually portray both cowboys and pioneers as Anglo-Americans? How does Nat Love’s autobiography challenge traditional images of cowboy life? Does Love’s narrative also participate in certain stereotypes?
  6. Exploration: Compare Nat Love’s depiction of African American-Native American relations to those in Briton Hammon’s “Narrative” (Unit 7). How does each author respond to his captors? To what extent can each of the captivities be read on a spiritual or symbolic level? To what extent does race affect the nature of their captivities?

Selected Archive Items

[1012] Anonymous, Devil’s Gate on the Sweetwater (1880),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library.
This classic view of Devil’s Gate and the Sweetwater River in Natrona County, Wyoming, lay along the route of the Oregon Trail. This is the type of landscape that was ranched and tamed by men like Nat Love.

[1052] S. J. Morrow, Deadwood in 1876: General View of the Dakota Hillside Above (1876),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Still Pictures Branch.
Rapidly growing settlements sprang up as merchants supplied goods and services to miners. Saloons and gambling halls added to the largely lawless conditions found in boomtowns such as Deadwood, South Dakota.

[5296Better Known in the Cattle Country as Deadwood Dick, by Himself (1907),
courtesy of Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Nat Love, who was also known as Deadwood Dick, wrote a 1907 autobiography that recounted his post-slavery experiences as both a cowboy and a railroad worker in the Old West.

[5306Anonymous, Nat Love (Deadwood Dick) in Pullman Porter Uniform (c. 1890s),
courtesy of Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This photograph of Love was taken shortly after he began his career as a railroad porter in 1890. The image of the wild, long-haired, gun-toting cowboy was replaced with that of the clean-cut, uniform-wearing company man.

[5307] Anonymous, Deadwood Dick (Nat Love), In My Fighting Clothes (c.1870-90),
courtesy of Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
This photo of Nat Love is from The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as Deadwood Dick by Himself. Love was one of thousands of ex-slaves who sought a new life in the West following the Civil War.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6