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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
- Cherokee Memorials
- Louise Amelia Smith Clappe
- James Fenimore Cooper
- Corridos
- Caroline Stansbury Kirkland
- Nat Love
- John Rollin Ridge
- Catharine Maria Sedgwick
- Walt Whitman
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Nat Love (1854-1921)

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

Nat Love Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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."

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