Wednesday, July 6, 2011
The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907)
Arriving in Dodge City when the era of great cattle drives was at high tide, he got a job cowboying after proving he could stay on an unbroken horse. A quick learner, he soon mastered roping and sharpshooting. By his account, he was destined to become one of the most widely known cowboys in the West.
His life story includes almost an honor roll of frontier figures. He knew Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, Pat Garret, Bat Masterson, Frank James, Kit Carson, and Yellowstone Kelly. He claims to have visited Little Bighorn only days after the battle.
If being “colored” (his preferred term) was ever a drawback for him on the frontier, he never mentions it. His story makes an interesting comparison with Henry Flipper, who at the same time was navigating the stormy waters of racial bias as an officer in the U.S. Cavalry. It’s possible that Nat and the other black cowboys he mentions remained low enough in the social order to escape resentment. Given his relentlessly positive attitude, it’s possible that he simply chooses to leave the subject alone.
Instead he focuses on the action, which he presents as welcome breaks in the dull monotony of herding cattle days on end. There are many instances of Indian fighting, with fatalities on both sides. His Indians are rarely more than bloodthirsty savages. He blames them, in fact, for the demise of the buffalo herds.
There are also hot pursuits of “greasers,” half-breeds, and white thieves who run off and scatter the cattle on the open range. Fierce, all-out war finally reduces their numbers. In all his skirmishes Nat sustains 14 gunshot wounds, none of which slows him down for long.
Still and all, it’s a colorful account of the cattle-droving years, and his descriptions of the open-range cowboy’s job can be remarkably precise. The roundup of a herd of mustangs is fascinating for its strategy and logistics. For the 20 cowboys on that endeavor, he recalls their provisions consisted of dried beef, crackers, potatoes, coffee – and no sugar. The mess wagon, unfortunately, was attacked and taken by Indians, the cook and driver killed.
The Life and Adventures of Nat Love is available free online here. It can also be found at amazon, AbeBooks, Powell’s, alibris, and for the Nook.
Image credits: Drawings and photos from the first edition
Cover, University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South
Coming up: George W. Ogden, The Long Fight (1915)