Nat Love’s “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love”

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:: RETROSCOPE ::

Retroscope is a monthly series that mines the past for literary travel writing gems.

Wild cowboys, handsome women, interested spectators, narrow gauge railroads, roped smoke stacks, Pullman cars & Old Mexico.


(Intro)

By his own account, Nat Love lived a charmed life, although born into slavery on a Tennessee plantation in 1854. His father was slave foreman and his mother ran the kitchen for a comparatively “kind and indulgent Master.” Not long after emancipation, his father died, and Love left home at sixteen. With a talent for breaking horses, he headed west, quickly gaining expertise as a cowboy and marksman.

His timing could not have been better, coinciding with the brief heyday (1866 to 1886) of the cowboy in the cattle drives of the Old West. His skill at bronco busting and herding longhorns earned him successive sobriquets, first as Red River Dick and then more famously as Deadwood Dick for his championship performance in wild-mustang roping and saddling and in rifle and pistol shooting at a rodeo in that legendary South Dakota town.

Nat Love, “In My Fighting Clothes.”

Up to a quarter of the roughly thirty-five thousand cowboys who worked the ranches and cattle trails at their peak are believed to have been Black, as freed slaves headed west for opportunity, notwithstanding their relative invisibility in popular (read: white) culture’s representation of the era. Racial discrimination certainly followed them, but the work provided “the least restrictive environment available to them,” according to historian Tricia Martineau Wagner.

Love omitted any mention of discrimination in his 1907 autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick.” His adventures included every facet of frontier life, from stampedes to buffalo hunts, capture and adoption by (and escape from) Native Americans to cavalry trouble, encountering Bat Masterson, Buffalo Bill, the James brothers, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Tough as well as lucky, he survived fourteen bullet wounds over the years.

By 1890, railroads and agriculture were transforming the landscape and the economy. A way of life was ending. At age thirty-five, Love once more reinvented himself, retiring to Denver, where he quickly determined the railroad industry as his next opportunity, joining the ranks of Pullman porters. George Pullman decided that former slaves would make the perfect servants for white passengers. Although demanding, demeaning, and poorly paid (tips eked out a living), the job was the best that many Black men could aspire to at the time. By the turn of the century, the Pullman Company was the country’s largest employer of Black men, helping to drive the Great Migration out of the South.


But now that I had met my fate, I suppose I became as silly about it as any tenderfoot from the east could possibly be, as evidence of how badly I was hit.


True to form, Love displays nothing but immense pride in his accomplishments and in the railroad itself. The man who rubbed shoulders with the James Gang was not a bit fazed at having to enforce the sleeping-car smoking ban, not even when the smoker was world heavyweight champion Jim Corbett. Love ended his career as a courier and guard for a securities company in Los Angeles, where he died in 1921.

His autobiography is not travel writing as such, but he covered a lot of ground, and the backdrop for his adventures is well detailed. Both personality and prose are winsome, to a degree that bespeaks what must have been irresistible personal charm—charm that compensates for a curiously missing modesty. Exploits that would otherwise sink in vainglory are buoyed by unfailing good humor and self-deprecatory cheer. (Some of his assertions are certainly outdated, such as blaming the near-extinction of buffalo principally on Native American hunters.)

The autobiography’s full text is readily available online at Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive.

Compass Rose

(Excerpt)

Chapter XVII

Another trip to Old Mexico. I rope an engine. I fall in love. My courtship. Death of my sweetheart. My promised wife. I must bear a charmed life. The advent of progress. The last of the range.

On one of these memorable trips after cattle, and with cattle on the trail, one that I will most likely remember, the longest was a trip to Old Mexico after a herd of horses. It was on this trip that I fell in love, the first time in my life. During my wild career on the western plains I had met many handsome women, and they often made much of me, but somehow I had never experienced the feeling called love, until I met my charming sweetheart in Old Mexico. I had perhaps been too much absorbed in the wild life of the plains, in the horses, and cattle which made up my world, to have the time or inclination to seek or enjoy the company of the gentler sex. But now that I had met my fate, I suppose I became as silly about it as any tenderfoot from the east could possibly be, as evidence of how badly I was hit.

While on the trail with the herd our route lay along a narrow gauge railroad, and I was feeling up in the air caused no doubt partly from the effects of love and partly from the effects of Mexican whiskey, a generous measure I had under my belt, however I was feeling fine, so when the little engine came puffing along in the distance I said to the boys I have roped nearly everything that could be roped, so now I am going to rope the engine. They tried to persuade me not to make the attempt, but I was in no mood to listen to reason or anything else, so when the engine came along I put my spurs to my horse and when near enough I let fly my lariat. The rope settled gracefully around the smoke stack, and as usual my trained horse set himself back for the shock, but the engine set both myself and my horse in the ditch, and might have continued to set us in places had not something given way, as it was the rope parted, but the boys said afterwards that they thought they would have to send for a wrecking train to clean the track or rather the ditch.

“I Rope a Narrow Gauge Engine.”

Roping a live engine is by long odds worse than roping wild buffalo on the plains or Uncle Sam’s cannon at the forts. This incident cleared the atmosphere somewhat, but my love was as strong as ever and I thanked my lucky stars she did not see me as they dragged me out of the ditch.

I first saw my sweetheart as we were driving the herd along the dusty road, passing a small adobe house near the city of Old Mexico. I saw a handsome young Spanish girl standing in the yard and I suppose I fell in love with her at first sight, anyway I pretended to be very thirsty and rode up and asked her for a drink. She gave it to me and I exchanged a few words with her before joining the boys and the herds.

After that I saw her quite often during my stay in Old Mexico before we again returned home. One day shortly before I was to leave for the North I went to see her and overheard a conversation between her and her mother, in which her mother said to her: “My daughter will you leave your mother for to go with the wild cowboy?” And she answered no mother I will not leave you to go with any wild cowboy. On hearing this I bid her goodbye and a long farewell, as I told her I did not expect to ever see her again. Then leaping to the back of my faithful horse I rode like mad across the Mexican plains, until I had somewhat cooled down, but it was a hard blow to me, as I truly loved her. After that I joined the boys and returned up the trail with them.

Six or seven months later we were again in Old Mexico with a herd of cattle and went in camp some distance out from the city, and as soon as she heard our outfit had returned she rode out to the camp and after looking around and not seeing me, she said to the camp boss, “Where is the wild cowboy that was here with you last time? Did he not come up the trail with you?” The boss told her I had come up the trail but that I had not been seen since crossing the last mountains as of course he knew whom she meant as my little love affair was pretty generally known among the boys. When the boss told her that I had not been seen since they had crossed the last mountains, she hung her head and looked completely heart broken. I was lying in the mess wagon at the time an interested spectator of all that took place, and seeing her looking so downhearted I could hardly restrain myself from jumping out of the wagon and taking her in my arms. After a time she slowly raised her head and looked long and wistfully up the trail. Then turning to the camp boss again she said, “Camp boss tell me truly if Nat Love works with you and did he come on this trip with you.” The boss answered her as before that I had not been seen since crossing the last mountains, which was true as I had been riding in the mess wagon. On hearing the boss’ answer she took it as final and started to ride away.


Roping a live engine is by long odds worse than roping wild buffalo on the plains or Uncle Sam’s cannon at the forts. This incident cleared the atmosphere somewhat, but my love was as strong as ever and I thanked my lucky stars she did not see me as they dragged me out of the ditch.


I thought it high time to make my presence known, as with the sight of her, all my old love returned, and I forgot every thing except that I loved her. So I jumped out of the wagon exclaiming here I am, and in a minute we were locked in each other’s arms and I believe I kissed her before all the boys, but I didn’t care, she was mine now. We became engaged and were to be married in the fall and were to make our home in the city of Mexico, but in the spring she took sick and died.

Her death broke me all up and after I buried her I became very wild and reckless, not caring what happened to me and when you saw me in the saddle you saw me at home, and while I saw many women since I could never care for any as I did for her. And I vainly tried to forget her and my sorrow in the wild life of the plains and every danger I could find courting death in fights with Indians and Mexicans and dare devil riding on the range, but it seemed to me that I bore a charmed life. Horses were shot from under me, men were killed around me, but always I escaped with a trifling wound at the worst. As time passed I began to recover from my disappointment and to take my old interest in the work of the ranch, and as my reputation had spread over the country I did not lack work, but was kept on the go all the time, first with one large cattle owner, then with another. Most of my working being in the round ups and brandings, brand reading, and with large herds on the trail, as during my long experience in the cattle country I had traveled every known trail, and over immense stretches of country where there was no sign of a trail, nothing but the wide expanse of prairie; bare except for the buffalo grass, with here and there a lone tree or a giant cactus standing as a lone sentinel in the wildest of long stretches of grazing land rolling away in billows of hill and gully, like the waves of the ocean.

Likewise I could read, identify and place every brand or mark placed on a horse or steer between the Gulf of Mexico and the borders of Canada on the North and from Missouri to California. Over this stretch of country I have often traveled with herds of horses or cattle or in searching for strays or hunting the noble buffalo on his own native feeding grounds. The great buffalo slaughter commenced in the west in 1874, and in 1877 they had become so scarce that it was a rare occasion when you came across a herd containing more than fifty animals where before you could find thousands in a herd. Many things were responsible for the slaughter, but the principal reason that they had now become so scarce was that in 1875 and 1876 the Indians started to kill them in large numbers for their skins. Thousands were killed by them, skinned and the carcasses left as food for the wolves and vultures of the prairie. Many were killed by the white hunters to furnish meat for the railroad graders and the troops at the frontier forts.

While the big cattle ranches were always kept well supplied with buffalo meat, on the stock of my rifle is one hundred and twenty-six notches, each one representing a fine buffalo that has fallen to my own hand, while some I have killed with the knife and 45 colts, I forgot to cut a notch for. Buffalo hunting, a sport for kings, thy time has passed. Where once they roamed by the thousands now rises the chimney and the spire, while across their once peaceful path now thunders the iron horse, awakening the echoes far and near with bell and whistle, where once could only be heard the sharp crack of the rifle or the long doleful yelp of the coyote. At the present time the only buffalo to be found are in the private parks of a few men who are preserving them for pleasure or profit.


And I vainly tried to forget her and my sorrow in the wild life of the plains and every danger I could find courting death in fights with Indians and Mexicans and dare devil riding on the range, but it seemed to me that I bore a charmed life. Horses were shot from under me, men were killed around me, but always I escaped with a trifling wound at the worst.


With the march of progress came the railroad and no longer were we called upon to follow the long horned steers or mustangs on the trail, while the immense cattle ranges, stretching away in the distance as far as the eye could see, now began to be dotted with cities and towns and the cattle industry which once held a monopoly in the west, now had to give way to the industry of the farm and the mill. To us wild cowboys of the range, used to the wild and unrestricted life of the boundless plains, the new order of things did not appeal, and many of us became disgusted and quit the wild life for the pursuits of our more civilized brother. I was among that number and in 1890 I bid farewell to the life which I had followed for over twenty years.

It was with genuine regret that I left the long horn Texas cattle and the wild mustangs of the range, but the life had in a great measure lost its attractions and so I decided to quit it and try something else for a while. During my life so far I had no chance to secure an education, except the education of the plains and the cattle business. In this I recognize no superior being. Gifted with a splendid memory and quick observation I learned and remembered things that others passed by and forgot, and I have yet to meet the man who can give me instruction in the phases of a life in which I spent so long.

Nat Love, “The Close of My Railroad Career.”

After quitting the cowboy life I struck out for Denver. Here I met and married the present Mrs. Love, my second love. We were married August 22, 1889, and she is with me now a true and faithful partner, and says she is not one bit jealous of my first love, who lies buried in the city of Old Mexico.

One year later, in 1890, I accepted a position in the Pullman service on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, running between Denver and Salida, Colorado. The Pullman service was then in its infancy, so to speak, as there was as much difference between the Pullman sleeping cars of those days and the present as there is between the ox team and the automobile.


Alan Bernheimer’s latest collection of poetry is From Nature. Born and raised in Manhattan, he has lived in the Bay Area since the 1970s. He produces a portrait gallery of poets reading on flickr. His translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, was published by City Lights in 2016.

Lead image: Kym MacKinnon

Text, photos, drawing: The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick” (Wayside Press, Los Angeles, 1907)

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