By Ife Olusegun
Posted on August 26, 2021
This article contains mentions of enslavement and violence.
Black History: An introduction
The phrase “Black History” is a gateway that can lead to various concepts that may come to mind. Some might think of the miserable but pain-stakingly truthful reality of Black enslavement in the U.S and Canada. Others might acknowledge the contributions and achievements of Black American and Canadian trailblazers highlighted during Black History Month. Some use the context of Black history as a time to reflect on the injustice and the unfairness that has been allocated to African American people in the past, and how it is still prominent today — especially in terms of human rights and civil rights in various spaces.
Black History, and specifically Black Canadian History is so vast and comprehensive, one cannot truly know the depths of such a topic by scrolling through brief infographics, or even just by attending a couple lectures in university. It is fundamental to learn about Black figures and their contributions outside of the pain associated with enslavement and the civil rights movement, although that perspective is important as well. Black History should not be exclusively brought to light during Black History Month, but should be a topic of constant learning. With that, this article will highlight one of Canada’s most influential Black Cowboys: John Ware.
Herding cattle, tending to horses, taking care of the land, and working cattle drives were some of the major duties that cowboys in the 1800s had to take on. Their hard labour was necessary for not only them to survive, but the populations of nearby cities and towns as well. As their name would suggest, cowboys were the hands behind the main providers of cow produce — hides, horns, hooves, milk, and when the demand increased after the American Civil War, beef.
Despite their significance to agriculture, prior to the romanticism of cowboys as the film industry rose in the mid-1900’s, cowboys were ranked quite low on the social status scale, and were usually known for their bad reputation. They consisted mostly of young men who were simply seeking a means to get cash, and consequently, were not afraid of participating in lawless acts—one of which was homosexuality, which was considered ‘lawless’ at the time. Part of the reason that cowboys were considered as ‘lowlives’ was because of the number of Black and Native American men that were part of the profession. It was not uncommon at all to see a Black man, or boy, working as a cowboy—a census recalled that about 25 percent of cowboys in the U.S. were Black men.
To become known as one of the most influential Black cowboys is quite an impressive feat and one that should not be overlooked—especially after noting the reputation of regular cowboys. John Ware established his name in cowboy history.
John Ware’s early life
John Ware was born between the years of 1845 and 1850—the exact year is unknown due to a lack of documentation in South Carolina, U.S. It is known, however, that Ware was born into enslavement and spent his early years as an enslaved boy. Only a few tauntful memories are recorded about his early years—one being how he unfortunately had to witness his older sister being brutally beaten by their “master” while he was still young.
After the American Civil War, the war which abolished nationwide enslavement in the U.S. by 1865, John Ware was finally recognized as the free man that he was. Ware took it upon himself to go to Texas, U.S. where he gained the knowledge and the skills required to become a cowboy. His main job was to herd and drive cattle from Texas to Montana, U.S. In 1882, Ware was hired by the shipping magnate Sir Hugh Allan to bring 3000 cattle from the United States to Alberta, Canada. This job cemented his legacy as he was one of the first cowboys to bring cattle into the province of Alberta. Ware helped lay the foundation of the ranching industry in Western Canada while simultaneously defying the stereotypes associated with American cowboys. He became one of the most well-respected figures in the land of Alberta and is a huge part of Alberta’s history, and Canada’s history as well.
John Ware’s death
Ware tripped into a hole while riding a wild horse and died from the intense impact in 1905. Even after his death however, the life of Ware was celebrated—his funeral was reportedly one of the largest in Calgary at the time. Ware held himself with incredible poise and was absolutely adored by the folk around him. Many have remembered him for his kindness, authenticity and cowboy skills.
John Ware’s legacy
Ware’s legacy preceded the Canadian history books, and has gone on to complement the blueprint of Alberta. Steer wrestling was a sport that Ware helped popularize, and this sport is now included as a highlight of the Calgary Stampede, which has been held annually since 1912. There are various geographical features that were named in honor of Ware, including, but not limited to, John Ware Ridge, Mount Ware, Ware Creek, and even John Ware Junior High School, each located in the area surrounding Calgary, Alberta. There is now a film, available on Netflix, that outlines the influence of Black Cowboys in North America called Concrete Cowboys. It stars Idris Elba.
John Ware is just one prime example of Black Canadian history and Black excellence. His influence, legacy, hard work, dedication and kindness is indeed a notable mention for the books, especially the history books. We are fortunate to have such a heart-warming story as a part of Black and Canadian history.