Cowboys have deep roots in Arizona history

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From dime store novels to sweeping Hollywood westerns, the iconic image of the American cowboy remains a big part of American culture.

But as we commemorate Black History Month, it may surprise you not all range riders looked exactly the same.

"We have a rich history with the Buffalo soldiers and the cowboys too were out with the earlier times. I think some of them ran away from slavery and started heading West," said Marshall Trimble, a state historian.

Trimble, an old cowboy himself, said the Buffalo soldiers are legendary in Arizona. But far less known are the stories of black cowboys and their impact on the earlier years of the territory, on what would become the Grand Canyon State.

Trimble said ranch owners and trail bosses didn't discriminate.

"You didn't care what color he was, he could be Mexican, he could be Irish, gosh he could be anything, black, he could be anything as long as he was a guy, as the old saying goes, that you could ride the river with."

Boz Ickert was a top hand to legendary rancher Charlie Goodnight, the man whom the Lonesome Doves series was based. Dependability and a great shot was all that mattered to the boss on those long cattle drives from Texas and back - and a little reverse psychology.

"Boz Ickert would wear the money belt under his shirt and he would travel all the way back to Texas with Mr. Goodnight because Charlie knew if they were stopped by highwaymen or gunmen, they would never think the white man would trust the black man with the money."

But the most famous of all was Nat Love.

"Nat Love came out to Arizona in the 1870s, he was the son of slaves... born into slavery," said Trimble. "Nat Love was real, he was 'the real McCoy' and he was a real cowboy."

But often times, even real cowboys could spin yarn. Deadwood Dick was a popular, colorful character, cooked up to spice up dime store novels that were selling like hotcakes back East. In 1907, Nat Love wrote his own biography and saw an opportunity to ride off into the sunset in style.

"He rode with Custer, he stopped outlaws with Calamity Jane and he helped wild Bill Hickock in gunfights. He did all of these things that made people believe e was a real guy. The American public believed he was real," said Trimble. "What Nat Love did with his stories is no different than what dozens of gunfighters and other characters did when reporters came out to write their stories 50 years later... but Deadwood Dick never existed. He was all fiction."

Legend has it that the town of Deadwood for their 50th anniversary enlisted a stable worker who became Deadwood Dick. He toured the country wearing buckskin and even shook the hand of the president. Now that's some creative PR but Arizona's own Nat Love had tremendous accomplishments for a former slave.

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