Cowboy culture refers to a style of ranching introduced in North America by Spanish colonists in the 16th century—a time when most ranch owners were Spanish and many ranch hands were Native. None of the first cowboys were (non-Hispanic) white. And while historians don’t know exact figures, by the late 19th century roughly one in three cowboys (known as vaqueros) was Mexican. The recognizable cowboy fashions, technologies, and lexicon—hats, bandanas, spurs, stirrups, lariat, lasso—are all Latino inventions.
White Americans wouldn’t be exposed to, and subsequently incorporate, cowboy culture into their ranching practices until 200 years after its inception, once westward expansion brought Anglo-colonists and African slaves into the area in the early 1800s. At that time, cowboys did the kind of hard labor that wealthy white Americans would often force others to do, meaning many were black slaves. Around this same time, the frontier was also populated by roughly 20,000 Chinese immigrants who contributed significantly to the development of the West, including the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad. In other words, people of color were not only present at the inception of the Wild West—but they were also its primary architects. And yet, even today, black cowboys are fighting for recognition.
Most historians and cowfolk of color agree that Hollywood is responsible for popularizing the falsehood of the all-white Wild West. Filmmakers built a genre that hinged on racial conflict and then, in defiance of that fact, filled the silver screen with only white protagonists. While whitewashing remains a modern problem, it has a long history in American film: In the very first Hollywood movie, 1910’s In Old California, white actors played non-white roles.
This practice was especially commonplace in Westerns, which relied on racist stereotypes of Native people as bloodthirsty savages and drew inspiration for stories about white heroes from the experiences of freed slaves in the West. The story of one of America’s most eminent frontiersmen, Jim Beckwourth, formed the basis for 1951’s Tomahawk, which starred a white actor even though Beckwourth was black. The famous 1956 Western epic The Searchers was based on a black man named Britt Johnson. He was played by John Wayne, one of the genre’s biggest movie stars, who in 1971 told Playboy, “I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to the point of responsibility.” Even the fictional character of the Lone Ranger (who originally debuted in a radio show in 1933) shares striking similarities to Bass Reeves, believed to be the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi.
By the time Westerns gained wider prominence with movie audiences in the 1950s, the ubiquity of the genre’s all-white protagonists had helped fully obscure the reality of race on the American frontier. Crucial to this effort were directors like Cecil B. DeMille (The Squaw Man, Rose of the Rancho, The Trail of Lonesome Pine, The Buccaneers) and John Ford (My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Searchers). Non-white characters were usually antagonists with names like “Mexican Henchman” or “Facetious Redskin.” When filmmakers weren’t misrepresenting other races (whether intentionally or not), they were often ignoring them entirely: Ford’s 1924 opus The Iron Horse manages to tell the story of the country’s first transcontinental railroad without Chinese actors, save a few who were background extras.