by Christine Bell
African American Cowboys, ca. 1890
Picture a cowboy, riding the range, roping and herding cattle. Did you picture an African, or an enslaved person? The story of the cowboy begins in the earliest colonies of the South, but they were called cow hunters, and many were enslaved. In the last will and testament of Thomas Drayton, dated August 24, 1724, the first four enslaved men listed were the cattle hunters. Who were these cattle hunters, and what did they do? The story of the cattle hunters, and the cowpen keepers, or cowpen managers who supervised them is nearly as old as the Colonies themselves.
The colony of Carolina was founded in 1670 by titled Englishmen (Proprietors) who hoped to produce plantation crops for export to England. During the first thirty years, as the colonists experimented to find export crops suitable to the soils and conditions of the new land, they were sustained by the production of food crops and the raising of livestock. The Proprietors supplied the new Carolinians with cattle and hogs from Virginia, New York and Bermuda, and horses from New England. The raising of livestock soon became successful, as the mild winters allowed the animals to find native forage throughout the year, and the cattle populations began to rapidly increase. In the early years of settlement, livestock were permitted to forage for food in the woods during the day, and were then enticed back to the plantations or farms at night with handouts (Otto 1987).
From the pen to which the cattle were brought into at night, the term cowpen evolved to mean ranch, or the site of the early open-range operations. South Carolina cowpens were cleared areas commonly 100 to 400 acres in extent, with a large enclosure for cattle, pens for horses and hogs, a garden tract for food crops, and dwellings and other buildings for the manager, his family, and the hands, often enslaved. The owner usually had title to the cowpen land but not the acreage over which the cattle ranged (Dunbar 1961).
Advertisement for Sale of Drayton’s Cowpen, 1795
With Kind Permission of GenealogyBank.com
The cowpen keepers or cowpen managers were usually white, but the cattle hunters were most often black. Many of the slaves brought to the colonies came from areas in Western Africa such as Ghana and Gambia where cattle were herded. Scientists using DNA analysis have determined that cattle were domesticated and being tended by humans as long as 6000 to 8000 years ago in Africa (Bradley et al 1996). Plantation owners with large herds of cattle often found that enslaved people from these areas already possessed great skills in herding animals. These enslaved men worked cattle in the tall grass ‘savannas,’ pine barrens and marshes of the Carolinas, often on horseback.
Sometimes both the enslaved person and horse disappeared, escaping from the outlying areas of the cowpens. However, many stayed and did the typical work of later cowboys: rounding up cattle for branding, marking and slaughter, and protecting the herds from predators and dangerous conditions. They also used dogs, bullwhips and salt to control the cattle. The cow hunters also used fire to clear scrub lands and create new grass savannas for the herds.
A small crew of cow hunters could manage a large and wide ranging herd of cattle. In 1692, records show that Barnard Schenkingh had amassed 292 cattle, and listed five horses and three enslaved men to manage them. James Joyner also listed three cattle hunters to manage his herd of 200. 134 of Schenkingh’s cattle were located on James Island, where they were tended by a single enslaved herdsman (Otto 1987). Thus, raising livestock enabled early Carolina colonists to create income and personal wealth with uncultivated land and minimal slave labor investment.
The most numerous and important cowpens were located in the inner coastal plain. The most prominent grazing areas were the savannas and cane swamps west of Orangeburg in the Forks of Edisto, around the headwaters of the Salkehatchie (Saltcatchers) River, and between the Salkehatchie and Savannah rivers. This was the classic cowpen area (Dunbar 1961). Salt beef and pork produced in this region were exported mainly to the British West Indies. As early as 1680, Carolina shipped four tons of salt meat to the island of Barbados. By 1700, Carolina had become a major supplier of salt meat to Barbados, Jamaica, and other British West Indian colonies (Otto 1987).
Detail from Estate Inventory of Thomas Drayton, 1724
The importance of the cattle hunters to these operations is shown in the example of the early Georgia experiments with livestock. In 1733, some of the first settlers of the new colony were given pigs and cattle by their South Carolina neighbors to help them through the difficult first season. The animals soon ran off into the woods, as the new colonists had neither the resources nor skills to manage them. Both Carolina “black” cattle and descendants of the Spanish herds had moved into the area of the new Georgia colony, finding plenty of grasses and forage to support them.
But without trained cattle hunters, horses and a system of cowpens, the Georgians were unable to round up these cattle even once a year (Stewart 1991). It wasn’t until the 1750s, when land and slavery laws changed, that the Georgians adapted the practices of the South Carolina cowpens and cow hunters to the environs of Georgia, and began to have success.
The cattle hunters of the Carolinas combined the expertise in cattle herding and management bequeathed to them by thousands of years of West African herding ancestors with the ability to adapt these skills to a harsh new environment and enslaved living conditions. Their contribution has been largely overlooked, but new research may help to bring their story into sharper focus. Picture that the next time you think of a cowboy!
Bradley, Daniel G., David E. MacHugh, Patrick Cunningham and Ronan T. Loftus. 1996 “Mitochondrial Diversity and the Origins of African and European Cattle.” Anthropology: 93: 5131-5135.
Dunbar, Gary S. 1961 “Colonial Carolina Cowpens.” Agricultural History, Vol. 35, No 3: 125-131.
Holloway, Joseph E., Ph.D. 2008 The Impact of African Languages on American English. www.slaveryinamerica.org/history/hs_es_languages.htm
Otto, John Solomon. 1987 “Livestock-Raising in Early South Carolina, 1670-1700: Prelude to the Rice Plantation Economy.” Agricultural History, Vol. 61, No 4: 13-24.
Stewart, Mart A. 1991 “‘Whether Wast, Deodand, or Stray’: Cattle, Culture, and the Environment in Early Georgia. ” Agricultural History, Vol. 65, No 3: 1-28.