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Monday, March 2, 2020



I had already posted my February blog when, too late, I remembered February was “black history month.” However, it’s never too late to share the history of an amazing, legendary cowboy known for his strength, kindness, good-nature and excellent horsemanship.  John Ware was “widely admired as one of the best cowboys in the West even at a time of widespread anti-Black racism and discrimination”.

Many years ago, I visited his cabin nestled near the badlands of southern Alberta, about an hour’s drive from our farm. At the time, his cabin was turned into a museum, but sadly I don’t recall much else except the chinked log walls, the steep coulee slopes and it being a blistering hot July day. We had a picnic in the shade of some poplar trees. I’d like to take a road trip back this summer and bring along my camera. All the photos here are courtesy of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

Courtesy Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta
John Ware, the second youngest of 11 children, was born into slavery circa 1845-50 on a cotton plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina. After the Civil War ended, he made his way west, eventually reaching Fort Worth, Texas. He found employment on a ranch where he honed his skills as a cowboy and bronc buster. History has few details about his youth because John could neither write nor read. As a result, most information about him was written long after his death by his friends, other cowboys and associates.
By the late 1870’s, John Ware had become quite an accomplished horseman. He participated in cattle drives north from Texas along the Western Cattle Trail to Montana. In 1882 he met Tom Lynch in southern Idaho who had purchased 3,000 head of cattle and needed experienced cowhands to help herd them to Canada for the North-West Cattle Company, otherwise known as the Bar U. It took from May to September to drive the huge herd to the ranch nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Ware is credited for helping bring the cattle industry to the Calgary area and was the first Black cowboy in the area. Cowboys of his calibre were in constant demand by ranches. Thus, he stayed and worked for several large outfits over the years.

In the mid 1880s Ware was hired by the newly-established Quorn Ranch at Sheep Creek. The Quorn was owned by the Quorn Hunt Club in Leicestershire, England. The club members wished to raise horses for the English market. To this end, expensive breeding stock was shipped to the ranch and Ware, with his excellent reputation handling horses, was placed in charge of that project. 
The stories that have contributed to his emergence as a regional folk hero centre upon his remarkable horsemanship, his prodigious strength, his good-natured humour and general kindness, and his loyalty to friends and neighbours, as well as his willingness to take novice cowhands under his guidance. Ware is presented as a man of action and few words. All of these attributes are shared by the heroes of the cowboy subculture of this frontier. What distinguishes John Ware is that he was black and that he has become a symbol of racial tolerance.”

In the spring of 1884 Ware participated in the first of two huge roundups of stray cattle wandering in the foothills between Calgary and the Montana border. Can you imagine the sight of 100 cowhands, 500 horses and 15 chuckwagons? The second roundup was done in 1885. Apparently during the second roundup, Ware was very helpful to a “greenhorn”  Englishman, who wrote kindly of Ware in his letters home by declaring that Ware was “the best rough-rider in the North-West,” of the “rough” Montana cowboys, and of Ware’s personal kindness in helping him master range-land skills.
Excerpt from the Macleod Gazette, Fort Macleod, 23 June 1885
“John is not only one of the best natured and most obliging fellows in the country, but he is one of the shrewdest cow men, and the man is considered pretty lucky who has him to look after his interest. The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride.”

Seeing a lucrative market in cattle, Ware registered his own brand, 9999 or walking-stick branch, in 1884. It is thought that in anticipation of getting his own ranch, he took some of his wages in cattle. Three years later he established his own small spread not far from the Quorn.

He met Mildred Lewis, the daughter of Daniel V. Lewis, a black homesteader and cabinetmaker from Ontario who had moved to the Calgary area. The couple married on December 29, 1892 and over the next few years had two daughters and four sons (the latter two came after they moved to the prairies where one son died in infancy.

With the coming of the railroad, more settlers were moving into the foothills, thus diminishing the former abundance of grazing land. Thus, ten years later, he felt it was time to move his little family, sold his ranch and bought a small isolated prairie homestead for a $1,000. along the Red Deer River near the badlands north-east of Brooks. Here he could expand his herd and take care of his family, which had expanded with the birth of the last two sons.  No sooner had he set up his cabin in 1902 when a spring flood destroyed it. He immediately rebuilt a larger cabin, but on higher ground. 

Three years later in late March 1905, Mildred fell suddenly ill with typhoid and pneumonia and died. Most of their children were sent to live with Mildred’s family in Blairmore near the Rocky Mountains south of Calgary. Tragedy struck again just six months later on September 11th. John’s horse tripped in a gopher hole and landed on John, killing him. His funeral was held in Calgary and was attended by many ranchers in the area who “mourned him as one of their community’s most respected members”.
Two sons, when they grew up, joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only all-Black battalion in Canadian military history.
Some people are simply larger than life and as often happens with time, become a folk hero when truth and legend blend. One of the legends about him is that he was so strong and agile that he “walked over the backs of penned steers without fear”. There are also legends that he “could stop a steer head-on and wrestle it to the ground; break (train) the wildest broncos; hold a horse on its back to be shod with horseshoes; and easily lift an 18-month-old steer and  throw it on its back for branding”.
These can be viewed as slight exaggerations, but it also indicates how well respected he was by 19th century society where anti-Black prejudice and discrimination were common.
His skill as a horseman was proven when he participated at the Calgary Stampede.  "Skilled with the lariat, he pioneered steer-wrestling and won his first competition at the Calgary Summer Fair of 1893, setting a precedent for what would become a highlight of the Calgary Stampede."
There are several places named after John Ware in southern Alberta near his first ranch: Mount Ware, Ware Creek, and John Ware Ridge. In Calgary, there is John Ware Junior High as well as the 4 Nines Dining Centre in the John Ware Building at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (S.A.I.T.).
Canada Post honored John Ware in 2012 by issuing a commemorative stamp “to recognize his legacy, not only as one of the first Black cowboys in Canada, but as someone who blazed a trail as a horseman and a rancher”.

Excerpt from Beneath A Horse Thief Moon 
He dropped a kiss in her hair. “Get some sleep, Sara. It’s been a long day and tomorrow will be busy with branding. The ranchers have agreed to cull and brand their own stock.”
“How can I face them, knowing what they think of me?”
“Sara, stop it. No one's pointed a finger at you. I've spent the last three days with those ranchers. They hold you in high esteem, the way you've kept this place together. Not by a word or a gesture have they indicated anything else.”
The corner of her mouth lifted with a grimace as she turned away. “It's only a matter of time. I can't remember meeting one other red-haired woman, let alone hearing about one.”
“Sara, I know you're tired, but let's talk.”
She paused in the doorway, her eyes sad. “There's nothing to talk about.” She disappeared into the darkness.
Mentally kicking himself now, Chase strode to the barn door. Out in the yard, the fire had been recently doused, the air redolent with the acrid smell of wet smoke. He watched her pick her way around the dark shapes of men curled inside their bedrolls. She stopped to pet Fang, then closed the door. She didn't even light a lamp.

Link for Diamond Jack’s Angel/Hot Western Nights

Beneath A Horse Thief Moon:


  1. What an amazing man, and a very fitting post for Black History Month. I'd never heard of him, and now I doubt I'll ever forget him. Loved the excerpt too.

    1. I agree, Christine, that he was an amazing man, especially since he was in an extreme minority and obviously from the comments about his kindness and good-nature, did not fight with people over racial slurs. I'm glad he was honored during his lifetime and post-humosly.

  2. Thank you for sharing this amazing history. I truly enjoyed the read. Doris

    1. Thank you, Doris. I kinda thought you'd appreciate the history of John Ware. There have been documentaries made about him and places with his name have been corrected, omitting the racial epithet. Wish there were more men like him. Thanks for stopping by, Doris.

  3. Your posts are always so informative, Elizabeth.

    1. Thank you, Chia. I'm glad you enjoyed it and thank you for stopping by.

  4. What a wonderful account of an extraordinary man. This is the first time I have ever heard of John Ware. This uplifting story just says, if you want to change your life or make it better, get out there and do it. It's inspiring. But of course, John had some special, almost magical talents with horses and he was a kind and decent human being. Thank you for this story.
    I wish you every success, Elizabeth.

  5. The CBC network in Canada did a feature documentary about John Ware and I've learned that a book is coming out soon about John Ware. Everything I've researched about him led me to believe he was a good, honorable man. The fact that people travelled to Calgary to attend his funeral is a testament to him being a decent human being. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah. You're always very kind and appreciated.

  6. These lesser known stories about real people are jewels in the treasure chest of history.

    1. I agree, Kaye. I've wanted to write about John Ware for a long time and have a few other people I want to write about. Research is such fun and fascinating, too. I'm glad movies keep being made of people who made a difference in history. Thanks for stopping by, Kaye.

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