Canada: The Story of Us

How John Ware, a former American slave, helped establish Alberta's beef industry

He was described as “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 pretty luck who has him to look after his interest."

1882. John Ware arrives in Southern Alberta.

Born into slavery in South Carolina, John Ware would become a legendary cowboy in the Canadian West. (Canada: The Story of Us)

Born into slavery on a cotton plantation outside of Georgetown, South Carolina in 1845, Ware is the second youngest in his family of 11 children. Freed at the end of the American Civil War, he puts as much distance as he can between himself and the horrific memories of his life as a slave. He drifts westward, doing odd jobs along the way.

Ware begins to learn the skills of a cowboy

Eventually, Ware finds himself in Fort Worth, Texas, at the ranch of Murphy Blandon. Ware has no experience working with horses or cattle, but Blandon is impressed with Ware's powerful build and easy-going demeanour and hires him anyway. At Blandon's ranch, Ware begins to learn the skills of a cowboy.

In 1879, a cattle-driving team moving 2,400 head of cattle from Texas to Montana hires Ware as a "drag man." A drag man is, arguably, the worst job on the team: riding behind the herd, rounding up strays, pushing the cattle forward — literally eating their dust.

Still, Ware earns a foothold in the trail driving business (and puts more distance between himself and South Carolina). He also befriends a cowboy named Bill Moody.

"If he can ride it, he can keep it."

In 1882, Quebec farmer Fred Stimson moves to Alberta to break into the cattle business. He buys what will become the Bar-U ranch outside of Calgary and pays Montana stockman Tom Lynch to deliver 3,000 head of cattle.

Lynch hires Moody to be part of his team and Moody insists that his friend John Ware is hired too. Lynch reluctantly agrees.

In spite of his experience, Ware is given another menial position as a "nighthawk." Nighthawks guard the herd overnight, protecting the cattle from wild animals and rustlers. They often sing to the herd to keep it calm.

Ware is given a mediocre horse and sets out on the trail. Along the way, Ware requests a better horse. Instead, he is given a stubborn, ornery bronco, the bane of the other cowboys. He's told that if he can ride it, he can keep it.

Ware is both physically strong and blessed with a calm nature. He manages to mount and ride the bronco, earning the respect of the crew in the process. By the time the herd arrives in Alberta, Ware has been promoted to day crew and is helping lead the drive. Stimson hires Ware on Lynch's recommendation. Ware stays at the Bar-U until 1884, when he moves to the Quorn ranch and takes charge of their horse herd.

"The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride."

In 1885, Ware participates in a round-up outside of Fort Macleod. During a round-up, cowboys gather lost cattle and any unbranded cattle are considered up for grabs —  finders keepers. Before the round-up, Ware registers his own brand, 9999.

The Macleod Gazette describes Ware as "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 pretty luck who has him to look after his interest. The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride."

Ware opens the Four-Nines, his own ranch

By 1890, Ware has amassed enough cattle that he's able to open his own ranch, called the Four-Nines. In 1892, he marries Toronto-born Mildred Lewis. In 1900, he moves and sets up a new ranch, near Brooks, Alberta. Two years later, his home is demolished in a spring flood. Undeterred, Ware rebuilds on higher ground.

Sadly, Ware is not able to enjoy his new home for long. In April 1905, Mildred dies of pneumonia and typhoid. Ware sends his grief-stricken children to stay with her parents in the town of Blairmore. In September of that year, the horse Ware is riding steps into a badger hole. The horse falls onto him, killing him.

Ware's funeral is held in Calgary. It is the largest funeral the young city has ever seen.

A legend of the Canadian West

Today, John Ware's name lives on across the province. The Kananaskis area has a Ware Creek, a John Ware Ridge and a Mount Ware. Calgary is home to John Ware Junior High School. The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology has a John Ware building, including a cafeteria called the Four-Nines.

Over the course of his life, Ware became a legend of the Canadian West and he's become even more legendary in the century since his death. There are countless unsubstantiated rumours about John Ware. Some people say he discovered the Turner Valley Oil Field by flicking a match. He's said to have never been bucked off a horse. He's been credited as the inventor of steer wrestling, and as the last cowboy to ever use the Calgary bridge as a cattle crossing. He's also rumoured to have had a tremendous appetite, eating sandwiches the size of a family bible.

And even if none of these stories are true, they speak to how large John Ware looms as an important historical figure in Alberta.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now