Calgary

Legendary Black cowboy and rancher John Ware recognized as person of national historic significance

John Ware — who was one of the first Black people to settle in Alberta and went on to become a legendary horseman and successful rancher — has been recognized as a person of national historic significance.

Highly skilled horseman built successful ranching career after coming to Alberta in 1882

Black Alberta cowboy John Ware recognized as a person of national historic significance

25 days ago
Duration 0:59
Ware had a successful ranching career despite "racism, rough frontier conditions, and having been enslaved," the federal government said. The designation was commemorated Monday with the unveiling of a plaque in south Calgary.

Legends abound about trailblazing Black cowboy John Ware, including that he could stop a steer head-on and wrestle it to the ground, walk the backs of a herd of cattle and easily lift small cows.

It's indisputable that he was a highly skilled horseman who built a successful ranching career after coming to Alberta in 1882 despite "racism, rough frontier conditions, and having been enslaved," the Canadian government said Monday as Ware was recognized as a person of national historic significance.

The recognition came through the federal government's Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, which recognizes significant people, places and events that have shaped the country as a way to help Canadians connect with their past.

Ware's designation was commemorated with the unveiling of a plaque at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site south of Calgary. The government said Ware embodied the resilience and strength of Black Canadians.

Ware poses here with his wife, Mildred, and two of their six children, circa 1896. Ware was one of the first Black people to live in Alberta, arriving in 1882 and carving out a reputation as a legendary horseman and rancher. (Library and Archives Canada)

"The National Film Board's John Ware Reclaimed by Cheryl Foggo exposed some difficult aspects of Ware's story, ones we don't like to see because racism is out of line with our western Canadian values of freedom and merit," Janet Annesley, who nominated Ware, said in a release.

"I nominated John Ware as a positive reminder that anyone of any colour or background can have a place in Canada's story. Our rich diversity has never been a threat to who we are. It makes us who we are."

Born into slavery in southern U.S.

Ware didn't talk much about his past but it's believed he was born on a cotton plantation in South Carolina, the second-youngest of 11 children.

Growing up, the life of a slave was all he knew.

But his world changed in 1865, when slavery was abolished in the United States. At age 20, he found himself a free man.

Ware, shown sitting second from left in the front with other cowboys, arrived in the district of Alberta on a trail crew driving thousands of cattle to the site that became known as the Bar U Ranch.  (Glenbow Archives)

Ware arrived in the district of Alberta in 1882 on a trail crew driving thousands of cattle to the site that became known as the Bar U Ranch. 

He was one of the first Black people to step foot in the area. Before him came a whisky trader by the name of William Bond as well as a person who was a servant of a police commissioner, whose name is now unknown.

Legendary horseman

Ware quickly got a reputation for being fearless because of the way he could control herds and horses. This was the beginning of the legend of John Ware.

He was a highly skilled farmer and was instrumental in new agriculture techniques like irrigation and ranching.

Ware established his own ranch, shown here, on the foothills near Millarville, near the Sheep River, in 1887. By 1902, Ware, his wife Mildred and their children moved to a new ranch located along the Red Deer River north of Brooks, near Duchess. (Glenbow Archives)

He wrangled herds of large ranching outfits.

In 1887, Ware established his own ranch on the foothills near Millarville, near the Sheep River, with about 200 head of cattle.

A few years later, he met Mildred Lewis, who had moved from Toronto to Calgary area with her parents and family. 

They married in 1892 and had had six children, one of whom died as a baby.

In 1902, Ware and family moved to a new ranch located along the Red Deer River north of Brooks, near Duchess, where their herd grew to about 1,000.

A man sits on a horse depicting Ware in a re-enactment to depict the cowboy's life for Black History Month 2022. (Dickson Obasuyi/Doba Photography)

They weren't there long. Mildred Ware died of pneumonia in early 1905 and her husband died months later when his horse fell on him after tripping on a  hole.

Ware's funeral drew ranchers and others from hundreds of kilometres away.

Their children then went to live with Mildred's parents, Daniel and Charlotte Lewis.

Struggles with racism

As admired as Ware was to some, he often struggled with the deep racism he and his family would encounter. 

His nickname in the area was derogatory. In fact, near Calgary, there was a ridge named after him that used the N-word,  which was eventually renamed to John Ware Ridge in the 1970s.

Three of the Wares' children ride a horse in 1903. Ware and his wife, Mildred, had six children, one of whom died as a baby. (Glenbow Archives)

This was not an isolated incident at that time. There were dozens of waterways, lakes and creeks all over Canada that included this word and other racial epithets in their names.

Ware would go on to have several other places named for him, including Mount Ware, Ware Creek, John Ware Junior High in Calgary and the John Ware Building at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary.

  • LISTEN | From the life of a slave to a living legend: How John Ware left his indelible mark on Alberta, part of the 2017 Heroes, Hustlers and Horsemen podcast series:

The designation as a person of national historic significance wasn't the first time Ware's accomplishments have been marked. In 2012, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp featuring Ware 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. 

This photo shows John Ware Ridge near Calgary, which was renamed in the 1970s from its original name, which used the N-word. Ware would go on to have several other places named for him, including Mount Ware, Ware Creek, John Ware Junior High and the John Ware Building. (Library and Archives Canada)

Foggo, who made the film John Ware Reclaimed and is also an author and playwright, said Monday's acknowledgement of Ware illuminates him and his family.

"It makes his accomplishments in agriculture and his skills as a horseman visible to all who will read this plaque, while honouring the complexity of his life and situation," she said.

"It also simply acknowledges that he was here."

Ware was commemorated in this postage stamp, originally issued in 2012. (Canada Post)
(CBC)

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.

With files from the CBC's Allison Dempster and Leah Simone-Bowen

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