Playwright digs deep into legend of Alberta's pioneering black cowboy

It's said John Ware could ride the wildest horses without being thrown from the saddle, tame the meanest broncos, and walk across the backs of penned steers without fear.

John Ware earned respect through strength, grit and his skills as a cowboy

John Ware was freed as a slave at age 20 and made his way to Alberta in search of a new life. (Glenbow Archives)

It's said John Ware could ride the wildest horses without being thrown from the saddle. He could tame the meanest broncos and walk across the backs of penned steers without fear.

He was strong as an ox, ate sandwiches the size of a family Bible, and is said to have discovered an Alberta oilfield by simply flicking a match.

The true story of Alberta's most beloved black cowboy, who died in 1905 near Brooks, Alta., is hard to decipher for all the legends that persist around the pioneer of the Canadian West.

That's what Cheryl Foggo has set out to do. The Calgary playwright has staged a new work about the famous wrangler's life and times.

John Ware Reimagined, which premieres in Edmonton Wednesday at the Backstage Theatre, focuses on the facts of Ware's life.

"He was an outstanding individual on a lot of different levels," Foggo said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"He was a very skilled horseman, first of all, and then it turned out he was incredibly skilled as a cattle manager. He was just really, really good with animals in general.

"Because John Ware was integral to that industry, he was integral to the economy and the values that shaped this part of the world."

'Connect it to the present'

Foggo is also working on a National Film Board documentary and researching a book that will chronicle Ware's life.

"The thing that I wanted to do with this story is connect it to the present," Foggo said.

"Everything that has happened to us in the past, everything that happened to marginalized communities in Canada in the past, continues to resonate in our lives today." 

Ware may loom large as a historical figure in Alberta, but little is is known about his early years, said Foggo.

Born into slavery in 1845 in the American south, Ware gained his freedom after the Civil War and eventually drifted west.  He came to Alberta in 1882, the only black man on a massive cattle drive from the plains of Idaho.

Starting as a cowhand, he won the respect of his peers through his grit, determination and unmatched skill.

During those first few months in Alberta, Ware survived a brutal snowstorm and kept the cattle safe while other cowboys abandoned the herd.

He was found alive four days after that blizzard, and that was the beginning of his reputation as a cowboy who was savvy with cattle, said Foggo.  

'It was a tricky business'

After honing his skills as a cattleman with stints at Quorn Ranch and Bar-U Ranch near Calgary, Ware saved up his money, got his own brand and established his own ranch near the banks of the Red Deer River.

He eventually settled in the area of what is now Brooks. "It was a difficult balance that he walked because there was a lot of racism that he experienced but in the cowboy culture, if you're as skilled as he was, you gained respect," Foggo said.

"It was a tricky business but he managed to navigate it and ended up being a very successful rancher."

Everything most people know about Ware is based on John Ware's Cow Country, a book by Grant MacEwan.

Foggo believes certain liberties were taken with the biography, especially pertaining to the facts of Ware's early years.

She hopes her ongoing research on the real life of the extraordinary legend serves to enrich the historical record, and encourages more people to explore Alberta's deep-rooted black history.

"I hope that people are inspired to explore further about our black history in Alberta and Canada," said Foggo. "But I really want people to go away knowing more about John Ware than they already do.

"I hope they just enjoy getting to know this amazing man who lived out his life in this part of the world."

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC.

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon


Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Elizabeth Hames