Secret Life of Canada

Meet John Ware — legendary Black Cowboy

John Ware’s life took him from enslavement to legend. The first Black Cowboy in Alberta traveled hundreds of miles and greatly contributed to the Albertan ranching, agricultural and cattle industry.
John Ware was one of the first Black people to arrive in Alberta. (Library and Archives Canada)

Not every person worth remembering made it into the history books. Each month, the Secret Life of Canada shouts out a Canadian or Indigenous person that has had a lasting impact worth celebrating. These historical figures may not be on money or monuments but their legacies live on. 

John Ware's life took him from enslavement to folk legend.

The first Black cowboy in Alberta traveled hundreds of miles and greatly contributed to the Albertan ranching, agricultural and cattle industry. Here are five things we learned about Ware's life. 

1) He was born into slavery

Ware was born into slavery in 1845 on a cotton plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina. As soon as emancipation was declared, Ware left. At 18, he ended up in Texas and began working on a ranch, eventually becoming a steer herder working in and around Montana.

He lived a nomadic life while tending to and moving cows. 

2) He was one of the first Black people to arrive in Alberta

Ware was recruited to help a friend drive a herd of 3000 cattle across the border to Canada, eventually arriving in Alberta. He would be 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 an unnamed person who was a servant of a police commissioner. 

John Ware with his dog circa 1891. (Glenbow Archives)

3) He became a folk legend

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.

Stories included 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. Ware also was a highly skilled farmer and was instrumental in new agriculture techniques like irrigation and ranching.

John Ware and family pose for photograph, circa 1896. (Library and Archives Canada)

4) His nickname was nevertheless derogatory

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 called "N--ger John Ridge," which was eventually renamed to John Ware Ridge in the 1970s.

This was not an isolated tribute, 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 and the John Ware Building.

An Albertan landscape including Athabasca Landing and John Ware ridge. (Canada. Dept. of Interior/Library and Archives Canada)

5) He has his own postage stamp

A postage stamp dedicated to John Ware was originally issued in 2012 as part of the Black History Month series. (Canada Post)

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. 

"With his great stature, abilities and sense of adventure, Ware had all the makings of a folk hero," Canada Post noted in their description of the stamp. 

"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."

In fact, Secret Life of Canada co-host Leah Simone-Bowen first learned of Ware from this very stamp. 

Note: John Ware was also featured on the CBC Calgary podcast Heroes Hustlers and Horsemen, which highlights lesser-known stories of real people who lived in southern Alberta around the time of confederation and a few decades beyond. Check out the full series here

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