The cover of James Otis Smith’s graphic novel features Mary Fields, a 19th-century Black woman variously known as Black Mary, White Crow and, more popularly, Stagecoach Mary. It’s a fitting image for a book that reimagines the western dime novel, this time with historical context — far more potent than the whitewashed narratives that have long dominated.
But when we turn the page we see something even more powerful: a photograph of Black cowboys on a plain in Texas, their eyes shaded under their hats, their bodies at home on their horses, their expressions in turn serious, jaunty, assured. On the next page are six smaller photos showing a mix of Black, Mexican and Native American faces. To look at these expressions, stances, idiosyncrasies of dress (whether a bandanna or woolly chaps) is to look across the years and recognize ourselves. This is not a faceless, oppressed mass; these are regular brown and Black folks, some of whom have led exceptional lives.
If you’ve read about the Compton Cowboys of Los Angeles or the long tradition of Black riders in Acres Homes, Houston, you may know that in some areas of the Old West, as the Caldecott medalist Kadir Nelson notes in his introduction, up to a third of the population was African-American, and that African-Americans made up one-fourth of the population of cowboys.
We first meet the comics version of “Stagecoach” Mary Fields defending her mail coach one freezing night in Montana by battling back a pack of wolves. Mary is resourceful, fearless and unapologetic, whether helping nuns build their mission, nursing the Mother Superior, opening her own restaurant, gambling, carrying a rifle, wearing pants or drinking in saloons.
Perhaps the amorphous nature of the Old West, where a lawman could easily turn bandit and back again, and towns sprouted up only to be quickly abandoned, aided her in bucking conventions and refusing the role of submissive Black woman. But it is remarkable that as a former enslaved person, for whom there was no guide, Mary thrived.
The second chapter opens with another photo collage, this one including cowgirls of color. Next to it is a photographic portrait of the impeccable Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, with his handlebar mustache. The comics devoted to Reeves’s daring trickery are the book’s most engaging, and further dismantle the white cowboy myth.
The final chapter belongs to Bob Lemmons, a mustanger who single-handedly brought in herds of wild horses by making the mustangs think he was “one of them.”
The book’s back matter touches lightly on the relationship between Black Americans and Indigenous peoples. For example, Bass Reeves escaped his enslaver, found refuge with the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole nations, and learned their languages, while Bob Lemmons’s wife was Chicana. But though the chapter on Stagecoach Mary briefly shows her looking after Native American children at the nuns’ mission, it doesn’t delve into the brutality and trauma students endured at mission schools, or what it meant for Black settlers to be among those moving onto stolen Native land. It would be no easy task to weave in such dissonances, but they too were central to the creation of the Old West.
These biographical comics are entertaining overviews that disrupt Wild West mythology. The accompanying photographs, paintings, timelines and maps are fascinating and beautifully arranged. Mary Fields, Bass Reeves and Bob Lemmons had all been enslaved, and carried with them, Smith writes, “the courage and strength to choose to be whoever they wanted to be.” This Old West Black American grit and ingenuity is American history.