Nat Love was born a slave in Davidson County, Tennessee in 1854. As he recounts in his autobiography, “Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself: A True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the ‘Wild and Woolly’ West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author, ” after the Civil War his father became a share-cropper and the family struggled to feed itself, especially after his father passed away.
At the age of fifteen, he decided “I wanted to see more of the world and as I began to realize there was so much more of the world than what I had seen, the desire to go grew on me from day to day. It was hard to think of leaving mother and the children, but freedom is sweet and I wanted to make more of the opportunity and my life than I could see possible around home. Besides I suppose, I was a little selfish as mortals are prone to be.”
Love headed West to make his fortune and had a series of fantastic adventures. He worked as a cowboy, encountering Frank and Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Buffalo Bill Cody. He won a rodeo competition on the country’s Centennial in Deadwood, South Dakota, earning himself the nickname Deadwood Dick.
He was captured by Pima Indians after he ran out of bullets and was over-powered in manual combat. They nursed him back to health because, he speculates, they admired his bravery and identified with him racially, as many of them were of “mixed blood.” They soon offered him the daughter of the chief, Yellow Dog, as a bride, with a dowry of 100 ponies, which he feigned to accept while planning his escape. Eventually he found his opportunity, stole a pony, and rode 12 hours straight without saddle to return to his home in Texas.
He spent time in “Old Mexico,” where he quickly learned Spanish and was engaged to a Mexican beauty. But she died before the wedding and he drifted north to Denver, where he did get married. By that time, the railroads had taken over and the era of the cowboy was ending, so he became a Pullman Porter.
He crisscrossed the country on the railroad, receiving a $25 tip from a Rothschild, and marveling that “At present the American railway leads the world. In no other country does the traveler find so much comfort, so many conveniences, so much pleasure, safety and speed as does the dweller in this robust young country belonging to our Uncle Samuel.”
Scholars doubt the veracity of all of Love’s tall tales, but that really misses the point. Love, like Al Copeland, was quintessentially American. He was self-made, adventurous, and accomplished, even if some of those accomplishments were exaggerated. He had more than his share of hardship, but nothing could suppress his optimism for a better American future. As he put it, “I think you will agree with me that this grand country of ours is the peer of any in the world, and that volumes cannot begin to tell of the wonders of it. Then after taking such a trip you will say with me, ‘See America.’ I have seen a large part of America, and am still seeing it, but the life of a hundred years would be all too short to see our country. America, I love thee, Sweet land of Liberty, home of the brave and the free.”
During these times of political turmoil, recrimination, and deep pessimism about America’s past as well as its future, we could stand to remember the model of Nat Love’s life. He saw America’s faults up-close and was unafraid to describe them:
We had as task masters, in many instances, perfect devils in human form, men who delighted in torturing the black human beings, over whom chance and the accident of birth had placed them. I have seen men beaten to the ground with the butts of the long whips carried by these brutal overseers, and for no other reason than that they could not raise to their shoulders a load sufficient for four men to carry. I have seen the long, cruel lash curl around the shoulders of women who refused to comply with the licentious wishes of the men who owned them, body and soul—did I say soul? No, they did not own their soul; that belonged to God alone, and many are the souls that have returned to him who gave them, rather than submit to the desires of their masters, desires to which submission was worse than death. I have seen the snake-like lash draw blood from the tender limbs of mere babies, hardly more than able to toddle, their only offense being that their skin was black. And young as I was my blood often boiled as I witnessed these cruel sights, knowing that they were allowed by the laws of the land in which I was born. I used to think it was not the country’s fault, but the fault of the men who made the laws. Of all the curses of this fair land, the greatest curse of all was the slave auction block of the south, where human flesh was bought and sold. Husbands were torn from their wives, the baby from its mother’s breast, and the most sacred commands of God were violated under the guise of modern law, or the law of the land, which for more than two hundred years has boasted of its freedom, and the freedom of its people.
But Love could see beyond these severe flaws and enjoy America’s potential. For exhibiting the determination to make himself and this country better, Nat Love improved the human condition and is worthy of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.