BY DEBBIE MACRAE
Legends are like the wind. You hear them; you feel them; you see their strength; you know their direction and their magnitude; you feel their gentleness and see the lasting effects of their force. They are traditional stories, historically related, told and re-told because of the power of their influence.
Such is the legend of John Ware.
Born into slavery on a cotton plantation in South Carolina in 1845, John was the middle son of a family of 10 children with four older brothers , three younger brothers and two younger sisters. At the age of eight years he was picking cotton with his adult counterparts, and childhood dreams and aspirations had no place in the desensitized world of human trafficking. Human rights were unrecognized, and education was reserved for those with aristocratic backgrounds or potential for more profit. Educating a slave boy wouldn’t make him a more valuable slave.
As a child he was robust, with muscles developed like a plantation mule. He was athletic with the ability to out-run, out-lift, and out-jump any child his age. It was very common for plantation owners to entertain guests with gladiator-style battles among the slave boys; pitting endurance against brawn. The consent of the boys was not an option. Fight rings were roped off and guests were seated in comfortable ringside chairs in the shade, while young Negro boys about 12 to 16 were pitted against each other like roosters in a cock fight. The prize was usually a pair of shoes, and the only rule was that the last “man” standing won only if his opponent stayed down.
Those contests often ended up with John flat on the ground; not because he wasn’t good enough to win – but someone else usually needed the shoes more.
His reputation grew with his stature, and so did respect for him. Over the years, John’s training both in and out of the ring, moulded a giant of a man who would eventually make his way to Canada down the cowboy trail.
John was 20 years of age when the Civil War ended. Most of the southern slaves were uneducated, illiterate, and unfamiliar with the freedom they had suddenly gained with emancipation. Most of them had never travelled beyond the confines of their plantations, and certainly not beyond the swamps of their territorial boundaries. The only thing they knew about Canada was that it was a faraway place at the end of the underground railroad, if they had ever heard of it at all. John was no different.
John’s family had been slaves for at least three generations – living, working, breathing, like work-horses, guaranteed only of limited food and clothing. Education was not a commodity. A man’s future was garnered only by the dirt on his hands and the desire in his heart. With the defeat of General Lee’s Confederate troops at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, the yoke of slavery was lifted, but the weight of an uncertain freedom was almost as heavy. Tensions in the South were high and masked night riders preyed on superstition and fear. Violence prevailed even in the wake of freedom.
John decided that freedom meant heading “out West”, and “out West” meant travelling to Texas. Leaving his sorrowful parents and family, he left in a pair of ill-fitting shoes, remnants from a Yankee soldier. For the next five months he walked, and worked his way west, until he reached the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas.
Trading labour for food, John started to work for “Old Murph” Blandon and for the next several years, worked on a Texas ranch, cutting hay with a scythe, riding horses and mules, and racing – building stamina and strength, experience and ingenuity, and training for the biggest opportunities yet to come.
John wasn’t a cowboy in the traditional sense. He was big, with long legs, and had no formal training as a cowhand. His first big chance to ride herd on a cattle trail came in 1879 – from Texas to the Far North in Montana – where new cattle ranges were being stocked. Inexperienced men always started as “drag men,” trailing in the dust behind the cattle, prodding the slow and lazy as they snaked their way across the prairies. In an industry where Negro riders were not accepted, John earned his way out of the ‘drag’ with his hard work, unrelenting determination, muscled control, and unsuspecting sense of humour. He named the winner of the first trailside longhorn bull fight, “Abraham Lincoln”, at the same time proclaiming “General Lee” as the loser.
He was the level-headed one when the men went into town to celebrate. While the others visited saloons and dance halls, he was the one who assumed the responsibility of the herd. At one point he single-handedly warded off a disastrous night stampede by attacking Sioux – racing to the point of the herd and shooting to turn the lead cows back to their grazing range. After nearly 2,000 miles and four months of eating dust, the cattle arrived at their destination in Montana’s Judith Basin.
At the end of the trail, one of the cowboys, Bill Moodie, announced his intention of heading to Canada while they were so close. Ware’s response: “Wheah is Canada f’om heah?”
From there, John and his Moodie continued to the Virginia City gold rush, working the gold mines without success. Moodie returned to Idaho as a cowpoke, and in 1882, John sought his company once again, after losing his faithful horse. A black man without a horse trod a precarious trail in the wild west, and John knew he needed another mount to work. He knew Moodie would help him get one, and John proposed they ride the long trail back to Texas. However, fate intervened in the form of Tom Lynch, Canadian cattleman extraordinaire and the face of Canadian ranching would never be the same.
After the Land Act received Ottawa’s approval for 21 year leases in southern Alberta, cattlemen moved their herds north and west to the Cochrane Ranch, the Bar U, and the North West Cattle Company. Tom Lynch was looking for dependable cowhands and tried to persuade Bill Moodie to join the group. Bill accepted on the condition that he also hire his friend, John Ware. Lynch was cold to the concept – a Negro without a horse. But Bill was adamant; “take both of us or neither”, so John was hired to peel potatoes and ride night herd. He sang while he peeled, and he sang while he rode, and he was paid a well-earned “dollar a day and grub”.
John was given an outlaw bronco to ride, and perhaps furnish some amusement, as no one except Moodie believed he could handle a real horse. At the end of its violent bucking demonstration, the horse was subdued, and Ware’s comment was, “Thanks Boss. Ah’ll keep this hoss – if it’s ahwight with yo.” He had earned his respect and was promoted to a new position. Never again was he asked to ride night herd.
Along the Marias River, John again earned renewed respect when he single-handedly captured two cattle rustlers and recovered the stolen cattle, leading the rustlers on foot at the end of a long lariat. They were released on foot, without their guns, and thanks in part to John, they weren’t hung in traditional Montana fashion.
September 26, 1882, John hired on with the North West Cattle Company along the Highwood River in southern Alberta, now known as the historic Bar U Ranch. He stayed with the Bar U until 1884, when he joined the Quorn Ranch.
In 1885, he participated in a cattle round-up, rounding up strays, lost, and unbranded cattle – which cattle were divided among their finders. By 1890 he had amassed 75 head of the bovine critters – enough to register his own brand 9999, and start his own ranch, known as the Four-Nines Ranch.
He was known for his self-sufficiency as one of the first ranchers in Alberta to utilize irrigation techniques to ensure a successful hay crop. He had his own milk-cows and butter station, and milked his own cows – not exactly a cowboy tradition.
He met his future wife, Mildred Lewis, formerly of Toronto, Ontario, in 1891 after meeting her father at the I.G. Baker supply store. After several Sunday afternoon dinner invitations, John came to call on Miss Mildred with a borrowed team and democrat buggy. During the visit, John hitched the team to the Lewis’s democrat with double seating benches, so he could take Mildred, and her friends, the Hansons, for a leisurely ride. The afternoon flew delightfully by until thunderclouds opened-up on them. Lightning and thunder continued to assail them, until a bolt of lightning struck the team, killing them instantly in their harness. A stalwart gentleman to the end, John separated the horses from the gear, picked up the tongue of the democrat and, with the strength of the Biblical Samson, pulled the buggy and its passengers the three or four miles back to the Lewis home.
February 29, 1892, “Mr. John Ware of Sheep Creek and Miss Mildred J. Lewis of Calgary, were united. In Holy Matrimony, according to the ordinances of God and the Laws of the Dominion of Canada, in Calgary.”
In the spring of 1892, he spontaneously demonstrated the first cow wrestling display at the Walrond Ranch, albeit came of necessity in the form of an enraged longhorn. His instinctive act of self-preservation would be applauded and repeated, as ‘steer wrestling,’ for the next 125 years.
In 1900, John moved to set up a new ranch near Brooks, Alberta. That move was short-lived, as he was flooded out in a spring flood two years later. Undeterred, with typical John Ware perseverance, he rebuilt on higher ground. But in April, 1905, his dreams collapsed with the death of his young wife. Grief-stricken, he sent his young children to live with their grand-parents who had moved to Blairmore, Alberta. Less than six months later, he too would die, in the most ironic of deaths. John Ware, the man of whom it was said, “The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride” would die; his horse stepping in a badger hole and falling on him.
His funeral was the largest the City of Calgary had ever seen. He left behind five children, helped establish Alberta’s beef industry and bequeathed a living legacy; the John Ware Society, dedicated to the preservation of the traditions of the Old West; John Ware Ridge, Mount Ware, and Ware Creek in Kananaskis country, John Ware Junior High School, the John Ware Building at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, the Four Nine’s Cafeteria, and a legion of admiration and respect for a man who refused to be tried by the color of his skin.
The Minister’s funeral tribute imparted a fitting farewell; “John Ware was a man with a beautiful skin. Every human skin is as beautiful as the character of the person who wears it. To know John Ware was to know a gentleman, one of God’s gentlemen. Never again will I see a colored skin as anything but lovely. He leaves me with the thought that black is a beautiful color – one which the Creator must have held in particularly high favor because He gave it to His most cheerful people. Make no mistake about it, black can be beautiful”, as is the legend, John Ware.