John Ware, Canada’s Legendary Cowboy (1845-1905)

9 minute read

Note: This article was originally published on my old website in January 2005. Seems it has garnered quite a bit of attention since then, so I decided to resurrect it for current readers. Since it was originally posted, Canada Post has added a postage stamp with John Ware’s image on the stamp and much more has been written about it. The uniqueness of this article is that it is a personal account, not a historical document. It is identical, expect for some improvements in the text.

John Ware and Family

    <img src="/assets/posts/2017-10-31-john-ware-canada-s-legendary-cowboy-1845-1905/john-ware-family.jpg"  />
    <figcaption>John Ware, Late 1800s Alberta, Canada (source: wikipedia)</figcaption>


From 1977 to 1979, I had the privilege of living in Calgary, Alberta during its boom years. During part of that time I stayed in a rooming house belonging to a very kind elderly woman who rented out rooms for students who attended a nearby community college. Her best friend was a woman by the name of Nettie Ware, the daughter of Canada’s most legendary cowboy - John Ware. She often visited my landlady and it is through her that I learned about her father, this amazing former slave from the Carolinas in the United States who became legendary in his newly adopted home - Alberta, Canada.

I was saddened to learn while doing research for this article that Nettie Ware passed away in 1989, on her ninety-sixth birthday (I had moved to the USA in 1979). That would have made her eighty-six years old when we had chatted in my landlady’s kitchen drinking tea and talking about the life of her father.

Learning to be a Cowboy

For those who don’t know the story of Mr. John Ware, he rightly deserves his reputation. His cowboy skills were legendary, and contrary to the popular Hollywood image of cowboys, he was a gentleman who led an honest, moral life and was a loving father. His work was extremely difficult, as the working conditions were as harsh as could be possible. And in those days there was not much in the way of assistance if he became injured or disabled. Cowboys were responsible for the well-being of cattle as they were moved from ranch to ranch or from pastureland to pastureland. They had to protect these creatures against poachers and from wild animals, and they had to keep them from wandering away from the herd (in the days when the great plains of Western United States and Canada were not fenced off).

In 1845, John Ware was born into slavery in the Carolinas of the United States. After the American Civil War, he was granted his freedom and moved to Texas where he learned how to ride a horse and then the tough life of a cattle hand - a cowboy.

At over 6 feet tall and weighing a strong 230 lbs., he took to his tasks easily and became very proficient at handling great herds of cattle.

John Ware
Rounding up the cattle during a cattle drive. (source: wikipedia)

Rounding up the cattle during a cattle drive.

Eventually, in 1882, after joining a cattle drive to Montana, he made his way to Idaho where at the age of 37 he joined a cattle drive bringing a herd to a buyer in Alberta.

Nettie told me stories of his life during this time. Part of his job was to ensure that the cattle didn’t stray off or turn back. Remember that these cattle, when on the move, are basically running, and I am not sure of the size of this herd, but it would have numbered in the hundreds. To keep these cattle going the right direction, it was important that the lead cattle head in the direction the cattlemen wanted them to go. It isn’t quite like herding cats, but in a wide open land, it is not an easy task.

One tactic was to fire a shot across the snoot of the lead cattle to make it turn. If that didn’t work, the cowboy had to run in front of the cattle and force it to turn - a very dangerous and life threatening act if the steer didn’t behave. But this was the sort of thing that John Ware did during his drive north. He also had to stay up at nights to keep watch for wolfs who would attack the herd or rustlers who would try to steal a steer in the darkness.

Calgary, Alberta

Arriving in Calgary, Alberta, he decided to settle there. This seemed like a good move considering Alberta never had slavery, it was a new territory just opening up and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had already established law and order in this part of the great plains. And with fairly decent relations between the white settlers and the First Nation tribes, he probably would have faced less racial discrimination up there than he would have experienced down in the American south.

What he did in his new home made him legendary amongst cattlemen in Calgary and throughout the big sky country. He worked for the Bar-U and Quorn ranches (I don’t know where they are, but ranch buffs would surely know about these places). In an era where roughness, dishonesty, bullying, and lawlessness seemed normal, Mr. Ware showed honesty, skill, hard work and decency.

He was known as `a man of unquestioned honesty and agreeable nature…[who] boasted the rare distinction of never having been thrown from a horse. At roughriding and roping he was an expert’ (Turner, 1950, pg. 461).

His skills at bronco busting was legendary. OK, I was born and raised in Toronto and my only experiences with cows are eating hamburgers (and I did attend the Calgary Stampede when I lived in Calgary), but I am told bronco busting is not for the fainthearted - it is a bone jarring activity, and a vital part of ranching (in the early days) to prepare a steer for branding. So, in an era when the demanding skills of a cowboy were highly valued, John Ware exceeded them all in Alberta.

The Legend

When John Ware entered an establishment in Calgary, everyone knew him. Because of his courage and enormous strength, the First Nations’ people called him “Matoxy Sex Apee Quin” (bad black white man) and wondered if he had a connection to the spirit world.

Now, legends being legends, lots of yarns have been twisted making John Ware into a giant like Paul Bunyan. Some of these include:

  • John Ware discovered Turner Valley oil fields with a flick of a match.
  • John Ware was the last rancher to use a Calgary bridge as a cattle crossing.
  • John Ware was never thrown from a horse.
  • He invented steer wrestling 20 years before the Calgary Stampede.
  • Camp cooks profess to feeding him on oversized platters, and to watching him eat sandwiches the size of the family bible.

How much of these legends are true, well, you decide. It is quite possible that they are all true. Nevertheless, it is true that he did use a Calgary bridge as a cattle crossing. It is forbidden to drive cattle through Calgary - a perfectly reasonable law - except when your new ranch is on the opposite side of Calgary from your old one. That was exactly John Ware’s problem.

He had bought a new ranch but had to get his herd there, but Calgary was in the way. What did he do? He brought his herd to the edge of the Bow river and waited until nightfall and in the middle of the night he charged his cattle across the bridge and into history. He was the last rancher to use a Calgary bridge as a cattle crossing.

John Ware’s Family

But Nettie Ware did not speak much about that part of his life. She spoke mostly about him as a father. He was a good man, a good father and raised his five children in a Christian household and taught them to respect one another and to treat one another as they would like to be treated. Certainly, from my memories of Nettie, John Ware had done a good job of raising his children.

[caption width=”256” align=”center”]John Ware's FamilyJohn Ware’s Family (Nettie is the little girl)[/caption]

In 1882, John met the former Torontonian Mildred Lewis (I knew there was a Ontario connection somewhere ) and they married, settling on a ranch just north of the village of Duchess along the Red Deer River. Unfortunately, his homestead was washed away in the spring flood of 1902. John Ware rebuilt the cabin on higher ground overlooking a stream which today is called Ware Creek. They now had five children. Three years later in 1905, sadly, Mildred Ware died of pneumonia.

[caption id=”attachment_1457” align=”none” width=”525”][John Ware's Cabin (Now in Dinosaur Provincial Part)John Ware’s Cabin (Now in Dinosaur Provincial Part)[/caption]

Tragically, that same year John Ware died when his horse tripped after stepping into a gopher (badger?) hole and the horn of the saddle killed him instantly. Nettie and her four brothers and sisters were bereaved of both of their parents in the same year. Nettie was only 12 years old when both her mother and father passed away.

As the many sites about John Ware point out, John Ware, legendary cowboy, bronco buster, gentleman, and family man, died 12 days after Alberta entered into confederation within the new nation of Canada. And it does seem fitting. John was a decent man, he was highly respected, a very talented, even legendary cowboy, and he was black. His colour did not matter in his new home. What mattered was his abilities and his kindness to others. He became a symbol of the tolerance and decency with which his new home, Canada, has aspired to. And he has become a hero of the Canadians of African origin.

I can’t recall what Nettie said had happened to her and her siblings after her parents died. John Ware’s children would certainly have been taken care of, even as he had provided good service to many others. However, I do know that Nettie settled in Vulcan, Alberta. I believe she became a teacher, but I could be wrong on that point. She traveled throughout Alberta speaking about her father. The Province of Alberta in 1971 honoured her with “Alberta’s Pioneer Daughter of the Year”.

Well, I moved to the United States in 1979, but before I moved, Nettie had given me a book about the history of John Ware, and she even signed it for me. Somehow, frustratingly, I have lost it in my travels.

As things go, I lost contact with them but I have often told my story about meeting Nettie Ware and learning about this great Canadian cowboy. I am glad that I can share it with you now on my website. Here are some other websites for further reading.

Some books about John Ware include:

  • John Ware's Cow Country by Grant MacEwan, Alberta's former Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. This is the one that I lost (with Nettie's signature!).
  • The Story of John Ware by R. Breon, V. Cudjoe, M. McLoughlin (Illustrator) Children's illustrated book about our famous cowboy.

Copyright © 2005-2015. Note: This article was provided to Oxford University Press Canada for use in their school text book “Inside Track 1.”