John Ware

John Ware, cowboy, rancher (born c. 1845–50 in the United States; died 11 September 1905 near Brooks, AB). John Ware is legendary in the history of Alberta for his strength and horsemanship. Born enslaved, he became a successful rancher who settled near Calgary and Brooks. He was widely admired as one of the best cowboys in the West, even at a time of widespread anti-Black racism and discrimination.



Photo of John Ware and family

John Ware and family c. 1896. 

(courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-263-1)

Key Terms

Brand: A mark burned on the hide of livestock with hot iron that identifies its owner.

Cattle: Large ruminant animals with divided hoofs. Ruminant means they chew the half-digested food returned to their mouths from the first chamber of the stomach. Cattle include cows, oxen, bison and buffalo.

Cowboy (or cowhand): A person, usually mounted on a horse, who herds and tends cattle or horses.

Folk hero: A person who is greatly admired by the common people.

Ranch: A farm where cattle or horses are raised.

Roundup: The act of gathering cattle by riding around them and driving them closer together. A roundup served to count the animals or register their ownership.

Steer: A castrated male of cattle (i.e., one that has had its testicles removed as part of the process of raising it for beef). (See also Beef Cattle Farming.)

Western Cattle Trail: A route along which cowboys in Ware’s time moved cattle northward from Texas, passing through Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. It was also called the Dodge City Trail or the Texas Trail.

Early Life

John Ware was born enslaved in the United States (see also Black Enslavement in Canada). He gained his freedom at the close of the  American Civil War (1865) and drifted west, eventually finding work on a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas.

Most historical sources on John Ware are accounts written by his friends long after his death. Ware himself could neither read nor write. For these reasons, historians are not sure about many details of his life, especially those of his youth.

Ranching Career

Photo of John Ware's first ranch

John Ware's ranch near Millarville, Alberta, c. 1896.

(courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-266-1)

When John Ware became a free man, cattle ranching was spreading across the Midwestern United States. He travelled west and honed his skill as a cowboy. An experienced cowhand by the late 1870s, he worked driving herds of Texas cattle northward along the Western Cattle Trail to the distant ranges in Montana.

In 1882, he was hired to help bring 3,000 head of cattle from the United States to Sir Hugh Allan’s North-West Cattle Company ranch. Commonly known as the Bar U Ranch, it was located in the foothills southwest of Calgary. Ware found that experienced cowboys were much in demand in this part of the North-West Territories, as it was called then. He remained in the area and worked for several large cattle companies. In the mid-1880s, he started working for the new Quorn Ranch on Sheep Creek (now Sheep River). The ranch soon bought a large herd of cattle and began to raise horses for the English market. Ware would manage Quorn’s horse herd.

In the springs of 1884 and 1885, Ware joined many other cowboys in two large roundups from Fort Macleod to search the foothills from Calgary to the Montana border for cattle.

Excerpt from the Macleod Gazette, Fort Macleod, 23 June 1885
“John is not only one of the best natured and most obliging fellows in the country, but he is one of the shrewdest cow men, and the man is considered pretty lucky who has him to look after his interest. The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride.”

Before the second roundup began, Ware registered his own brand. It was known as the four nines (9999) or walking-stick brand. In 1898, he re-registered it as three nines. Two years later, he started his own ranch in the foothills near Millarville.

(See also Ranching History.)

Later Life and Family

In 1892, John Ware married Mildred Lewis, who had moved from Toronto, Ontario, to the outskirts of Calgary with her family. The couple would have six children, one of whom would die as a baby. In 1902, as more settlers arrived in the area, the family moved. The new ranch site was located along the Red Deer River north of Brooks, Alberta. The home was destroyed by the spring flood of 1902. Ware built a larger house on higher ground.

John Ware's marriage certificate

Marriage certificate of John Ware and Mildred Lewis, 29 December 1892.

(courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-262-2)

The family did not occupy the new home for long. At the end of March 1905, Mildred died of an illness. In September, Ware was killed when his horse tripped in a badger hole and fell on him. Ranchers from around the region attended his funeral in Calgary. They mourned him as one of their community’s most respected members.

Two of the couple’s sons later joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only all-Black battalion in Canadian military history.

The Legend of John Ware

People came to view John Ware as a hero for his great physical strength, horsemanship, good nature and courage. His true story is difficult to separate from the legends about him. This is because there are few records of his life. Most of what is known about him was written by fellow cowboys. However, those accounts did not begin to appear until the late 1930s. Historians have little information from his family members. His wife died before him and he died while his children were very young.

Did you know?
Many stories about John Ware focus on his strength and skill with cattle and horses. He was said to have walked over the backs of penned steers without fear. Legend holds that he could also:

- stop a steer head-on and wrestle it to the ground
-break (train) the wildest broncos
-hold a horse on its back to be shod with horseshoes
-easily lift an 18-month-old steer and throw it on its back for branding.

Though stories about John Ware contain exaggerations, his status as regional folk hero shows how well respected he was. The traits he is said to have had are typical of frontier heroes of cowboy culture. What distinguishes him the most, however, is how successfully he established himself in 19th-century Canadian society, where anti-Black prejudice and discrimination were common.


Commemoration

In southern Alberta, several places near the site of John Ware’s first ranch are named for him. These include Mount Ware, Ware Creek and John Ware Ridge. Calgary is home to John Ware Junior High. At the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, the John Ware Building houses the 4 Nines Dining Centre.

In February 2012, during Black History Month, Canada Post issued a stamp in honour of John Ware.

Albertan director Cheryl Foggo premiered the play John Ware Reimagined in 2014. She is currently making a documentary film called John Ware Reclaimed for the National Film Board

Photo of John Ware and fellow ranchers

A group of ranchers from the area of Millarville and Priddis, Alberta, c. 1902–03. John Ware is seated second from left in the bottom row. 

(courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-156-10)

Further Reading

  • Grant MacEwan, John Ware's Cow Country (3rd ed. 1995).

  • Ian Hundey, John Ware (2005).

  • James Davidge, The Duchess Ranch of Old John Ware (graphic novel, 2011).

External Links