John Ware: The Legend of Canada’s "First" Black Cowboy

Listen to Strong and Free, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada, produced by Media Girlfriends. Because Black history is Canadian history.

Known for his strength and horsemanship and his innovative ranching techniques, John Ware was a legendary Albertan. Born into enslavement, he became a successful rancher and eventually settled near Calgary. He was widely admired as one of the best cowboys in the West, even at a time of widespread anti-Black racism and discrimination.

We turn to Cheryl Foggo, author, playwright, screenwriter, and director of John Ware Reclaimed and Karina Vernon, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, to learn more about this legendary Black hero who had a hand in shaping Canada’s prairie culture.

Listen to Strong and Free, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada, produced by Media Girlfriends. Because Black history is Canadian history. Known for his strength and horsemanship and his innovative ranching techniques, John Ware was a legendary Albertan. Born into enslavement, he became a successful rancher and eventually settled near Calgary. He was widely admired as one of the best cowboys in the West, even at a time of widespread anti-Black racism and discrimination. We turn to Cheryl Foggo, author, playwright, screenwriter, and director of John Ware Reclaimed and Karina Vernon, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, to learn more about this legendary Black hero who had a hand in shaping Canada’s prairie culture.


Garvia Bailey: What comes to mind when I say “legend,” or should I say who comes to mind?

Maybe you think of a legendary superhero. Maybe you think of legends in books and in movies. One thing that all legends have in common is that they all have a great story. They are up against it, yet they still manage to survive and thrive.

Today I’m going to tell you about John Ware, a legendary man who’s had a mountain and a ridge named after him, who could tame wild horses, who was so skilled that he once walked across the backs of his cattle to help a ranch hand in need. He cared deeply for his family and community AND was considered the toughest of all the cowboys.

Picture this… the dust is kicking up over the horizon, the sun is setting, you can see him coming, riding hard and fast. For this story, we’re heading west.

I’m Garvia Bailey and this is Strong and Free from Historica Canada. Because Black history is Canadian History.

And when I tell you the story of the legendary cowboy John Ware, what we’re also getting into is the deep, long roots of Black people in the Prairies, Black people who built communities that had a hand in building the Prairie culture of our nation.

First, I have to tell you something. I just learned that the word “cowboy,” the origin of the word, a word we use all the time, is not that great.

You see, in the United States prior to the Civil War, enslaved Black men and women would work on ranches, doing the hard work of roping cattle, branding, breaking and caring for horses. They did that work alongside white ranchers. The white workers were called “cow-hands” ...but the enslaved Black workers were called “cow-boys.” “Boy” back then, was a common term of disrespect, ownership and belittling. So yeah, the word “cowboy” was...racist.

Over time the word evolved and now we use it for anyone working with cattle. But, given that I’m telling the story of a cowboy and I’m going to use that word a lot today, I thought you might want to know this word’s history.

When we decided to dig into the story of the Black cowboys, settlers, homesteaders, and pioneers from the Prairies for this podcast, we knew we had to talk about John Ware.

And if you’re talking about this towering historical figure, this legendary cowboy, the first logical step would be to track down Cheryl Foggo.

Cheryl Foggo: My name is Cheryl Foggo and I am an author, a filmmaker and playwright. And I guess I’d call myself an amateur or maybe a community historian. Because I research and preserve stories that have not really been deeply explored by other historians connected with institutions.

GB: Cheryl has devoted her life to writing about Black people in the Canadian west and made a documentary film about John Ware and her own family’s centuries-old lineage.

Her family’s history can be traced back to 1910, a couple of decades after John Ware made his name in the Calgary area. The film is called John Ware Reclaimed.

She calls John Ware a famous person no one has ever heard of outside of Alberta.

CF: My brother and I have tried to pinpoint the moment that we first heard the name Ware. And then that we knew it was, there was a person named John Ware who was a cowboy? And then when did we realize he was Black? Those are all sort of different things because John Ware’s children were elders in my community. So, we think we heard the name Ware because many people in our community were friends with Bob Ware, and Nettie Ware, and Mildred Ware Jr.

GB: Even with John Ware’s - at that time- elderly children living in their community, Cheryl and her brother Richard were far too young to connect all the dots between their own family’s deep connection to the Prairies and the legendary Black cowboy. Those important, grounding, connections would start to fall into place for Cheryl much later in life.

But for us, we can start connecting those dots right now. Because not only do I have Cheryl on board, today, I’ve got another expert for you, too.

Karina Vernon: My name is Karina Vernon. I'm Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where I research and teach in the areas of Canadian literature, Black Canadian literature, and Black Indigenous solidarities.

GB: Karina has spent over a decade researching very early Black presence in Western Canada, combing through personal letters, official documents, journals, poetry, all to understand how Black pioneer families built communities and shaped Canada’s West.

KV: Looking in the archives, looking specifically at the archives of the fur trade, the Hudson's Bay Company archives and other archival sources like that, I found that Black men and women were active in the fur trade in that early contact zone that has now been regionalized as the Prairie. So that presence goes back, as far as I’ve been able to tell, to the seventh, the late 1700s. So, 1780, 1790s. So Black folks, enslaved, free and indentured, were part of that early fur trade. The presence goes back a long time.

GB: That’s pretty far back.

One piece of the historical writing uncovered by Karina was from a woman named Mildred Ware, the wife of John Ware.

KV: I'd heard the name John Ware, the famous Black cowboy. John Ware did not write himself. He was not taught to read and write. But Mildred came from a middle-class Black family in Ontario. When her family relocated to the Prairies, and she married John Ware, she taught her family, taught her children how to read and write. And it was she who kept the books, right, the accounts of their ranch.

GB: John and Mildred Ware set up their second ranch near Brooks, Alberta around 1902. John Ware was one of the first Black pioneers in the Prairies. He was known for his courage, physical strength, ability handling horses, and his incredible ranching techniques. Legend has it he could easily throw a young steer onto its back for branding. Farmland in the area could get very dry making it difficult to farm and John Ware was one of the first in the region to irrigate his crops by using water from the nearby river. His crops flourished and he always had hay for his cattle.

For a formerly enslaved Black man, he was remarkable in the fact that he commanded respect throughout his community and beyond. But how did he end up in Alberta? For that we have to go back to 1882. And although the records kept back then are incomplete, by all indications John Ware was born in the American South. 

CF: My best guess, at this point is that that was Tennessee. He was a very, very skilled horseman and cowboy, so I'm going to guess that he grew up around horses, on some level, that that may even have been part of his work as an enslaved person. Because in 1882, when John Ware crossed the border from the United States into southern Alberta - or what was at that time the Northwest Territories - he was already very skilled as a horseperson. So, he had clearly been working as a cowboy for some time already.

GB: John Ware was part of a small, first wave of immigration of free Black men and women who, although free, still faced discrimination. Laws limited their freedom to own land, to vote, and they even faced violence and murder. Slavery might have ended but racism was far from over.

These men and women got word that Western Canada was opening its doors and they made the move North. At the same time, many white ranchers moved their cattle to Canada, starting in Texas, across Idaho, Montana and into Alberta. John Ware was hired to do exactly that: to move 3,000 head of cattle to Sir Hugh Allan’s North-West Cattle Co, located in the foothills southwest of Calgary.

CF: It was the first really large cattle drive, and it was the beginning of the establishment of Alberta as an agricultural economy and driver. So, you would have to say that John Ware was part of Alberta's very first industry.

GB: John Ware’s legendary status began shortly after he crossed the border into Canada and one of the first challenges he faced was getting through a huge snowstorm.

CF: It was the type of blizzard that we get here that can kill people. And John Ware distinguished himself from the other cowboys in his behavior within that storm, in that he managed to keep his cattle safe.

He was very smart about cattle and really, really good with horses. He could… horses responded to him.  So, he could ride horses no one else could ride; he could ride horse that bucked everybody else off. So, there were a lot of things that led to him becoming well-known pretty quick.

GB: John Ware was making a name for himself.

He had the respect of those who knew him, but some of the discrimination he faced in the United States followed him into Canada.

There are documented stories of John Ware being refused entry to establishments in Calgary. Legend has it that a bartender who refused to serve the Black cowboy ended up splayed out on the floor of his own bar after calling John Ware a derogatory name. 

Not being served at a bar is one thing but there are stories of John Ware being asked to pay double the price for land as white ranchers.

So, even though Canada had opened its doors in the west, Black people were not necessarily welcomed by all. Newspaper clippings from when Cheryl’s family arrived in 1910 refer to the unwelcome presence of “negroes.” Politicians pushed against further immigration of Black people coming up from the United States. Under pressure from white Canadians in 1911, the government was set to BAN the immigration of Black people to Western Canada for a year. Yes, the same country that was opening its doors wanted to ban Black people. But luckily the ban did not go through.

Not being served in a bar because of the colour of your skin – well that’s racism.

Not being able to buy land at a fair price or enter a country because of the colour of your skin - that’s systemic racism. That is, racism that’s baked into the system of our society.

By all accounts, John Ware took it in stride and continued to build on his reputation, a reputation that decades later would capture the heart and imagination of a young Cheryl Foggo.

CF: You would have to understand what it was like growing up in Calgary in the 50s and 60s. And how much of our identity as young people, and I'm talking about young people of all races, who are Calgarians, was connected to horses, and cowboys. It was a part of the air that we breathed. You couldn't escape it.

GB: For Cheryl and her brother Richard growing up in Calgary, home of the Stampede, cowboy culture is their birthright.

CF: For Richard and I it was our fantasy world. We never played anything else. We played cowboys. We would sit on the kitchen table and tie our scarves to the chairs, and the chairs were the horses, and our scarves were the reins and the table was our wagon, and we would play for hours and have all kinds of adventures. So that part of our identity, of our fun, of our escape from all the woes and cares of childhood was… was deep in our blood and bones.

GB: But somehow it didn’t feel like their birthright. All the cowboys they saw in school, in books, and on tv were white. All the history they were taught somehow passed over people with their complexion. Stories like that of John Ware weren’t available to Cheryl. Her own family story wasn’t part of what she learned about the history of the Prairies growing up.

Professor Karina Vernon has thought about that erasure a lot.

KV: You know, whenever I asked my students, for instance, how do you imagine the Prairies, they talk about white cowboys. They think about it as a white space. And that's because the official histories and the official cultural repositories, erased Blackness, right?

I say that it's not just Black folks who are robbed of our histories when we see our histories erased in this way, but all of us are robbed of our collective stories.

GB: All Canadians are robbed when we don’t know our true stories. Black or not.

CF: John Ware wasn't in any of the encyclopedias that we had in our house. If he had been, I would have already discovered him because I read all the encyclopedias.

He wasn't in our schoolbooks. He wasn't in books in our library in Bowness.

GB: He wasn’t in the books but he was a legend. People in Alberta knew John Ware’s name.

CF: You can perhaps understand what it was like to learn that the person who most Albertans, most southern Albertans, think of as the greatest cowboy of all, was Black like us, was life altering, and… and goosebump inducing.

GB: And then there’s Cheryl’s own family’s story.

CF: I was one of six children in my family. And I am a descendant of Black pioneers who settled in Alberta and Saskatchewan around 1910.

GB: Let me roll Cheryl’s story back even further. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Canadian government made an offer to farmers in the southern United States. For a $10 filing fee they could have 65 hectares of land if they agreed to cultivate a portion of it and build a permanent dwelling on it within three years.

Cheryl’s ancestors arrived in the early 1900’s. This migration led to the creation of Black communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Cheryl’s great-grandparents settled near Maidstone and Turtleford, Saskatchewan. Some of her great-aunts and a great-uncle settled in Amber Valley, Alberta, the largest and best known of the Black settlements. Her grandparents moved to Regina in 1926. Her mom moved to Calgary from Regina in 1946. So that’s where Cheryl was born and where she went to school.

CF: Almost everyone in my school classrooms were first-generation or second-generation Canadians for the most part.

I was aware maybe around grade four, five, six-ish, that my history in this part of the world was older than that, that we had been here longer.

I wasn't looked upon as a long-time Canadian, nobody would have picked me out of the pool of kids as the one with the deepest and longest roots in Western Canada.

GB: She was a Black girl and the pioneers they had been learning about in school did not look like her. It wasn’t until Cheryl was 10 or 11 that her older brother saw a photo of John Ware in the Glenbow Museum. A Black man, a cowboy, who was part of that early Black presence on the Prairies just like Cheryl.

CF: That's when our love of cowboys and horses and all of that heritage that we grew up with in Calgary got married for me because that was a heritage where I did not see myself reflected at all. The cowboy stories, that was a white world.

That's when those two very separate parts of my identity, my African-ness and my cowgirl-ness, came together and were able to begin to be unified.

GB: There was a book written in 1960 by the historian, former mayor of Calgary and former Lieutenant Governor for Alberta, Grant MacEwan. This is where a lot of the legends that were told about John Ware began. The book is called John Ware’sCow Country. Cheryl… does not love this book.

CF: I didn't read that book until I was quite a bit older and I’m glad I didn’t because it’s so...hard to process. The book is so hard to process as a person of African descent. The language in the book that he assigns to John Ware is so awful and so jarring that I think I would have found it quite disturbing to read the book as a kid.

GB: Although well meaning, the story of John Ware as told by Grant MacEwan skirted the line between historical fiction and historical fact. In his book, the recounting of the names given to John Ware were derogatory. And what’s arguably worse, the book painted Ware as a lone Black cowboy, ignoring the Black presence that was there before, during, and after John Ware.

The book was read by young and old and played a key role in how John Ware was viewed. But, remember earlier we talked about a large migration of formerly enslaved Black families from the states in 1910, well they settled in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba -- they are ALL part of our story.

So why don’t we know their stories? Here’s Karina again...

KV: History isn't neutral. So, John Ware’s story in the hands of other previous historians has been shaped by a certain sense of what Blackness is and particularly what Black masculinity is. So, John Ware’s story comes to be told in a particular way that then confirms stereotypes about Black men, right, about not having the capacity or intellect and being all physicality and those are damaging stories.

And I think it misshapes all of us as Canadians to not know our full history. To not know that there were Black fur traders, Black homesteaders and that we've been there from the very beginning of the period of non-Native contact. And so, the conversations that we're having in the present, you know, the conversations around Black Lives Matter and tackling racism in all of our institutions…. Well, if folks knew how long the story was, you know, if folks knew how long Black people have been in Canada, have been in the Prairies, and how long we've been searching for our freedom, then these conversations we're having about Black Lives Matter now wouldn't come as a surprise, right? We would know, oh, this is a 300-year-long conversation.

GB: John Ware died in 1905 near Brooks, Alberta when his horse tripped in a badger hole and fell on top of him. Mildred, his wife, died of pneumonia only a few months before him, both leaving behind five children, a ranch, a life of many accomplishments, and the legacy we are discussing today. John Ware has a school named after him. Two creeks carry his name. You can take a hike on the John Ware mountain ridge. There is even a Canadian stamp with his face on it. The cowhand lived from around 1850 to 1905, and in that time, against all odds, made a life and created a legacy here in Canada. But he wasn’t alone...

Only telling the story of John Ware - and it is an awesome story - is just as damaging as not telling the story of Black presence in the Prairies at all. Through Cheryl’s telling of her story and the story of the legendary John Ware, we get to colour in some of the lines of our country’s history. Black history is history. Plain and simple.

I want you to take away from this episode that John Ware was an exceptional rancher. His skills were legendary, they transcended racism. His excellence won’t fade away. But what if we knew and remembered the stories of all the Black communities in the Prairies? What would that do for us, for Canada?

CF: I hear that all the time from young Black people who grew up here and say, “If I had known this story of John Ware” or “if I had known this story of your ancestry here, and the Black communities that were here and made amazing contributions to this part of the world, that would have helped me growing up.” So that gap, that absence is very damaging. I also believe it's damaging to everybody. It deprives you of a sense of connectedness to the place where you live. 

I just think that our history belongs to all of us and would really help us to understand who we are as Canadians if we had a better understanding of who we've been all along.

GB: Thank you for listening.

Strong and Free was produced by Media Girlfriends and Historica Canada.

This series is part of a larger Black history education campaign by Historica Canada. For more resources, visit historicacanada.ca.

You can find Strong and Free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

This episode was written and produced by me, Garvia Bailey.

Senior producers are myself and Hannah Sung.

Sound design and mix by Gabbie Clarke and David Moreau.

The Media Girlfriends team is rounded out Josiane Blanc, Lucius Dechausay, Jeff Woodrow, and Nana aba Duncan, the founder of Media Girlfriends.

Thank you to Karina Vernon, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and to our script consultant, Cheryl Foggo, Director, Screenwriter, Author & Playwright. 

Fact-checking by Sean Young.

I'm Garvia Bailey, thanks again for listening.