Henry Harris was an African American cowboy. Born in Texas circa 1865, Harris came to Nevada in about 1885 to work for rancher (and future governor) John Sparks, who was establishing a large ranch in northeastern Nevada and southern Idaho. Harris was a valued employee of Sparks and other ranchers for over fifty years. During that time, he earned a reputation as a great handler of horses and became a well-known African American cowboy in the state.
Harris was typical of many black cowboys of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in that he was from Texas. That state was the center of the burgeoning western beef cattle industry, which peaked between the mid-1860s and the mid-1880s. While many Texas men were fighting in the Civil War (1861–1865) east of the Mississippi River, their families' domesticated cattle either escaped or were set free to join the thousands of wild cattle that roamed over the southwestern United States along the Mexican border. After the war, cattlemen rounded up those animals, claimed them as their own, raised them cheaply, and sold their offspring for tremendous profits.
Because Texas had been a slave state with a large black population, several thousand cowboys who found work in the cattle business were African Americans. Although Harris's date of birth is disputed, multiple sources say he was born on December 15, 1865 (the very month that slavery was officially abolished in the United States) in Georgetown, Williamson County, Texas, in the heart of the cattle kingdom. Sparks had a large ranch in the county, and Harris went to work for him while in his teens. When Sparks decided to leave Texas and go to Nevada, he took young Henry with him to be a house servant and cowboy.
The pay for African Americans who became cowboys was usually better than what they could make doing other jobs available to them. For many, including Henry Harris, it was also the work that they enjoyed doing the most. Moreover, because Harris had almost no formal education, his job options were limited. So leaving Texas, where his parents had been slaves, and going to Nevada was not only a great adventure for the teenaged Henry in the 1880s but also an opportunity for economic advancement as a trusted employee of a wealthy rancher. Through a combination of hard work and ability, Harris took on more and more responsibilities until he became a foreman over several groups of cowboys—both black and white.
In this regard, Harris was atypical of black cowboys. Most of the very few who became ranch or trail bosses had control over other black cowboys only. Perhaps Nevada's society—which was certainly not color blind—was more tolerant of interracial relations in the workplace than was that of Harris's native Texas. Harris's ability to handle men as well as horses was more important than his race. His outgoing personality and work ethic impressed not only his employers but his fellow drovers as well.
Henry Harris died in April 1937 in a hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho, to which he had been admitted after contracting pneumonia. He is buried in that city. As was the case with many African Americans in the American West of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Harris never married and, thus, left no descendants. In August 2008, he received some posthumous recognition for his contributions to Nevada history when he was inducted into the Buckaroo Hall of Fame in Winnemucca.
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