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Black History Month: John Ware’s Legacy

February marks Black History Month—a time of the year where Black history is remembered and celebrated. You probably heard a lot about Alberta’s famed Black cowboy, and today we’ll wrap up Black History Month by exploring his role in Alberta's agricultural history.

In Alberta agriculture, Black settlers took up the offer to homestead in Alberta for a fee of ten dollars. Travelling from the United States to Canada, they settled to find respite from the continuous racial discrimination they encountered even after the conclusion of the American Civil War. Among some of the first Black settlers was John Ware, Alberta’s first Black cowboy.

Most of Ware’s life is shrouded in mystery. Many historical accounts came second-hand from friends and acquaintances—some of which did not appear until the 1930s, twenty-five years after his death. Since he could not read or write, there are no original historical documents from Ware himself, and so historians are unable to confirm the exact details of his life.[1]

Even so, Ware’s influence in Alberta agriculture is legendary and celebrated to this day. He was well-respected as a rancher and described as good-natured and courageous.

Between 1845 and 1850, Ware was born into slavery somewhere in the United States.[2] Ware’s exact birthplace is unconfirmed with some historical sources pointing to Northern Texas,[3] but his marriage registration indicating he was born in Tennessee.[4] When the American Civil War ended in 1865, Ware became a free man. With his newfound freedom, he travelled to Texas to pursue the booming cattle ranching industry. He eventually became a skilled rancher and cowboy, driving cattle herds from Texas to Montana through the Western Cattle Trail.

Then in 1882, he was hired for a cattle drive that led him up north. The herd of three thousand cattle was destined for Sir Hugh Allan’s North-West Cattle Company (today, it is known as Bar U Ranch) which was located in the foothills southwest of Calgary, Alberta.

Shortly after Ware and the other cowhands arrived, a blizzard struck. The group sought shelter at a nearby ranch house, but Ware didn’t make it and was separated from the other cattle drivers. Once the storm settled, they found Ware and his cattle safe and sound, proving his incredible abilities as a rancher.[5]

Alberta, which was known as the North-West Territories back then, was in high demand for experienced cowboys and ranchers, so Ware decided to stay and build a new life here. From 1882 to 1884, he worked with Bar U Ranch and many large cattle companies. By 1885, Ware branched out and started his own cattle company called 9999 (four-nines) sometimes referred to as the walking-stick brand. Two years later, he established his homestead near Millarville, Alberta. On the Millarville ranch, Ware also practiced farming and is credited to have developed one of the first irrigation systems in the area.

In 1891, Ware met Mildred Lewis, the love of his life. They married a year later and had six children. They were a good team as Lewis was in charge of the ranch’s bookkeeping, while Ware managed the ranch. After ten years at the Millarville ranch, Ware and his family relocated their ranch to Duchess, Alberta in 1902. Their time there was short-lived as Lewis became ill with pneumonia and passed in March of 1905. Later that year, Ware would pass away after an incident with his horse. [6]

Although the story of John Ware commends his legendary cowboy status, he still faced plenty of racism and discrimination. Despite his many accomplishments, people during that era addressed him with derogatory and racial slurs—even the mountains and ridges that were named after Ware contained racial slurs at first, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that they were removed.[7]

There are other incidents of discrimination, one of which took place at a bar where Ware was refused service because of the colour of his skin. Another incident was when Ware was asked to pay twice as much for land than his white counterparts.[8] The racially rooted barriers to success that Ware faced mean his legendary status as a rancher and cowboy was even harder to earn. His legacy remains today, which is a true testament to his perseverance and strength of character in the face of adversity.

While Ware was well revered in his day, it’s also important to acknowledge the discrimination he encountered throughout his lifetime. Black History Month is about celebration but also about recognizing racial discrimination throughout Canada’s history. As we reflect on and honour Ware’s legacy, we should remember the adversities he faced and recognize how to move forward towards a better future.


[1] The Canadian Encyclopedia—John Ware [2] The Globe and Mail—Seeking truth in the legends of John Ware [3] Dictionary of Canadian Biography [4] The Canadian Encyclopedia—John Ware [5] National Film Board—John Ware Reclaimed [6] The Canadian Encyclopedia—John Ware [7] CBC—Meet John Ware: Legendary Cowboy [8] The Canadian Encyclopedia—John Ware: The Legend of Canada’s “First” Black Cowboy


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