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“The Harder They Fall,” the highly anticipated all-Black Western that debuted on Netflix November 3, is a fictionalized tale that features real-life Black pioneers of the Wild West. Watching the film will make you want to learn more about these trailblazing figures, so we did a little of the work for you. Below, find books about Nat Love, Stagecoach Mary, Rufus Buck, and others portrayed in the Jeymes Samuel–directed film starring Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield, Regina King, and Delroy Lindo.
For additional recommendations, see our roundups of the best celebrity memoirs and fascinating film criticism books. And if you need a place to store your books, check out these affordable options.
“Life and Adventures of Nat Love: A True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges, and on the Plains of the West” by Nat Love
Major, who plays Love in the movie, picked up this autobiography after he landed the part. “I kept that book with me for essentially the whole time,” he told IndieWire. “It’s the exploits that Nathaniel Love talked about for himself, that he was the best gunman, the best shooter, the best roper, the best all these things.”
Originally published in 1907, the “Life and Adventures of Nat Love” is one of the only firsthand accounts of a Black cowhand in the West from that time period. Born into slavery in Oklahoma around the Civil War, Love learned how to read as a child (despite it being outlawed), and discovered his talent for breaking horses as a teenager. He left home at 16 and headed west where he found work as a cowboy on the Duval Ranch in Texas, and the Gallinger Ranch in southern Arizona. This fascinating narrative details Love’s many adventures and exploits, including being captured and shot by Pima Indians, who eventually spared his life because they sympathized with his plight as a Black man. You’ll also learn just how he earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” and much more.
“I Dreamt I Was in Heaven: The Rampage of the Rufus Gang” by Leonce Gaiter
Played by Elba in the film, Buck was a biracial (Back and Native American) outlaw and founder of the Rufus Buck Gang — a multicultural collective of outlaws who set out on a bloody crusade in the summer of 1895. “I Dreamt I Was in Heaven” shares the true story of how the Rufus Buck Gang embarked on the 13-day deadly rampage to recoup Native American land from white settlers.
“African American Women of the Old West” by Tricia Wagner
Mary Fields, or “Stagecoach Mary” as she’s commonly known, was the first Black female mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. Depicted by Beetz in the movie, this gun-toting pioneer secured contracts with the U.S. Postal Service from the late 1800s until the early 1900s. Fields was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1832. After slavery ended, Fields worked as chambermaid and house servant, and worked several odd jobs that men were usually hired for, such as maintenance and repairs and hauling freight. At age 60, Fields secured her first contract as a star route carrier for the postal service. She used a stagecoach to deliver mail in the rough terrains of Montana, and was known to carry a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver under her apron for protection. Fields never missed a day of work, and became somewhat of a local celebrity in Cascade, Montana (schools even closed on her birthday). She died at Columbus Hospital in 1914 but her legacy has been celebrated for decades. Earlier this year, an Adopt-A-Highway sign was erected outside of Cascade in her honor. Besides the book above, you can learn more about Fields in “Stagecoach Mary” by Jess Nevins, which features some of her lesser-known adventures.
“Cherokee Bill: Black Cowboy-Indian Outlaw” by Arthur T. Burton
Played by Stanfield, Cherokee Bill might be a name you’ve heard. The young outlaw, whose birth name was Crawford Goldsby, is best known for committing multiple robberies and murders in Oklahoma in 1894. The infamous crime spree only lasted seven months but in that time Goldsby and gang robbed banks, railroad cars, post offices, general stores, and more. He also killed eight men, including a deputy, and his own brother-in-law. After going on the run, Goldsby was eventually caught and sentenced to death by hanging at just 20 years old. He was nicknamed “Cherokee Bill” due to his Black and Native American heritage, and was the son of a former Buffalo Soldier who became a sergeant in the 10th United States Cavalry.
“The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians” by James P. Beckwourth
Beckwourth (played by RJ Cyler) was a fur trader, explorer, and mountaineer whose memoir “The Life and Adventures of James. P. Beckwourth” was first published in 1856. Beckwourth was born sometime around 1800 in Frederick County, Virginia, to an enslaved mother and slave owner father. After being freed by his father, Beckwourth found work as a wrangler for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He later claimed to have been captured by the Crow tribe of Montana. Nonetheless, Beckwourth adopted Native American dress, married the daughter of a chief and, based on his account, rose up the ranks within the Crow nation, all while working as a trader. He also served as an Army courier during the Mexican-American War, found his way to California amid the Gold Rush where he opened a store, and discovered what is now known as the Beckwourth Pass between the Sierra Nevada mountains.
“Bill Pickett: Bulldogger” by Bailey C. Hanes
Cowboy, rodeo performer, and entrepreneur, Pickett wore a lot of hats. The Texas native is probably best known for rodeo stunts and tricks and appearing in movies, but he also invented a rodeo technique called bulldogging (where the rider grabs the bull by the horns and wrestles it to the ground). Born in Travis County, Texas, in 1870, Pickett entered his first rodeo as a teenager, and owned a horse-breaking business, The Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters, with his four brothers. By the early 1900s, Pickett scored a job performing in the 101 Ranch Wild West Show under the moniker “The Dusty Demon.” During his downtime, Pickett worked as a cowboy and competed against white contestants in rodeos (Black contestants were usually banned so Pickett had to identify as Native American in order to compete). Pickett became so popular that he was featured in the 1921 films “The Bull-Dogger” and “The Crimson Skull.” He died in 1932 after slipping into a coma from being kicked in the head by a horse. Edi Gathegi plays Pickett in the film.
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