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From cowboys to businesswomen: celebrating local Black history this Juneteenth

From cowboys to businesswomen: celebrating local Black history this Juneteenth
Learn about John Ware, Annie Saunders and other Black people who left lasting legacies in southwestern Alberta’s history.
Learn about John Ware, Annie Saunders and other Black people who left lasting legacies in southwestern Alberta’s history.
IMAGE: “John Ware, rancher, with wife Mildred and children Robert and Nettie in southern Alberta”, [ca. 1896], (CU1107289) by Unknown. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.
John Ware in about 1896.
IMAGE: “John Ware, rancher, with wife Mildred and children Robert and Nettie in southern Alberta”, [ca. 1896], (CU1107289) by Unknown. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.
John Ware in about 1896.

From cowboys to businesswomen: celebrating local Black history this Juneteenth

By Mia Parker
By Mia Parker
Shootin’ the Breeze | Local Journalism Initiative
Shootin’ the Breeze Shootin’ the Breeze | Local Journalism Initiative
June 19, 2024
June 19, 2024

In 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, ending the previously legal practice of slavery in America. The end of the horrific practice is celebrated each year on Juneteenth, commemorating when Union soldiers arrived in Texas on June 19, 1865, freeing those who had not yet been released due to Confederate control.

John Ware

Upon freedom, many formerly enslaved individuals left to start new lives, with some coming up to the local area, such as southwestern Alberta’s famous Black cowboy, John Ware.

“He would probably have been a horseman on whatever plantation or farm he had worked on during slavery,” says Gord Tolton, education co-ordinator at Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village in Pincher Creek.

Horseman work was quite in demand during that time period, so Ware found work along several northbound trails, ending up in the Montana area.

Tolton notes that about one in six north-travelling cowboys at that time were Black and that Ware stood out because of his size and ability to learn new skills.

Ace of spades card on ad for Chase the Ace at the Pincher Creek Legion

“When he first started, he couldn’t even afford a pair of boots,” says Tolton. “He learned how to save up and buy the right gear to do this.”

In the early 1880s, Ware was contracted to deliver cattle into southern Alberta for the Northwest Cattle Co. and was then offered a position at the ranch.

Though racial tensions and racism were deeply present in society, Tolton says Ware was respected by the local ranchers for his skills. However, Ware reportedly had to avoid urban areas such as Calgary because of the rampant racism, and was once stopped by police and told he would have to travel around the city rather than through it.

Black Alberta cowboy and rancher John Ware with his wife Mildred and children Robert and Nettie in about 1896.

Black Alberta cowboy and rancher John Ware with his wife Mildred and children Robert and Nettie in about 1896.

“John Ware, rancher, with wife Mildred and children Robert and Nettie in southern Alberta”, [ca. 1896], (CU1107289) by Unknown. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Ware eventually bought his own land and cattle and married Mildred, a Black woman from the Crowsnest Pass area. The two had children who lived in the Vulcan area for many years.

Ware was killed when his horse stumbled on a badger hole, falling on top of him and crushing his ribcage.

“He was a great legacy,” says Tolton, noting that the locals remembered him for what he could do as a cowboy and rancher. “He was an embodiment of the Alberta spirit.”

Ware was an independent man who was able to pick himself up from harsh beginnings to learn, creating a legacy of himself despite the challenges of racism and enslavement.

 

 

York, William Bond, Henry Mills and Charlie Dyson

Though he is perhaps the most famous, Ware was not the first Black cowboy in the region.

“There were Black people working in the fur trade prior to Ware, going back to the 1860s,” says Tolton.

An enslaved man named York was perhaps the first Black man in the area and was revered by the local Indigenous communities.

In the 1870s, several Black men came up to work in the whisky trade. William Bond was one of these men, exchanging buffalo for whisky and other goods, and operating his own post.

Bond was later arrested by RCMP, along with his boss and others involved. His boss paid fines for the release of everyone except Bond, who spent several months in prison in Fort Macleod for racially motivated reasons.

“He escaped one day during the winter, he was shot at by one of the Mountie sentries, and nobody ever found any trace of him for the longest time,” says Tolton. He was later discovered to have died of exposure.

Bond had an unidentified brother who also worked in the whisky trade.

 

Dave Mills, son of Black Alberta fur trader Henry Mills, with his Kainai wife.

Dave Mills, son of Black Alberta fur trader Henry Mills, with his Kainai wife.

Photo courtesy of Pincher Creek and District Historical Society

Another historical figure in the area was Henry Mills, a fur trader who worked for the American Fur Co. in North Dakota and later travelled up the Missouri River. He brought his family to southwestern Alberta, where some of his sons married into the local Blood Tribe.

The town of Pincher Creek itself carries the history of two notable Black business owners, Charlie Dyson and Annie Saunders.

Dyson had a blacksmith shop just off Main Street in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

 

 

Annie Saunders

Saunders was born in 1836 in the United States and was married and widowed before making her way to Alberta. She contributed immeasurably to the local community, despite obvious barriers as a Black woman in the 1800s.

Laurel Francis, a Kootenai Brown volunteer, local artist and business owner, has taken this historical figure on as her own for historical re-enactments, and emphasizes just how incredible she was.

“We may have been considered free but that didn’t mean we could get jobs and support ourselves,” said Francis in a historical re-enactment of Saunders.

Saunders was working as a steward on a steamboat when she met newlywed Mary Macleod. The two got on very well, and Macleod asked Saunders to come back to Canada with her to care for her kids.

Saunders moved with the family to Pincher Creek, and started several businesses in the community.

 

Black businesswoman Annie Saunders of Pincher Creek.

Black businesswoman Annie Saunders of Pincher Creek.“Old Auntie,” ca. 1890, [NA-742-4] by E.M. Wilmot. Courtesy of Glenbow Western Research Centre, Archives and Special Collections, University of Calgary.

“She found a need, and she filled the need,” says Francis.

The community needed child care, so she cared for children. People liked her food, so she started a restaurant. Kids needed a place to stay after school when they couldn’t go home on snowy nights, so she started a boarding house. People didn’t want to do their laundry, so she opened a Main Street business to do it for them.

“Not only was she an entrepreneur, people found her safe,” Francis says. “They found her safe with their kids. She just broke down barriers and had a big sense of humour.”

She went by Auntie, a self-given nickname that Francis notes as being very clever and calculated.

“There’s a lot of other names you can be called. There’s a strength in that you claim your own name,” she says.

 

 

This not only showed the community how friendly she was, but it also told people to call her something that wasn’t the N-word.

“She was a smart woman who knew the only way to get by. ‘Call me auntie.’ And she picked her own name,” Francis says.

Auntie Saunders was a literate woman, a big thing for her time. The history of her upbringing and education is not clear, but it’s possible she learned while enslaved as a “house slave,” like caring for children.

She encountered lots of prejudice when in the area, with organizations such as the Woman’s Institute trying to keep her out with articles saying she wasn’t wanted here.

But Auntie Saunders was also documented in newspaper archives, detailing her acceptance and the extent of her local contributions.

“For her to take on all of the opportunities that she created is huge,” says Francis. “I think that there was an adventurous spirit in there that I really love about her. That’s a real big strength.”

 

Ad for Ascent Dental in Pincher Creek

 

For the local community, she left behind a legacy of acceptance.

To Francis, the fact that she is not talked about as “the Black person” but rather as a member of the community was a huge contribution when there was such a feeling of separateness.

“She was accepting of people’s foibles, obviously, or she couldn’t have done what she did. The fact that people still talk about her today I think is amazing,” Francis says.

“It’s just a simple person. From just teaching kids, being a nanny, making food, having dances at her establishment, doing laundry and all those things show that simple people can make huge differences in communities. Forget about their colour, their ethnicity, whatever. You can make a difference.”

 

Shootin' the Breeze ad for free trial subscription

 

Related story | Town council to name future street after Annie Saunders

 

 

Ad for Shadowbar Shepherds Training in Pincher Creek

In 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, ending the previously legal practice of slavery in America. The end of the horrific practice is celebrated each year on Juneteenth, commemorating when Union soldiers arrived in Texas on June 19, 1865, freeing those who had not yet been released due to Confederate control.

John Ware

Upon freedom, many formerly enslaved individuals left to start new lives, with some coming up to the local area, such as southwestern Alberta’s famous Black cowboy, John Ware.

“He would probably have been a horseman on whatever plantation or farm he had worked on during slavery,” says Gord Tolton, education co-ordinator at Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village in Pincher Creek.

Horseman work was quite in demand during that time period, so Ware found work along several northbound trails, ending up in the Montana area.

Tolton notes that about one in six north-travelling cowboys at that time were Black and that Ware stood out because of his size and ability to learn new skills.

Table setting of wedding venue — the Cowley Lions Campground Stockade near Pincher Creek in southwestern Alberta.

“When he first started, he couldn’t even afford a pair of boots,” says Tolton. “He learned how to save up and buy the right gear to do this.”

In the early 1880s, Ware was contracted to deliver cattle into southern Alberta for the Northwest Cattle Co. and was then offered a position at the ranch.

Though racial tensions and racism were deeply present in society, Tolton says Ware was respected by the local ranchers for his skills. However, Ware reportedly had to avoid urban areas such as Calgary because of the rampant racism, and was once stopped by police and told he would have to travel around the city rather than through it.

Black Alberta cowboy and rancher John Ware with his wife Mildred and children Robert and Nettie in about 1896.

Black Alberta cowboy and rancher John Ware with his wife Mildred and children Robert and Nettie in about 1896.

“John Ware, rancher, with wife Mildred and children Robert and Nettie in southern Alberta”, [ca. 1896], (CU1107289) by Unknown. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Ware eventually bought his own land and cattle and married Mildred, a Black woman from the Crowsnest Pass area. The two had children who lived in the Vulcan area for many years.

Ware was killed when his horse stumbled on a badger hole, falling on top of him and crushing his ribcage.

“He was a great legacy,” says Tolton, noting that the locals remembered him for what he could do as a cowboy and rancher. “He was an embodiment of the Alberta spirit.”

Ware was an independent man who was able to pick himself up from harsh beginnings to learn, creating a legacy of himself despite the challenges of racism and enslavement.

 

 

York, William Bond, Henry Mills and Charlie Dyson

Though he is perhaps the most famous, Ware was not the first Black cowboy in the region.

“There were Black people working in the fur trade prior to Ware, going back to the 1860s,” says Tolton.

An enslaved man named York was perhaps the first Black man in the area and was revered by the local Indigenous communities.

In the 1870s, several Black men came up to work in the whisky trade. William Bond was one of these men, exchanging buffalo for whisky and other goods, and operating his own post.

Bond was later arrested by RCMP, along with his boss and others involved. His boss paid fines for the release of everyone except Bond, who spent several months in prison in Fort Macleod for racially motivated reasons.

“He escaped one day during the winter, he was shot at by one of the Mountie sentries, and nobody ever found any trace of him for the longest time,” says Tolton. He was later discovered to have died of exposure.

Bond had an unidentified brother who also worked in the whisky trade.

 

Dave Mills, son of Black Alberta fur trader Henry Mills, with his Kainai wife.

Dave Mills, son of Black Alberta fur trader Henry Mills, with his Kainai wife.

Photo courtesy of Pincher Creek and District Historical Society

Another historical figure in the area was Henry Mills, a fur trader who worked for the American Fur Co. in North Dakota and later travelled up the Missouri River. He brought his family to southwestern Alberta, where some of his sons married into the local Blood Tribe.

The town of Pincher Creek itself carries the history of two notable Black business owners, Charlie Dyson and Annie Saunders.

Dyson had a blacksmith shop just off Main Street in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

 

Ad for Aurora Eggert Coaching in Beaver Mines

 

Annie Saunders

Saunders was born in 1836 in the United States and was married and widowed before making her way to Alberta. She contributed immeasurably to the local community, despite obvious barriers as a Black woman in the 1800s.

Laurel Francis, a Kootenai Brown volunteer, local artist and business owner, has taken this historical figure on as her own for historical re-enactments, and emphasizes just how incredible she was.

“We may have been considered free but that didn’t mean we could get jobs and support ourselves,” said Francis in a historical re-enactment of Saunders.

Saunders was working as a steward on a steamboat when she met newlywed Mary Macleod. The two got on very well, and Macleod asked Saunders to come back to Canada with her to care for her kids.

Saunders moved with the family to Pincher Creek, and started several businesses in the community.

 

Black businesswoman Annie Saunders of Pincher Creek.

Black businesswoman Annie Saunders of Pincher Creek.“Old Auntie,” ca. 1890, [NA-742-4] by E.M. Wilmot. Courtesy of Glenbow Western Research Centre, Archives and Special Collections, University of Calgary.

“She found a need, and she filled the need,” says Francis.

The community needed child care, so she cared for children. People liked her food, so she started a restaurant. Kids needed a place to stay after school when they couldn’t go home on snowy nights, so she started a boarding house. People didn’t want to do their laundry, so she opened a Main Street business to do it for them.

“Not only was she an entrepreneur, people found her safe,” Francis says. “They found her safe with their kids. She just broke down barriers and had a big sense of humour.”

She went by Auntie, a self-given nickname that Francis notes as being very clever and calculated.

“There’s a lot of other names you can be called. There’s a strength in that you claim your own name,” she says.

 

Ad for Dragons Heart Quilt Shop in Pincher Creek

 

This not only showed the community how friendly she was, but it also told people to call her something that wasn’t the N-word.

“She was a smart woman who knew the only way to get by. ‘Call me auntie.’ And she picked her own name,” Francis says.

Auntie Saunders was a literate woman, a big thing for her time. The history of her upbringing and education is not clear, but it’s possible she learned while enslaved as a “house slave,” like caring for children.

She encountered lots of prejudice when in the area, with organizations such as the Woman’s Institute trying to keep her out with articles saying she wasn’t wanted here.

But Auntie Saunders was also documented in newspaper archives, detailing her acceptance and the extent of her local contributions.

“For her to take on all of the opportunities that she created is huge,” says Francis. “I think that there was an adventurous spirit in there that I really love about her. That’s a real big strength.”

 

Aerial view of the Cowley Lions Campground on the Castle River in southwestern Alberta

 

For the local community, she left behind a legacy of acceptance.

To Francis, the fact that she is not talked about as “the Black person” but rather as a member of the community was a huge contribution when there was such a feeling of separateness.

“She was accepting of people’s foibles, obviously, or she couldn’t have done what she did. The fact that people still talk about her today I think is amazing,” Francis says.

“It’s just a simple person. From just teaching kids, being a nanny, making food, having dances at her establishment, doing laundry and all those things show that simple people can make huge differences in communities. Forget about their colour, their ethnicity, whatever. You can make a difference.”

 

 

Related story | Town council to name future street after Annie Saunders

 

 

Ad for Sara Hawthorn, Pincher Creek and Crowsnest Pass realtor

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