by the late 19th century roughly one in three cowboys (known as vaqueros) was Mexican. The recognizable cowboy fashions, technologies, and lexicon—hats, bandanas, spurs, stirrups, lariat, lasso—are all Latino inventions.
The story of one of America’s most eminent frontiersmen, Jim Beckwourth, formed the basis for 1951’s Tomahawk, which starred a white actor even though Beckwourth was black. The famous 1956 Western epic The Searchers was based on a black man named Britt Johnson. He was played by John Wayne, one of the genre’s biggest movie stars, who in 1971 told Playboy, “I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to the point of responsibility.” Even the fictional character of the Lone Ranger (who originally debuted in a radio show in 1933) shares striking similarities to Bass Reeves, believed to be the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi.
By the time Westerns gained wider prominence with movie audiences in the 1950s, the ubiquity of the genre’s all-white protagonists had helped fully obscure the reality of race on the American frontier. Crucial to this effort were directors like Cecil B. DeMille (The Squaw Man, Rose of the Rancho, The Trail of Lonesome Pine, The Buccaneers) and John Ford (My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Searchers). Non-white characters were usually antagonists with names like “Mexican Henchman” or “Facetious Redskin.”