Recent media coverage around the world has shone a light on stories about contemporary Black American cowboys: the Compton Cowboys of Los Angeles, Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia, Brianna Noble, the BLM horsewoman/protester in Oakland. “The prevalence of Black men and women in cowboy and ranching culture and history has begun to be highlighted in recent years,” agrees Black Alberta-based filmmaker Cheryl Foggo. “Yet this fascinating history was erased or suppressed in the past. In addition to celebrating this history now, I think it’s important to look critically at the reasons why the erasure happened in the first place. It’s important to ensure that we’re not upholding or perpetuating incomplete cultural narratives.”
Helping to fill the gap in Black Canadian history, specifically Black cowboy and ranching culture, comes Foggo’s feature length documentary John Ware Reclaimed, produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).
John Ware Reclaimed follows filmmaker Cheryl Foggo on her quest to re-examine the mythology surrounding John Ware, the Black cowboy who settled in Alberta before the turn of the 20th century. Foggo’s research uncovers who this iconic figure might have been, and what his legacy means in terms of anti-Black racism, both past and present. The film will have its world premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival on September 24th, and it is a sold out in-cinema screening. The film will also be screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival the same week.
Foggo, a lifelong horse lover who rode as a child and attended riding camp, first learned about Ware when she was a little girl growing up in Alberta. Foggo and her brother Richard would attend the Calgary Stampede and like many horse crazy kids, they were convinced that the horses would remember them year after year. As a boy, Richard came home from the Glenbow Museum in Calgary where he found an exhibit devoted to John Ware and told his sister about the discovery. At the time the existence of a Black cowboy was a revelation to the Foggo siblings, as the filmmaker says in her film, “We couldn’t have known that; it was a history that wasn’t available to us or anyone else.”
As children the Foggo siblings were surrounded by images of American cowboys on TV and in film, all of whom were white. “If there was a Black man on screen, it was a cook or helper kind of thing,” Richard Foggo says in the film. But as Cheryl Foggo was to learn, in real life, Black cowboys were “ubiquitous,” and she uses historic photos of Black cowboys Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Bill Pickett, Jesse Stahl to name a few, to illustrate this fact.
But it was John Ware who captivated the young Foggo. “I was attracted to the story when I was young and forming my own identity, that’s how it started,” she says. “His story just resonated so powerfully with me as a parallel to my own life and my feeling of being from this land, the cowboy mystique and loving horses.”
Part of Ware’s mystique revolves around what little of his biography is known. He was formerly enslaved and likely born in the American South, arrived in Canada on the first cattle drive from Texas in 1882 and settled in Alberta in 1887, where he remained the rest of his life. Ware’s horsemanship was what he was first known for, and perhaps his most enduring legacy. He was an “absolute horseman, and no one ever saw him thrown from a horse,” Foggo says. “The prevailing belief was he could ride any horse and stay in the saddle under very trying circumstances that tossed many a rider. He loved his horses, all his animals, but he had excellent communication with horses.”
Ware is also credited with popularizing steer wrestling. He married a local Black woman named Mildred Lewis, and the couple had six children, although only five reached adulthood.
The only biography published about the mysterious Ware was 1960s John Ware’s Cow Country, written by former Alberta Lieutenant Governor Grant MacEwan. Today, the language and depiction of Ware and Black people is dated, to say the least. “It’s a book that views John Ware through the lens of an old Hollywood version of what a Black person sounds like,” Foggo explains. “I assume [MacEwan] didn’t know any Black people from the South. He’s imitating the voice assigned to Black folks in old Hollywood movies. I knew Black people from across the south who were alive in John Ware’s time and none of them talked like that.”
The evolution of Foggo’s own journey exploring Ware’s story began officially during the Calgary Stampede’s Centennial celebration in 2012, where she gave a presentation about Ware. The response was so positive that her niece persuaded Foggo to write a play, which was first produced in 2014 in Calgary, and was mounted again in Edmonton in 2017. Foggo describes the play as an imagining, a magical and fantastical fiction of John Ware. “But I recognized that there was a real need for something that was based on the facts of his life as much as I could know them and to update the story from 1960,” she explains. “I wanted to continue to tell his story as much as I could.”
Foggo uses animation, original music and historical photos to portray Ware. Real-life rodeo champion Fred Whitfield stands in for Ware during the live-action sequences and re-enactments. Foggo appears in the film as a documentarian, archivist and archaeologist, searching for facts that have merged with fiction, and where much of the truth is lost to the mists of time. In one sequence Foggo visits the site of Ware’s ranch near Millarville, Alberta, along with land surveyors and archeologists. She is visibly moved by the experience and by being on Ware’s land; it is clear that her connection to him is visceral.
Watch a clip of the movie here:
What is also evident in the film is Ware’s status in the community; today there are several landmarks and buildings named in his honour. The include John Ware Ridge, Ware Creek and Mount Ware, John Ware Junior High School, John Ware 4-H Beef Club and the John Ware building at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Yet few Canadians know who the man behind the name was, something Foggo is changing, one creative project at a time. She is planning to write a book next.
As revealed in the film, Mildred Ware died from pneumonia in 1905, and John was killed that same year in a freak riding accident. His horse tripped in a badger hole and he was crushed beneath the fallen animal. And while John Ware has no living descendants (none of the couple’s children had offspring), thanks to Foggo’s extensive research and passion for uncovering the man behind the myth, the story of one of Canada’s most famous Black cowboys is now accessible to all.
HORSE CANADA READERS: You can stream the film if you live in one of the four western provinces by clicking on these links:
Virtual screenings available for streaming: Calgary Int’l Film Festival (Sep 24-Oct 4): Geo-blocked to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba
Vancouver Int’l Film Festival (Sep 24 – Oct 7): Geo-blocked to British Columbia.