Love on the range: The story of a cowboy

Nat Love (pronounced “Nate”) lived the kind of life that adventure novels and blockbuster movies are built on. Freed from slavery at a young age, Love spent most of his career as a cowboy in the American West, and ended it working as a Pullman Porter on the railroads. Today, his story is being told through a unique theater program.


Nat Love

Love was born on the plantation of Robert Love in Davidson County, Tennessee, in June of 1854. When the end of the Civil War brought the abolition of slavery, Nat Love’s father and his family tried to establish a small farm in the area, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. Love soon left the farming life and headed west to Dodge City, Kansas, looking for work as a cattleman. He was hired by the men of the Duval Ranch in Texas, and it was with them that he began his new life.

Three days a week this summer and once weekly this fall the National Museum of American History has brought Nat Love back to life in the show Love on the Range, one of our many theater program offerings. Portrayed by actor Xavier Carnegie, Love on the Range provides visitors with an authentic look at life on the cattle drives of the Old West.

Actor Xavier Carnegie performing as Nat Love in front of museum visitors

During his program, Nat Love surrounds himself with the objects that made up his life: a cowhide, a Winchester rifle, and the brands that helped cattlemen like Love identify which cattle were theirs and which belonged to other ranchers.

Love was an expert in cattle brands, which meant that it was his job to recognize the symbols ranchers used to mark their cattle as their own. In a time and region of the country where livestock often roamed freely to graze, and huge cattle drives attempted to keep track of literally hundreds, or even thousands, of cows as they crossed the plains, it was important to use clear brands that made property disputes easy to settle. And, it was critical to employ men who could easily and accurately identify which brands indicated whose ownership.

Actor Xavier Carnegie performing as Nat Love in front of museum visitors

Visitors of all ages enjoy asking Nat Love questions about his life and the gear he used. Reliable firearms were one of the cowboy’s most important tools. Love himself carried an 1873 Winchester Carbine and a Schofield .44 out on the trail, and could hardly have thrived without them. Love and his fellow cattlemen used their guns to protect themselves, their coworkers, and their cattle from rustlers, bandits, and dangerous wild animals. And in a time when carrying and preserving food was difficult and uncertain, Love and his fellows used their guns to hunt deer and buffalo out on the range to provide food for themselves.

On July 4th, 1876, Nat Love entered a rodeo in Deadwood, South Dakota. His years as a cowboy had honed his natural skills, and he won the rope, throw, tie, bridle, saddle, and bronco riding contests. Thrilled by his victories, the crowd gave him the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” and his fame spread. In 1907, Love published his memoirs under the title The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” by Himself.

Actor Xavier Carnegie performing as Nat Love

Love on the Range is a dialogue-based show which focuses on free and open conversation between Nat Love and curious museum visitors. Love shares stories of his early years in slavery back in Tennessee, of the new skills he learned out west, and the many dangers of living the cowboy life. Facing storms and droughts, competing ranchers and rogue cowboys, encounters with Americans Indians and cattle thieves, Love lived the kind of exciting life that has been mythologized by American culture.

Catch Love on the Range in September and October on Thursdays at 2:30 PM at the National Museum of American History.

Tory Altman is the floor manager at the National Museum of American History.