A once-enslaved Madison cowboy made history last week as he was inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Bill Brewer was named the 2021 working class cowboy by the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame on Nov. 13, 83 years after his death on Nov. 12, 1938.
“He was one hell of a cowboy,” said Jim Hoy, a Flint Hills cowboy historian who nominated Brewer. “He was apparently an excellent rider of bucking horses. In any of the research I’ve done, I’ve not encountered anyone who ever saw him being thrown off a horse.”
William Martin Brewer was born into slavery on Feb. 25, 1854 in Louisville, Kentucky. When he arrived in Greenwood County in 1870, a young, trail-driving cowboy, he bore whip scars. His first job in the area, Hoy said, was searching for unbranded cattle with another ranch hand for a rancher named Johnson. And once those cattle were located, they would put the Johnson brand on them — whether Johnson owned them or not.
“He was probably the first Black cowboy in the area,” Hoy said.
After a year or two, Hoy said Brewer left Johnson’s employ and went to work for a rancher named Jackson, a few miles west of Madison.
Hoy said Brewer was the only Black person permitted in Madison at the time. Both Madison and Greenwood County as a whole were considered to be “sundown towns” — or all-white communities, neighborhoods, or counties that excluded Blacks and other minorities “through the use of discriminatory laws, harassment, and threats or use of violence.”
“It’s ironic because Kansas was an abolitionist state, but you could be an abolitionist and still not want Black people around,” Hoy said. “Many of the people who moved to Kansas in the territorial days voted to stay in as a free state. They didn’t want Black people here, they just didn’t want slaves here.”
When Jackson died in the early 1890s, Brewer ended up in Eureka, shining shoes at the Cattleman’s Hotel. James Bradfield, a rancher on the Verdigris River, found him there and built him a house on his land “in return for his labor.”
“James Bradfield promised care for Mr. Brewer in his old age, a promise contained in the abstract of the ranch,” said Francis Perrier in a statement held by the Greenwood County Historical Society. “When Bradfield died, the ranch was inherited by his two sons, both of whom had professions elsewhere, so Brewer became in essence the foreman and ranch manager. When Brewer was in his seventies, the ranch was foreclosed on during the Great Depression.
“Brewer, because of his race, his accomplishments, his popularity, or simply because younger men wanted to prove themselves, was often challenged to fight, but he never provoked a fight. He never started a fight, and he won all of them except one in which the challenger was, unknown to Brewer, using brass knuckles. He would have died from loss of blood after that fight except for his friends and neighbors who donated blood. Brewer was a strong man, who once, when he happened onto a man with a flat tire and no jack, took hold of the wheel and lifted the car until a block was placed under the axle.”
Hoy said there are a number of stories about Brewer’s skills as a cowboy.
“He could make a team of balky mules behave just by talking to (or sometimes yelling at) them, he could work cattle with the best, and he could ride any bucking horse in the area,” Hoy said.
Brewer was also said to be an excellent cook, a skilled poker player and an unmatched fighter.
“At age 68 he boxed in an exhibition in order to raise money for the Olpe school, but many of his fights were for his own protection, not for a school benefit,” Hoy said. “Once, for example, two men threatened to throw him in the Verdigris River north of Madison. They both went home wet.”
“The only time he ever lost a fight, the other guy had brass knuckles,” he added. “He almost killed him, beat him up pretty bad. Bill had to be nursed back from that.”
Hoy, who’s currently writing a book with a chapter on Black cowboys, said Brewer’s story is an important addition to Kansas cowboy history.
Brewer died at age 84 at the Heritage — or the Lyon County Poor Farm — in Emporia. He’s buried in Olpe.