John Ware legacy carries on as Calgary celebrates Black History Month

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WATCH: John Ware, freed slave turned cowboy, overcame hardships to become a successful rancher in Alberta. As Adam MacVicar reports, his story continues to be told more than 100 years after his death – Feb 11, 2019

If you live in the Calgary area, you may have heard his name or seen it on a school.

Not many, though, are aware of his inspiring story.

John Ware was born into slavery in 1845 on a plantation in South Carolina but was freed following the American Civil War.

Ware then found himself in Texas learning ranching and horse breaking skills. It quickly became apparent that Ware had a talent for ranching and in 1882, he was hired on to a cattle drive that would bring 3,000 heads of cattle north to Idaho and eventually to Alberta.

“[He was a] real American cowboy, a real man of the west,” said University of Calgary history professor Warren Elophson.
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Elophson studies and has written extensively about the frontier in Western Canada and has encountered many stories about Ware.

READ MORE: Edmonton organization receives prestigious award days ahead of Black History Month

When the cattle drive reached Alberta, Ware was hired to be a rancher at the legendary Bar U and Quorn ranches.

“When he got here, he found they were desperate for cowboys because they didn’t have a lot of people up here who knew how to run these open-range ranches,” Elophson said. “They enticed him into staying.”

Ware quickly developed a reputation for being a competent horseman and rancher, as well as for his strength and sense of humour.

He became very well-respected among the ranching community in southern Alberta and was known for being easy going and hard working.

Ware is recognized for being a pioneer who helped lay the foundations of ranching in Western Canada.

In June 1885, The MacLeod Gazette reported Ware “is not only one of the best natured and most obliging fellows in the country, but he is one of the shrewdest cowmen and the man is considered pretty lucky.”

In 1890, Ware started his own ranch near Millarville, where he ended up meeting his future wife.

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“There were so few black people up here at the time,” Elophson said. “The Canadian government did everything it could to stop black people from coming up.”

Ware married Mildred Lewis in 1892 and together they had five children, a sixth child died in infancy.

The family and their nearly 300 head of cattle relocated to a property near Duchess on the Red Deer River. The property was hit by heavy flooding in 1902 and they moved the homestead to higher ground overlooking what is now named Ware Creek.

Unfortunately, the family didn’t occupy the land for long. Lewis died in 1905 and Ware died shortly after when his horse stepped in a gopher hole and fell on top of him.

His funeral was one of the most well attended in the history of the then young, budding city of Calgary.

The colour of Ware’s skin was irrelevant to the ranchers, entrepreneurs and homesteaders he encountered during his time in Alberta — one of the results of a tight-knit community facing the challenges and hardships of living on the frontier.

“Let’s say [your neighbour] is German and you’re English, the stereotype breaks up for you, you start to see this German person as a person not German,” Elophson said. “And I think that’s, in part, what happened to John Ware.”
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READ MORE: Celebrating Black History Month in Calgary

Ware’s story continues to be told more than 100 years after his death. He is the subject of an upcoming National Film Board documentary film from Calgary filmmaker Cheryl Foggo called John Ware Reclaimed.

“He’s connected so powerfully to my identity as a Western Canadian, specifically a Calgarian, and somebody who grew up here in a cowboy-obsessed city, who is also a person of African descent,” Foggo said.

The documentary aims to clear up misconceptions about Ware and follows the hardships he had to face through interviews and explorations around his old stomping ground on the southern Alberta Prairie.

“He faced incredible obstacles and succeeded despite those obstacles,” Foggo said. “He was just such a powerful figure.”

Unfortunately, the Ware family legacy was not carried on. After his death, the children were sent to live with their grandparents and never had children of their own; the last descendant passed away in 1989.

But Ware’s legacy of hard work and defying stereotypes continues to be relevant to this day.

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