John Ware, Canada's Legendary Cowboy (1845-1905)

Sometimes in life, you get to meet the most amazing people. No, I’m not talking about the day I met a former Canadian Prime Minister, which was rather underwhelming. I’m talking about the time I met the daughter of a legendary Canadian cowboy who told me about her father John Ware. This is the story about how I first learned about a real legend, a man whom the Blackfoot Indians called “Matoxy Sex Apee Quin” because they thought he was related to the spirits. John Ware was undoubtedly one of the best cowboys ever to ride on the prairies of 19th century Alberta, Canada. What makes his story even more amazing than his skill is his backstory. He was a freed slave who made Canada home and became a hero to many black Canadians. This is his story.

“Go west young man”

When I was a teenager, I heard the call to “Go West Young Man”. Well, it was more a request from my friend to drive him back home to Calgary, Alberta. And so I did.

From 1977 to 1979, I had the privilege of living in Calgary, Alberta during its boom years. The city was thriving. It seemed everything was possible. Living there was like magic to me. I had never seen real mountains. I had never seen a sky as blue and never-ending as I saw there. And I had never experienced how vast and awesome Canada really is. It was a formative time for me moving from suburban Toronto to the “wild west” of Calgary. Well, it wasn’t all that wild but it was new and wonderful for me.

Downtown Calgary as seen from the Bow river

Downtown Calgary as seen from the Bow river (circa 2010). Source: Wikipedia.

Miss Janet (Nettie) Ware

During part of that time, I stayed in a rooming house belonging to a very kind elderly woman who rented out rooms for students attending a nearby community college.

Her best friend was a woman by the name of Janet (Nettie) Ware, the daughter of John Ware. She would often visited my landlady. I would be invited to sit with her and hear her stories of her past. And what a past she had!

It is through her that I learned about her father. John Ware was born a slave in the Carolinas in the United States. At some point he was given his freedom, probably some time after the civil war. But we get ahead of ourselves here. In the next photo you can see John Ware and his family with Nettie sitting in the arms of her mother and John Ware and their second child standing next to John.

John Ware and his family

John Ware and his family.

I spend three years in Calgary eventually leaving Canada to move to the United States, oddly in the entirely opposite direction as John Ware had done over 100 years before. Life moved on and I slowly forgot about this episode in my life getting busy with new things in Pennsylvania and New England.

In time, I moved back to Canada. It occurred to me then that I ought to see what had happened to Nettie Ware. Initially, I didn’t get very far. Later on while doing some more indepth research for this blog post, I was saddened to learn that Nettie Ware had passed away in 1989 on her ninety-sixth birthday. That meant she would have been in her mid-eighties when we had chatted in my landlady’s kitchen drinking tea and talking about the life of her father. It was then that I decided I wanted to know more about her father.

Who was John Ware?

For those who don’t know the story of Mr. John Ware, he rightly deserves his reputation. His cowboy skills were legendary and, contrary to the popular Hollywood image of cowboys, he was a gentleman. He led an honest, moral life and was a loving father. His work as a cowboy was extremely difficult. The working conditions were hard. In those days, if he was injured or disabled, he could expect not much in the way of assistance.

The work of a cowboy

What was the work of a cowboy anyway? They were responsible for the well-being of the herd of cattle under their care. They were responsible for taking herds from ranches to ranches, if they were sold to another rancher. They had to keep them fed and protected as they grazed. Sometimes they had to move them to new pastureland for better feeding. And they had to be tough enough to protect the herds from poachers and more usually from wild animals. In the days when fences were unheard of in the western plains, they had to keep cattle from wandering away from the main herd.

Herding cattle on a cattle ranch

Herding cattle on a cattle ranch. Source: unknown

Cattle drive to Alberta

John Ware was born into slavery in 1845 before the civil war. During the emancipation he was granted his freedom and moved to Texas where he learned the tough life of a cattle hand - a cowboy. At over 6 feet tall and weighing a strong 230 lbs, he took to his tasks easily and became very proficient at handling great herds of cattle. He went on cattle drives which were essentially bringing product to the purchasers. Ranchers bought hundreds of head of cattle from suppliers in Texas and it was the job of Cowboys to deliver them. Eventually, in 1882, he made his way to Idaho where at the age of 37 he joined a cattle drive bringing a herd of cattle across the border to a buyer in Alberta.

I learned a few lesser known facts about cattle drives from Nettie Ware.

For instance, part of a cowboy’s job during a cattle drive was to ensure the cattle didn’t stray off or turn back. The herd of cattle is basically running, depending on the size of the herd, it would have numbered in the hundreds. To keep these cattle going the right direction, it was important that the lead cattle head in the direction the cattlemen wanted them to go. It wasn’t quite like herding cats, but in a wide open land, it was not an easy task. One tactic was to fire a shot just in front of the lead cattle to make them turn, being careful not to injure them. If that didn’t work, the cowboy had to run in front of theses cattle and force them to turn using the horse - a very dangerous and life threatening act if the steer didn’t behave.

This example was typical of the tasks John Ware had to do did during the cattle drive north to Canada.

Of course, his work wasn’t done at the end of the day. During the night he had to keep watch for rustlers (people who steal cattle) and wolfs who were more likely to attack the herd as they grazed.

Life In Calgary, Alberta

Finally, at the end of the drive, John Ware arrived in the dusty cattle town of Calgary, Alberta. Having taken a look at the place, the people and the opportunities, he decided to settle there.

This seemed like a good move considering Alberta never had experienced slavery. This territory was just opening up for settlement. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had established “law and order” on the Canadian side of the border here on the plains of Western Canada. With fairly good relations between the white settlers and the First Nations (Indian) tribes, he probably faced less racial discrimination there than he would have experienced in the American south.

So, Alberta was his new home.

The legend begins

What he did in his new home made him legendary amongst cattlemen in Calgary and throughout the Big Sky Country.

He quickly found steady employment at the Bar-U and Quorn ranches which were south of Calgary. In an era where roughness, dishonesty, bullying and lawlessness seemed normal, Mr. Ware showed honesty, skill, hard work and decency.

He was known as

“a man of unquestioned honesty and agreeable nature…[who] boasted the rare distinction of never having been thrown from a horse. At roughriding and roping he was an expert’’ (Turner, 1950, pg. 461).

His skills at bronco busting were legendary. Bronco busting is not for the faint-hearted. It is a bone jarring activity and was a vital part of ranching in those days to prepare a steer for branding. A steer needed to be captured and held so it could be “labelled” by a ranch’s “brand” which was burnt into the hide of the animal near it’s business end. This brand ensured the owner of the animal could be clearly identified. If it was rustled or stolen. Most significantly, the brand could not be taken off without killing the animal.

According to his reputation, in an era when the demanding skills of a cowboy were highly valued, John Ware’s skills exceeded them all in Alberta. When John Ware entered an establishment in Calgary, everyone knew him.

John Ware and friends

John Ware and friends. Source: unknown

The legend of John Ware

Because of his courage and enormous strength, the First Nations people called him “Matoxy Sex Apee Quin” (bad black white man) and wondered if he had a connection to the spirit world.

Now, legends being legends, lots of yarns have been twisted making John Ware into a giant like Paul Bunyan. Some of these include:

  • John Ware discovered Turner Valley oil fields with a flick of a match

  • John Ware was the last rancher to use a Calgary bridge as a cattle crossing

  • John Ware was never thrown from a horse

  • He invented steer wrestling 20 years before the Calgary Stampede

  • Camp cooks profess to feeding him on over-sized platters and to watch him eat sandwiches the size of a family bible

How much of these legends are true, well, you decide. It is quite possible that they are all true.

Nevertheless, it is true that he did use a Calgary bridge as a cattle crossing.

It was forbidden to drive cattle through Calgary - a perfectly reasonable law - except when your new ranch is on the opposite side of Calgary from your old ranch. That was exactly John Ware’s problem. He had bought a new ranch but had to get his herd there. But Calgary was in the way. What to do? He brought his herd to the edge of the Bow river and waited until nightfall and in the middle of the night he charged his cattle across the bridge and into history.

He was the last rancher to use a Calgary bridge as a cattle crossing.

John Ware the father

I should mention that Nettie Ware did not speak much about that the cowboy part of his life. Much of what I wrote has come from other sources (see bibliography below). What she spoke about the most was the kind of father John Ware was.

She said that he was a good man and a good father. He had raised his five children in a Christian household and taught them to respect one another and to “treat one another as they would like to be treated”. Certainly, based on my memories of Nettie, John Ware had done a good job of raising his children.

In 1882, John met the former Torontonian Mildred Lewis (I knew there was a Ontario connection somewhere) and they married, settling on a ranch just north of the village of Duchess, Albert along the Red Deer River.

Unfortunately, his homestead was washed away in the spring flood of 1902.

John Ware rebuilt the cabin on higher ground overlooking a stream which today is called Ware Creek. By then they had five children.

Three years later in 1905, sadly, Mildred Ware died of pneumonia. Tragically, that same year John Ware died when his horse tripped after stepping into a gopher hole. The horn of the saddle killed him instantly.

Nettie and her four brothers and sisters were bereaved of both of their parents in the same year. Nettie was only 12 years old when both her mother and father passed away.

John Ware's Cabin (Now in Dinosaur Provincial Part)

John Ware's Cabin (Now in Dinosaur Provincial Part). Source: unknown

John Ware and Canada - a hero to Canadians of African origin

John Ware was indeed a legendary cowboy, a skilled bronco buster, and most importantly a gentleman and family man.

John Ware died 12 days after Alberta entered into confederation with the new nation of Canada. And it does seem fitting. John was a decent man. He was highly respected and a very talented - even legendary - cowboy, and he was black.

His colour did not matter in his new home. What mattered was his abilities and his kindness to others. He became a symbol of the tolerance and decency with which his new home, Canada, has and continues to aspired to.

And he has become a hero of the Canadians of African origin.

I can’t recall what Nettie said had happened to her and her siblings after her parents died. John Ware’s children would certainly have been taken care of, even as he had provided good service to many others.

However, I do know that Nettie settled in Vulcan, Alberta. I believe she became a teacher. It was during her time in Vulcan that she got to know my landlady who eventually moved to Calgary to start a rooming house for students.

Eventually, Nettie Ware began travelling throughout Alberta speaking about her father to school children. In 1971 the Province of Alberta honoured her with “Alberta’s Pioneer Daughter of the Year”.

Janet (Nettie) War honoured by the Province of Alberta

Janet (Nettie) War honoured by the Province of Alberta. Source: unknown

Nettie kindly gave me a book about the history of John Ware and she even signed it for me. Somehow, frustratingly, I lost it in my travels. (Update. I managed to find another copy and it sits proudly in my bookcase of Canadian classics.)

As things go, I lost contact with both Nettie and my former landlady but I have often told my story about meeting Nettie Ware and learning about this great Canadian cowboy.

It is an important story to keep alive. It is part of the heritage of Canada. Canadians of African descent can be rightly proud of John Ware, as can all Canadians. From it’s founding, despite some serious mistakes along the way, Canada has striven to be a home for all people, no matter their colour or nationality. For John Ware, it represented freedom - a freedom from racism and intolerance. And Alberta has been proud of one of it’s own who showed others what decency and honesty and hard work is all about.

Further Reading

Here are some other websites for further reading. Googling John Ware will retrieve lots of information on John Ware.

  • Wikipedia entry (
  • Who Was John Ware? (Government of Alberta website)
  • Mildred Lewis Ware, 1871-1905 (Alberta Settlement)
  • The Tale of John Ware
  • National Library of Canada John Ware biographies and links

Some books about John Ware include:

  • John Ware’s Cow Country by by Grant MacEwan. Book written by Alberta’s former Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. This is the one that I lost (with Nettie’s signature!).
  • The Story of John Ware by R. Breon, V. Cudjoe, M. McLoughlin (Illustrator) Children’s illustrated book about our famous cowboy.

Copyright © 2005-2020

Author’s note: A previous version of this article was provided to Oxford University Press Canada for use in their Canadian high school text book Inside Track 1.