Robert Lemmons: Horse Whisperer

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

We've all heard – and dismissed – the interesting statistic that a third of the cowboys of the "Old West" were black, mostly freed slaves moving into a new life away from the hated plantations. A "third" is more than a statistic; these were individual men and many were expert cowboys and valued employees, respected by employers and fellow cowboys alike – and dismissed from history. Many did not make their reputations as Bill Pickett did by becoming expert rodeo cowboys; they displayed management skills far beyond that of the average waddie, often denied advancement solely on the basis of their "old black face," in the words of Jim Perry of Texas' famed XIT ranch. And so, we begin a series of these forgotten men who played a significant role in the great story of the "Old West."

Robert Lemmons is acknowledged as the greatest mustanger of them all. Born in 1848 as a slave to one John English and taken to Carrizo Springs in southwest Texas, Lemmons drifted on after being freed. As luck would have it, he wound up in Dimmit County, a land sparsely populated with people and heavily populated with wild mustangs. He found employment with a rancher named Duncan Lammons and set out on a cowboy career that was to bring him fame and modest fortune.

Being a good judge of character, Lammons took to the young man, barely 20 years old. He saw something in the former slave and taught him everything he could about horses and training. A friendship developed between them and Robert adopted his employed's family name as his own.

Lammons' intuition was spot on. Robert quickly displayed an uncanny ability to literally "become a horse." He could read their minds, anticipate their actions and gain their trust. It turned out that those thousands of mustangs were in demand as cow ponies as the cattle business began to grow throughout Texas and Lammons was quickly in the mustang business. Robert was his key to success.

Most mustangers of the day relied on large numbers of cowboys running a mustang herd to exhaustion, shooting the lead stallion, and driving the herd into a trap where they were broken to saddle through the expediency of riding them to exhaustion. Many are the stories of cowboys having to "take the buck" out of a horse every time it was saddled, something that wasted valuable time and threatened the safety of horse and rider alike.

Lemmons (the name had been subltly changed) despised the usual macho contest between horse and rider. He was one of the rare trainers of the time who did not view training as a matter of defeating and dominating the horse, but of gaining its trust and developing a partnership. And he wanted nothing to do with the drives to exhaust the mustangs into submission.

With his horse, Warrior, Lemmons would quietly approach a herd and gradually become literally a part of the landscape. Moving with the herd and never appearing unless mounted, he was eventually able to actually insert himself into the herd, gaining the trust of even the lead stallion – or driving it away.

Lemmons must have been pretty rank, as he took every effort to remove any human scent from himself, never changing clothes during the two or three weeks it took him to work his magic. He made his camp away from the herd so his campfire would not alert them. Cowboys from the ranch would leave food for him hanging in a designated tree. He transferred the food from their container to his to keep their scent off him.

It was only a matter of time until the herd, even the lead stallion, accepted him as a member and then as a leader they would follow. With leadership established, Lemmons would quietly lead the herd to the home ranch and right into the corral, barely raising the dust on the way in. On more than one occasion, he actually led the herd riding the lead stallion.

Lemmons' fame spread far and wide; he was in high demand and was paid handsomely for his services. The mustangs he delivered were undamaged and uninjured, calm and malleable, as beautiful as they had been in the wild, opposed to the lame, exhausted and malnourished ones gathered by the usual roughshod methods. Many a cowboy loved to brag about actually seeing Lemmons ride in at the head of a herd of wild mustangs.

By the age of thirty-three, Lemmons had accumulated a modest fortune and purchased land for his own spread near Carrizo Springs. In 1881, he married Barbarita Rosales and over the years sired eight children, only three of whom survived to adulthood. He gradually increased his land holdings to over 1,200 acres and ran a fair-sized herd, along with sheep and goats. He registered his 4R+ brand and became a gentleman rancher. The mustanging business declined rapidly with the fencing of the open range and the famed mustanger's eyesight had begun to fail.

Racial discrimination dogged the Lemmons family for years. Their interracial marriage was illegal under Texas law and attempts were made to imprison him. Barbarita even had to claim African heritage in order to void the charge of interracial marriage and the impending prison term. Their children were denied access to public schools. Banned from attending church by some parishioners, he was pointedly invited back by the pastor and given a chair in a place of honor. He remained a devout member of the church for many years and became well-respected for his generosity to his neighbors and friends – a cowboy to the end.

When Barbarita died, Lemmons' health was failing and he was cared for by the family of Erskine Rhodes, close friend and neighboring rancher. To the end, he expressed his love for the wild mustang and his readiness to ride amongst them again. He divided his considerable estate between Rhodes and his surviving son when he died in 1947 at the age of 99.

Others have tried to duplicate his magical feat of taking control of a herd of mustangs, but the skill remains his alone. There are other "horse whisperers" and their skill with horses are near unbelievable, but there will never be another Robert Lemmons.

Fenley, Florence; Turns Mustang to Catch Mustangs; The Cattleman, 1936

Hardaway, Roger; African American Cowboys on the Western Frontier; Negro History Bulletin, January – December, 2001

Wagner, Tricia M.; Black Cowboys of the Old West; Twodot; Helena, MT; 2011