John Ware: A Background

He arrived in the southern foothills of Alberta on a warm fall day - September 25th 1882 - on the first major cattle drive from Texas via Idaho. Unknown factors persuaded him that southern Alberta was the place he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Within days of his arrival the weather changed suddenly and dramatically, catching him and a dozen other cowboys far from shelter in a blizzard. To save their lives, the cowboys abandoned their cattle and fled to the warmth and safety of the ranch house, with the exception of John Ware, who failed to return to the Bar U. He was given up for dead. Four days later, the ranch boss was astonished to find him hundreds of miles to the south, warming his hands over a fire, herd intact. This act of survival and determination in hostile territory was the first in a series of exceptional acts that launched his seemingly immortal legacy. There are many tales of his uncanny abilities and preternatural strength that stray into the realm of mythology. What emerges out of the folklore, however, is that he was the most skilled horseman around, a pillar of the ranching community, an innovator and a sly wit. Bold and smart, he was at the vanguard of the industry that drove Canada’s early economy. He stood out then, not just from other Black men of his time, but from all men of his time. He stands out still. 

Although he is famous enough to have had seven geographic locations named for him in Alberta, most Canadians have never heard of him. However, John Ware’s story also seems to suit the “racism is not who we are” narrative. When confronted with the likes of John Ware, Canadians must enter into a state of cognitive dissonance. He is offered up as evidence that Canadians are not now and have never been racist, but in doing so, in genuinely unpacking his story, he also must be offered up as evidence that the White settler Canada narrative is incomplete.

John Ware’s story and the way it has been told perfectly encapsulates the cognitive dissonance Canadians experience when dealing with the history of non-European people in this country. The lives of descendants of Black pioneers have been constricted by an incomplete history of Alberta. The longstanding community of African descendants and their role in western 19th and 20th century history has been poorly documented, little known and left out of the books. As a result, despite more than 120 years of Black presence in Alberta, assumptions are made about Black residents that generally presume recent arrival status. 

What we know, or think we know, about John Ware feeds the way we wantto think about ourselves as Canadians – “Ex-slave flees America, comes to Canada, makes good, makes friends, lives happily ever after.” The surface elements of that story hold some truths. In both the documentary film John Ware Reclaimed and the play John Ware Reimagined, I explore the half-truths, untruths and twisted threads of John Ware’s narrative, linking to the historical reality of John Ware’s life and the experience of “otherness” I share with him. 

The Challenge

It’s possible there has been no historical figure in western Canada whose past has been researched more, but with less success, than John Ware. He is memorialized with a building at SAIT polytechnic, a Junior High School in Calgary, a 4H club in Brooks, a Ware Ridge, two Ware Creeks and a Canada Post stamp.

Since the 1960s, historians, graphic novelists, songwriters, filmmakers and playwrights have attempted to tell John Ware’s story, but nothing new or compelling has emerged for decades. No previous teller of his tale has engaged with the complexities of his life. He has been reduced to a stereotype with a simple story. One of the reasons for the well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessful outcomes of most of these efforts is the lack of information about where John Ware originated. Most of the chronicles of John Ware’s life - fiction and non-fiction - take as their starting point Dr. Grant MacEwan’s detailed but flawed book John Ware’s Cow Country. Grant MacEwan was a professor, a former mayor of Calgary, an MLA and the ninth Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, as well as a respected historian and author of nearly 50 books, including John Ware’s Cow Country. Published in 1960, the book states that Ware was born a slave on a plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina in 1845. MacEwan asserted that Ware headed west after emancipation and found employment on a ranch near Fort Worth Texas, where he learned to ride and rope.

Since the publication of these claims, many historians have been unequal to the task of verifying them. MacEwan did not footnote Cow Country or leave records of his research. African-American roots are notoriously difficult to trace because enslaved Africans were ignored by the official record takers. However, with the tools available to us today, historians should be able at least to track the two White men MacEwan names in the book in connection with Ware’s life – “Master” Chauncey and “Old Murph” Blandon. As part of my research for the documentary film I am seeking more data, but so far no record of the existence of either man has come to light.

Ware’s children said if their father ever mentioned where he was born they were not listening. His witty and articulate daughter Janet, “Nettie” Ware famously quipped, “If we’d known we were going to be famous we’d have paid a bit more attention.” They were orphaned young and none of the Ware children had offspring. The direct John Ware line is extinct.

June 23rd, 1885, Macleod Gazette

“One hundred riders accompanied by five hundred horses and fifteen chuck-wagons moved out of Fort Macleod on the last of the big spring round-ups to comb the entire foothills country from the Montana boundary north to Calgary. John Ware was there to represent the Quorn. John is not only one of the best natured and most obliging fellows in the country, but he is one of the shrewdest cow men, and the man is considered pretty lucky who has him to look after his interest. The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride.”

Wednesday, March 2, 1892, Calgary Tribune;Orange Blossoms. Very many of our readers will join with us in wishing Mr. John Ware and bride, who were married on Tuesday morning, all happiness and prosperity in their new sphere of life. The ceremony was performed by the Reverend Mr. Cross of the Baptist Church at the residence of the bride’s parents, Calgary. The bride is of a happy disposition, well cultured and accomplished, and probably no man in the district has a greater number of warm personal friends than the groom, Mr. John Ware. The tribune extends heartiest congratulations.”

May, 1895, Albert Cannon. “That spring roundup was the wettest and most eventful I was ever on. I was cook on the chuck wagon Sam Howe was running for the Sheep Creek Cattle Association. We camped the first night just below the old south fork corrals on the flat by the south side of Sheep Creek.  The second evening at that camp we had an awful storm, with thunder and lightning, then a cloudburst. It rained all night and next morning Sam gave me orders to move camp back to the same camp ground as when we were working south. Just then the horse wrangler came to camp and John Ware was with him. He heard Sam tell the wrangler to hold the horses on top of the hill until sundown, as there was better feed up there. John questioned Sam about it. He said, “If you’re going to hold the horses on the bench, why not camp at the Lone Spruce Tree? There’s a good spring there and lots of dry wood.” So Sam says to me, “All right cook, camp on the hill.” I got fixed up and got dinner ready for the boys and they made camp before night. The water was getting pretty high by then. It started to rain again during the night and then a cloud burst in the mountains. At 3 o’clock in the morning we heard the creek roaring, so while I was getting breakfast some of the boys went over to check the creek. They came back and said there was ten feet of water going over the old camp ground. John sure saved our lives that time.”

 Syd Aird: 

“He was our neighbour at Kew when I fell off one of the wild saddle horses one time. Mr. Ware picked me up, held me at arm’s length and put me back in the saddle. ‘Cowboys never cry,’ he said.”

Nettie Ware:

“Mr. Harold Smith tells me that he can remember me on my little pony, holding the cattle on the flats while we were moving to Brooks. I was always out with father and was not of any help to my mother at all. She always said she would never let Mildred get on a horse because it was the ruination of a girl.”

Joe Standish, interview with Sheilagh Jameson:

“Like lots of the cowboys, John used to go to town now and then on a spree. One time he went in with Harry Synott. They went into the Royal Hotel and stood down the bar waiting to be served. A man called Jackson was bartender. He served other people and did this and that but didn’t go near John and Harry. So John called to him to come and he answered that he didn’t serve niggers. John got mad – I can just see how mad he’d get. He jumped over the counter, picked Jackson up, dumped him across the counter and served drinks to everybody. Jackson sent for the police and they came and took John in.”

Nettie Ware:

“Mr. Quirk and father were in Calgary, and of course Mr. Quirk drank quite a fair amount. Father would take a drink too you know. Quirk had $300 on him, so father told him ‘You go home.’ But he didn’t go home, so father took the $300 off him. After he came to, he went to father, bemoaning the fact that he had not gone home when he told him to, and now he had lost his $300. Father let him stew a while, then gave him his money and told him to go home again. But again, he did not go home and this time he really did lose the $300. Mrs. Quirk was always mad at father about that.”

 

Joe Standish, letter to his brother Chris, March, 1961:

“Dear Chris,

Received your letter a few days ago. Thanks for sending the book John Ware’s Cow Country. It made me pretty sore until I realized it was just a cheap western story with John as the hero. Out of the first 4 chapters the only thing that is right is that he had ten brothers and sisters…

It is strange I didn’t find out more about his early life but I was young and didn’t take much interest. I didn’t realize he would become a historical figure one day. The Wares were a wonderful couple, well-liked by everyone. Mrs. Ware kept the house nice and clean and she was a very good cook. I thought a lot of Mrs. Ware and of John too – I couldn’t have worked at a nicer place. I liked the children too. Many a time I rocked the twins to sleep when Mrs. Ware was busy...

After John was killed mother and I went to town intending to go to the funeral but we found out that it wasn’t to be until the next day because the family was coming in from Blairmore. We went to the station to meet them, Mrs. Lewis and the Ware kids. I asked Nettie if she remembered me. She was crying and said, no, she didn’t remember any of her old friends.”

 

Tuesday, September 14th, 1905, Calgary Daily Herald:

“The funeral of the late John Ware was held this afternoon. Reverend F. W. Paterson conducted the services. A great many from remote districts as well as townspeople were present to pay their respects to one of Alberta’s pioneers.”