It’s said there wasn’t a horse he couldn’t ride, cattle he couldn’t rope or a man who wasn’t his friend. His exceptional talent with horses, prodigious strength, hard work and straightforward honesty earned him a place of honour in Alberta’s history.
Born a slave on a South Carolina plantation in 1845, John fled the South after the war seeking the freedom of the open Texas range.
Over six feet tall and his strength obvious, he was hired on a drive and after eating dust for two thousand miles, John reached the northern border. It was on this drive John made a good friend, Bill Moody, who appreciated John’s gentle humour and ambition. After the drive, Moody encouraged him to continue north to Canada.
In 1882, he had his chance. Tom Lynch – “the king of the cattle drivers” was hired by Fred Stimson of the Bar U Ranch to drive his herd of 3,000 cattle from Idaho to Highwood. Lynch approached Bill Moody to be one of the cowboys and Moody insisted his friend, John Ware, be part of the crew. Lynch was reluctant but he wanted Moody, so Ware was hired on and relegated to the night crew.
While Moody knew John’s skill with horses, being a nighthawk gave him little opportunity for advancement. One day John asked Lynch if he might have a “little better saddle, and a little worse horse.” By all accounts, John’s bronc ride was spectacular, earning the respect of the camp and a promotion to the day crew.
John Ware rode into Canada with the Bar U herd in September 1882. Needing men to watch over his herd, Stimson sought Lynch’s advice on which cowboys he might recommend. When asked about John Ware, Lynch bluntly advised Stimson, “You’d be a fool not to hire him.”
In his ten years on the Bar U, John’s amiable nature, skills and courage had established his reputation and his ambition was growing. Signing with an X, John filed for his own homestead land on the Sheep Creek.
John was also gaining fame, the local newspaper often recounting his skills with horses and cattle – or his brush with death. One story described him “Jumping off the side of his horse and wrestling a full-grown steer to the ground,” while another told how John and the crew were swimming cattle across the Old Man River and, unbeknownst to John, he was riding a horse that couldn’t swim. Neither could John. Floundering in the water, the cowboys roped John and the horse and drug them both to safety. “Within moments,” the newspaper reported, “his customary good cheer was restored.”
John Ware’s already legendary status as a horseman cut across the social strata, being admired by cowboys and British nobility alike. This was evident when the Quorn Ranch hired John to care for and train their horses. These were not the usual prairie scrubs, but hundreds of purebred Irish Hunters imported from Ireland.
Around this time, Tom Lynch heard that a black family named Lewis had moved to Calgary from Ontario, and their eldest daughter, Mildred, was in her late teens. Lynch arranged a “chance” meeting at the mercantile store between the two, and John received an invitation to dinner. After Christmas, he proposed to Mildred and on February 29, 1892, they were married.
When they arrived at John’s cabin that night, the windows were ablaze with light. Cautiously approaching, John and Mildred found all the neighbours gathered inside, welcoming the newlyweds home.
By 1893, John and Mildred had started their family, but the arrival of more settlers signaled the end of the open range. John moved his family and 300 cattle 90 miles east of their old homestead.
In 1902, tragedy began to stalk the Wares. Now a mother of five, Mildred had lost a baby and had never fully regained her strength. That year, the Red Deer River flooded, washing away their home. They rebuilt overlooking an area now called Ware Creek.
Early in 1905, Mildred became deathly ill and despite medical care, died in March. Grieving, John sent the children to live with their grandparents.
On a fine September day, John rode out on a dependable cow horse to check his cattle. His horse stumbled in a badger hole and fell on him, killing him instantly.
It was a tribute to his stature that his funeral was the largest in young Calgary’s history. Range cowboys and princes openly mourned the death of this former slave who was Alberta’s most respected cowboy.
Today, Alberta’s landscape is dotted with memorials to John Ware. His cabin is an historical site in Dinosaur Provincial Park and numerous landmarks, school and college buildings carry his name.
Perhaps most fitting of all, his tombstone in Calgary overlooks the Stampede grounds, forever within range of the horses that shaped his life and Alberta’s history.