Today, southern Alberta is ranching country. It is where you will see acres and acres of farmland devoted to cows and other livestock. Go back over a century, and it was just wide open land. It was to that land that a man by the name of John Ware would come and forge his legend.
Ware was born into slavery on a plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina. When slavery was outlawed, Ware was in his early 20s and made the decision to travel to Texas so he could learn how to be a rancher and gain the skills of a cowboy. Thanks to his tall and muscular frame, he was hired to work his way up to Canada driving cattle from Texas to Montana, and then further on to what would one day be Alberta. This would make him one of the first black men to come to Alberta, when he helped drive the herd of 3,000 cattle into the future province.
Of course, there was still racist at the time and Ware was given the toughest horse to ride, and the most difficult tasks. His ability to do the challenges with success and humour quickly earned him the respect of the other men.
His move into Alberta came thanks to Tom Lynch in southern Idaho in 1882. Lynch had recently purchased that 3,000 head of cattle and he was looking for men to drive them up to his ranch. The drive began in May and ended in September at the Bar U Ranch. Ware began to work at the legendary Bar U Ranch, before he decided to start his own ranch near the Red Deer River several years later.
The exploits of Ware border on the tales of Paul Bunyan. It was said he could walk the backs of a herd of cattle, stop a steer head-on and wrestle it to the ground and lift small cows himself.
It did not take him long to earn the respect of everyone who worked with him, but his nickname sadly reflected the times. It was a nickname I won’t repeat here.
In May of 1885, the Macleod Gazette out of Fort MacLeod would state, “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.”
In one story about Ware, it was related that there was a horse that would not allow a cowboy to ride it. Ware got on the horse, and stayed on the back of the horse as it bucked and bucked until it fell over a cliff into a river. According to the legend, which appears in Adventurous Albertans, Ware appeared in the water downstream as the cowboys looked on, and as he came out of the water they saw he was still sitting on the horse. He stayed on the horse as it bucked until they were both bone dry.
This glowing description of Ware was written during a huge roundup that consisted of 100 riders, 500 horses and 15 chuck wagons. Also on that round-up was Edward Hills, who was an English gentleman that wrote back to England stating of Ware, “the best rough rider in the North-West”, while also praising his personal kindness.
On May 25 of 1885, Ware registered his brand as 9999, which would eventually be 999 in 1898.
In 1892, he would marry Mildred Lewis, daughter of a black homesteader in the area. They were married in the First Baptist Church of Calgary. The Calgary Tribune at the time reported its “heartfelt congratulations” noting that “probably no man in the district has a greater number of warm personal friends than the groom.”
Soon after their marriage, the couple moved to the ranch near Millarville.
By 1900, at the age of 55, he and his wife had five children on their ranch and they made the decision to move to the Calgary area, in the area of Duchess. Ware brought 300 cattle with him and apparently as logs came down the river, he would lasso the logs and haul them ashore. When was able to get enough logs, he built the house. This may seem far fetched but there is actually a picture of this in the Duchess local history book. The logs were apparently from an aborted log boom owned by the Eau Claire Lumber Company upstream. His wife and children lived in Calgary while he built their new home.
In 1902, their new home was destroyed by a flood so he rebuilt on higher ground with the new house overlooking the stream, which today is called Ware Creek.
In a story from Janet Ware, she remembered her father fondly and their time at the ranch well.
“One day Father and I started out on horseback for Eide’s place, which was across the river. We got to the river and into Eide’s boat, which was on our bank. However the current was too strong for us and we found ourselves beached on the same side of the river, nearly a mile downstream. Father pulled the boat back with his saddle horse and then we returned home, somewhat frustrated.”
Sadly, in 1905, his wife Mildred died from pneumonia. Ware, only a few months later, was riding a horse when it tripped in a badger hole, falling on Ware and breaking his neck.
The funeral for Ware was one of the largest ever for the early years of Calgary.
Janet Ware would say in her recollections, “1905 was a very sad year for me, as both Mother and Father passed away. Mother died in the Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary from pneumonia. Father died on the ranch.”
As the years have gone on, Ware has gained a folk hero status because of his contribution to Alberta culture. It was said that he was never tossed by a wild horse and was the one to introduce steer wrestling to the area, which is now one of the most popular rodeo events in the Calgary Stampede. Several landmarks are named for him including John Ware Ridge, Mount Ware and the aforementioned Ware Creek. John Ware Junior High School is named for him, as is the John Ware building at SAIT Polytechnic. In 1958, the log cabin that served as the family home in the last years of Ware’s life was relocated to the Red Deer River valley and was completely restored. One interesting story as related by Janet Ware was that when they moved the house in 1954 to its new location, they found Mildred’s long lost wedding ring under the floor boards of the cabin.
As for John Ware’s children, none that lived to adulthood would have children, and his daughter, Nettie, would die in Vulcan, Alberta in 1989.
In its description of John Ware for a 2012 postage stamp, Canada Post would say, “with his great stature, abilities and sense of adventure, Ware had all the makings of a folk hero. Skilled with the lariat, he pioneered steer-wrestling and won his first competition at the Calgary Summer Fair of 1893, setting a precedent for what would become a highlight of the Calgary Stampede.”
Despite his humble beginnings as a slave, Ware would gain the respect and admiration of those who knew and worked with him, thanks to his hard work, good nature and love of the ranching lifestyle.
As it was stated in Calgary: A Not Too Solemn Look At Calgary’s First 100 Years, “He became a good family man, a good neighbour and a great cowboy rider. He’s been called the greatest rider of all time. No those was too mean and he was wrestling steers before the idea ever occurred to anyone else.”
It may seem odd to us now, but in 1905 those around him like Leroy Kelly said following his death, “he was a white man”, which at the time was considered a compliment.
I would prefer to say, that he was a legend of the Canadian ranching frontier.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, CBC, Biographi.ca, Past and Present: People, places and events in Calgary, Adventurous People, Brooks: Between the Red Deer and Bow, the Range Men, Duchess and District Memories.