The mythos surrounding John Ware might lead you to believe he was the lone Black cowboy roaming Alberta’s plains. In reality, he wasn’t the first Black resident in the area, nor was he the only Black cowboy of his era.
In her new documentary, John Ware Reclaimed, award-winning author, playwright and AMA member Cheryl Foggo explores how Ware’s story, while important, is just part of a larger tapestry of racial diversity in Alberta.
As Foggo says, stories are the best way to communicate with people, to foster dialogue and nurture understanding. As a child growing up in Calgary, she recalls being fascinated by her grandparents’ tales of living in America’s Deep South and their subsequent migration to Western Canada—and the racism they found when they arrived. This exploration of her family’s past prompted Foggo to look at her own experiences as a Black person in Canada today.
For more than 30 years, Foggo has written about Black life in Alberta, documenting the resilience and accomplishments of many remarkable personalities. But she kept coming back to Ware’s story—first in a play, and now a film.
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“I first learned about him when my brother Richard went to the Glenbow Museum on a school field trip,” Foggo says. “We were cowboy-obsessed, but we never saw representations of Black people in cowboy culture. So it was a thrill to discover the existence of a Black cowboy who had lived in our province.”
The formerly enslaved Ware came to Canada in 1882 on the first large cattle drive into the region. He was good with cattle, great with horses and a savvy businessman. His personality and skills earned him the respect of many locals, and he was on his way to becoming a successful rancher before his premature death in 1905.
When researching the film, Foggo says she was delightfully surprised to learn Ware joined an already existing, albeit small, Black community. His persona as a lone Black cowboy had been constructed over the decades.
“I do see this misconception as a reflection of the way Black prairie history has been erased,” Foggo adds. “We have a long, fascinating history here that should be all of our birthrights to learn about.”
Cheryl Foggo’s doc, John Ware Reclaimed, premiered at the 2020 Calgary International Film Festival, where it earned the Alberta Feature Audience Choice Award. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, the film is now available to stream at nfb.ca and on various festival platforms across the country.
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HOME ON THE RANGE
How John Ware chased the Canadian dream.
Late 1800s: Ware’s reputation as a horseman is growing, as is his herd of cattle. But he becomes frustrated by factors limiting the expansion of his Millarville operation.
1902: Ware uproots his family to settle on territory northeast of Brooks, on the banks of the Red Deer River. The Wares’ first home had been swept away by a flood that year.
1902–1905: A modest cabin is built on higher ground overlooking a stream now called Ware Creek, but the family’s time there is short-lived: Ware’s wife, Mildred, succumbs to pneumonia in 1905, and Ware himself dies in a horse-riding accident months later.
Today: After several relocations and extensive repair work, the restored John Ware Cabin now rests in Dinosaur Provincial Park.