John Ware

There is a junior high school in Calgary, Alberta, named for John Ware. It was something I was not aware of despite having lived in Calgary for three years.

Mr. Ware was born into slavery in South Carolina in 1845. At the age of 20, with the end of the Civil War, he headed to Texas and became a cowboy. He drove cattle from Texas north into Montana, and eventually into Alberta, Canada. It was in Alberta where he settled, finding ranch work, and then homesteading around Millarville, about 25 miles from Calgary. Mr. Ware married Mildred, and following their wedding the Calgary Tribune extended its heartiest congratulations, noting that, “probably no man in the district has a greater number of warm-personal friends than the groom.” Such was John Ware, who had quickly established himself as an erstwhile member of the community and as a consummate rancher and cowboy. Here he is below, first row, second from the left, with some of his friends.

In his book “West,” the Canadian author Grant MacEwen described some of the exploits of John Ware, including, “he was powerful enough to upset a horse and hold it upside-down if a blacksmith was having trouble in shoeing …”.
As a black man in a sea of white men, Mr. Ware was no stranger to racial bias and insults. Tom Lynch was to take charge of a herd of cattle to be driven north from Idaho. He approached an experienced cattleman named Tom Morrow, who said he would only agree to do the drive into Canada if John Ware went along. Lynch’s response: “He’s a Negro.” Morrow insisted and John became a key member of the drive. Once in Canada, Lynch insisted that John Ware stay with him. Mr. Ware settled in, eventually running a thousand head of cattle and several hundred horses of his own, and earning the respect and admiration of all who knew him.

It is worth noting that Mr. Ware was known for his skill as a steer wrestler – with steer wrestling eventually finding its way into the Calgary Stampede.

It seemed timely to write about Mr. Ware, and my thanks to friend Mel, who made the suggestion.

Mount Ware (elevation just over 6000 feet), in Kananaskis country west of Calgary, is named for John Ware; as is John Ware Ridge (formerly known as “Nigger John Ridge,” and I am thinking while not appropriate, named at the time with much affection); then there is Ware Creek; and The John Ware Building at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as SAIT). All of these are testimonials to Mr. Ware, who eventually outgrew his Millarville homestead and settled east of Calgary to manage his large holdings of livestock, and where he established himself as one of the best-loved and most-respected frontier pioneers. During his lifetime, the face of the prairie changed; in the year of his death more than 30,000 homestead entries were made in the newly created province of Alberta.

The truth about Mr. Ware is no less epic than the myths. He pioneered new agricultural techniques at his ranches, including irrigation development. He walked across the backs of cattle in crowded stockyards. He once confronted a racist Calgary bartender by throwing him over the counter and, “served drinks to everybody.”

It is ironic that in September 1905, considering his talent as a rancher and a horseman, John Ware was killed when his horse stumbled in a badger hole and fell on him.

Presiding over his funeral service, the Baptist minister said of Mr. Ware, (and I am quoting here from MacEwan’s book); “He convinced me that black is a beautiful colour, one that is reserved for God’s most cheerful people. The one whose remains we bury today was indeed one of God’s gentlemen. His example and message on brotherhood should be entrenched in our hearts.”

John Ware accomplished so much in a little more than 20 years living in Alberta. No surprise then that he received so much praise, and as a final testimonial, Canada Post in 2012 issued a stamp in his honour.