For some, John Ware is an almost mythical figure, but many have never heard of the black cowboy, a pioneer who made his mark in the province after arriving in southern Alberta in the 1880s.
That’s one of the things that Calgary filmmaker, writer and playwright Cheryl Foggo wants to change with her new documentary “John Ware Reclaimed.”
“John Ware was an African-American cowboy who came to southern Alberta in 1882, before Alberta was a province,” said Foggo, who grew up in Bowness (now part of Calgary) and is a descendant of Black Oklahomans who settled in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Ware, a former slave, came up from the U.S. on a large cattle drive and stayed in what was then the North-West Territories for the rest of his life. He died in 1905, around the age of 60.
The documentary, which was shot in Alberta, opened the Calgary International Film Festival in September. Another in-person screening sold out, and additional digital streamings needed to be added multiple times for audiences eager to watch the film at home.
During his lifetime, Ware married and had several children. He also established a reputation for himself as a great horseman and an expert in animal husbandry.
“He was promoted to several positions of authority and he established his own ranch in the Millarville area before moving to the Brooks/Duchess area for his second ranch,” said Foggo, adding Ware was also an innovator in early agricultural technology.
“As far as I know, he was the first person to dig an irrigation ditch in the Millarville area,” she said. “He was an innovator in the area of crop management and water. He also had the only dipping vat in the Brooks/Duchess area, so his ranch was the place where people brought their cattle to dip for mange. He was instrumental in establishing the beef industry in Alberta for sure.”
Foggo began collecting articles about John Ware decades ago when she was in her 20s. This interest led her to develop a presentation about John Ware for the Calgary Stampede’s 100th anniversary in 2012. Foggo toured the presentation around the province for two years before developing it into a play.
“While working on the play and seeing the positive responses to the play, we got the idea to make a documentary because I wanted a way of doing a more fact-based project about John Ware,” she said.
She pitched the documentary idea to the National Film Board in 2015. The film uses archival footage, interviews, animation, and includes appearances from people with ties to Alberta or Canadian Black history. Kris Demeanor, a Calgary-based singer and actor; Lawrence Hill, acclaimed novelist and Black Canadian history scholar; and country singer Corb Lund all participated in the film.
“I wanted to show the breadth of different kinds of people who were interested in John Ware and who are brought together because of him,” said Foggo.
But she also felt that just relying on archival photographs wasn’t enough, and eventually connected with Fred Whitfield, an American rodeo champion and longtime competitor at the Calgary Stampede following one of his appearances at the event.
“We drove to Millarville with his horses and his trailer and we had a wonderful day,” he said. “We brought him back a couple of years later for another shoot. He just nailed it, once we got him in costume. He doesn’t look like John Ware because he’s bald and has no facial hair and wears a baseball cap. Once we got him in costume, he was the embodiment of John Ware and he was just terrific.”
Foggo had several goals for her film. She wanted John Ware and his history to become more well known, and to show the ways racism had impacted his life.
“I wanted the story to become more complete and more honest,” she said. “My second priority was to share the wider story of Black history in Alberta to other Canadians, and to situate John Ware within that history.
“He’s not an anomaly. He’s not a separate piece. He’s part of a larger story.”
Ware was one of many Black cowboys who passed through or settled in southern Alberta, but much of that history was lost because it wasn’t documented, she said.
The documentary will be available on the National Film Board’s website (www.nfb.ca) in 2021.