Alberta’s history is rife with many stories of interesting and fascinating cowboys and ranchers. High in this company stands John Ware, a black cowboy and rancher of near-mythic standing in Alberta’s history. John Ware has become almost an unofficial emblem of Alberta and western Canada, featuring prominently in centennial exhibits, in books and even on a Canada Post stamp. He is often portrayed as an embodiment of western Canadian values and as a demonstration of the levelling effect of the pioneer period and the cultural tolerance that was only possible on the Canadian prairies. There is little doubt that John Ware truly did enjoy the respect of his fellow ranchers and cowboys and his story, even if exaggerated, is an inspiring one. Yet, despite this outpouring of goodwill, respect and admiration, for many years John Ware was commemorated by a racially derogatory name prominently displayed on maps.
Historian David Breen, in his biography of Ware for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, notes that it is difficult to separate the man John Ware from the myth. Early ranching histories and the reminiscences of his colleagues are filled with tales of Ware’s riding skills, work ethic, stamina, incredible strength, fierce loyalty, good humour and stoic demeanor. Ware did not read or write and he left no memoirs or journals. His fellow cowboys and ranchers wrote their reminiscences of him decades after his death.
What is generally known or accepted about John Ware is that he was born into slavery ca. 1845 in the southern United States, either on a plantation in South Carolina or a ranch in northern Texas. Freed at the end of the American Civil War, he trained as a ranch hand in Texas. By 1882, he was in the Montana- Idaho region where he was hired to help herd cattle (about 3,000 head) into Canada for the Bar U Ranch near High River. Following the drive, he was offered a position at the ranch. He stayed at the Bar U until 1884 and then moved to the Quorn Ranch (on the Sheep River). During his time at the Bar U and the Quorn his reputation as a skilled horse man grew. He was a lead hand during many cattle round-ups and he dominated early cowboy skills competitions. Newspapers reported on his movements and accomplishments and the high regard his fellow ranchers held for him. The Quorn Ranch placed him in a prestigious position at the head of their horse-rearing operations.
Ware began to acquire his own cattle and by 1891 he was living on four quarter-sections of land at the northern edge of a prominent ridge west of Turner Valley. About ten years later, Ware sold his land and moved his family, along with 300 head of cattle east to the Red Deer River valley and started a new ranch near Duchess. His new ranch appeared to prosper, growing to nearly 1,000 head of cattle in a short time. However, bad luck followed him. His cabin was washed away by a flood in 1902 and his wife died unexpectedly in April 1905. In September 1905, while out herding cattle, Ware was thrown when his horse stepped in a hole. The horse fell on him, killing the legendary cowboy instantly. The newspapers of the time noted that his funeral was the largest held in Calgary to that point.
In the late-1800s, two features in the area were named for John Ware. Ware Creek flows around the northern edge of a prominent ridge and through the lands that were part of Ware’s original ranch. The Dominion Land Survey recorded the name of the creek in 1893 and named it for Ware, undoubtedly due to his ranch being located along its length. The name of the creek was officially adopted in 1909. Mount Ware, located a short distance to the northwest was officially named in 1907. A coulee near his Duchess-area ranch is also known as John Ware Coulee, although that name has not been officially adopted.
Interestingly, although these names honoured and commemorated John Ware through the use of his name on these geographical features, over the following decades his name became associated with another geographical feature in the region. In the early 1930s, federal government maps began identifying the prominent ridge near Ware Creek with a widely used, but racially derogatory name. Based on its appearance on earlier maps and its widespread local usage in Alberta, the Geographic Board of Canada adopted the inappropriate description as the official name for the ridge in 1943.
What is known is that despite all of the sentiments of respect and admiration expressed during his lifetime, throughout his time in Canada John Ware’s name was often prefaced with a hurtful and heinous racial slur. This slur is used in the reminiscences of his contemporaries, often published in early ranching histories and local histories up through the 1960s. During Ware’s lifetime, it was used in newspaper articles about him and it was even featured prominently in the notice of his death published by the Edmonton Bulletin. In the accounts of his life and the community histories, the use of the pejorative name is usually explained away as being either harmless or that they were simply acknowledging a historic truth. All of these explanations attempt to show that the name, even if acknowledged as being inappropriate in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, was somehow perfectly fine in describing life in the settlement period. A local history of the Brooks area published in the mid-1970s even suggests that John Ware himself was not offended by the name as his neighbours treated him as a full member of the community. Regardless of what was written during his lifetime and in the decades following his death, we cannot know what John Ware thought or felt about his widely used nickname. However, the feelings of one of his daughters is known. In 1960, his daughter called the use of the name “ghastly” and requested that it be dropped from the name of a local 4-H club.
Regarding geographical features, naming authorities are extremely reluctant to consider and approve changes to well-established names and, at least in more recent decades, locally used and historic names are given precedence over proposed names of more recent origin. However, by the mid-1960s, geographical naming authorities, particularly those in Canada and the United States, had begun to recognize the inherent problem with having derogatory place names prominently displayed on government maps, regardless of the historical provenance of those names. Efforts began to be made to rename those places. The Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (CPCGN), the successor to the Geographic Board of Canada, adopted new guidelines stating that names of a derogatory and discriminatory nature would not be approved for use and that existing derogatory names would be changed or removed from official maps.
When the federal base map for the Turner Valley region was being revised in 1969, the CPCGN wrote to the Geographic Board of Alberta noting that the name of the ridge was not acceptable under the new principles and that it would be omitted from the new edition of the map. In February 1970, after consulting with other government departments, the Geographic Board of Alberta suggested that the name of the ridge be changed to John Ware Ridge. With this Alberta proposal in hand, the CPCGN officially changed the name of the ridge to John Ware Ridge on February 26, 1970.
Around the same time as the renaming of the ridge, jurisdiction over place naming was transferred from the federal government to the provinces. Alberta continued to be guided by the federal and international principles forbidding the adoption of derogatory names. This principle would eventually be included when Alberta drafted its own naming guidelines in the 1980s, which formed the basis of the Principles of Geographical Names used by Alberta today [link updated February 2022].
Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer and Geographical Names Program Coordinator.
Fraser, W. B. Calgary. Toronto: Holt Rinehart and Winston. 1967, pp. 65-67
MacEwan, Grant. John Ware’s Cow Country. Edmonton: Institute of Applied Art, 1960.
Palmer, Howard and Tamara Palmer, eds. Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.
Wall, Karen L. Game Plan: A Social History of Sport in Alberta. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.
Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd ed. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.
John Ware is included in too many local histories to list here. A few of the more detailed and notable of these local histories are:
Brooks: Between the Red Deer and the Bow. Brooks, AB: Brooks and District Museum and Historical Society, 1975.
Leaves from the Medicine Tree. Lethbridge: High River Pioneers’ and Old Timers Association, 1960.
Meet Southern Alberta. Calgary: Southern Alberta Pioneers and Old Timers Association, 1954.
Our Foothills. Calgary: Millarville, Kew, Priddis and Bragg Creek Historical Society, 1975.