Many people feel that the role of blacks in the west was non existent. I am still surprised even today the amount of black people who are unaware of African American history. We as African Americans played a major role in the west, and were atleast slightly under 25% of all the cowboys in the west.
Infact the name "cowboy" was applied to black cow hands due to their color. The term was originaly deogratory. However the term became so fashionable, that it caught on and became popular. Prior to the term becomming popular, whites were known as "Wranglers and cattle men".
RECLAIMING THE LEGACY OF THE BLACK WEST
As farmers began looking for new lands to cultivate in the West, a demand for people skilled in herding and ranching grew. The unsettled West attracted ambitious people of all colors seeking a better life than they had in the East. For enslaved Blacks the West offered freedom and refuge from the bonds of slavery. It also gave African Americans a chance at better earnings. From pioneers to cowboys to prospectors, African Americans have contributed immensely to the most legendary chapter of American History The Wild West. Since the 1500s, starting with the Portuguese, African Americans, were highly sought after for their diplomatic and versatile language skills. Employed by Europeans all over the Americas, Africans regularly served as their go-between with Native Indians. Adept at exploring, communicating, hunting and herding, Blacks were some of the most proficient pioneers and explorers. Domesticated horses were brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadores during the 1500s. Their combination of breeds of Arabian steeds, African Barbs and Andalusian horses eventually moved north from Mexico, and bred with Spanish strays to create mustangs. At the end of the Civil War, about 5 million cattle and wild horses were roaming free after being left to their own devices during the war. A huge demand for skilled cowhands developed and the lawlessness of the West did not necessarily dictate a man’s worth solely on the color of his skin. No less than twenty-five percent of all cowhands were Black. In fact, the label “cowboy” is thought to have originally been a derogatory term used to describe Black “cowhands”. As the word “cowboy” has grown immeasurably in popularity, the Black cowboys the term described have been stricken from the record with extreme prejudice. Listed below are of some of America’s greatest African American explorers, adventurers, pioneers, prospectors, politicians, cowboys, outlaws and marshals who shaped the Wild West with their unique characters, unparalleled skills and adventurous spirits.
OUTLAWS, COWBOYS AND MARSHALS
Cherokee Bill was born in Fort Concho, Texas. His father, Sergeant George Goldsby, served in the Tenth Cavalry. When Chrerokee Bill was two years old, Sergeant Goldsbly led his men in a gun duel against White Texans. To avoid persecution he was forced to flee and abandon his family. As a teenager, Cherokee Bill got involved with a bad crowd and later joined the Cook brothers outlaw gang. He spent his life as a criminal known for his firearm prowess, quick reflexes and charming personality. At the age of nineteen he was apprehended by a posse and sentenced to death by “The Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker.
Surviving photographs of Ben Hodges show him as a well-armed, rough and tough outlaw. But Ben’s greatest weapon of all was his way with words and his sharp wit. Just like his contemporary Wyatt Earp, Ben Hodges made a living playing, cheating and hustling cards. He was born to a Black father and a Mexican mother. When he arrived in Dodge City he claimed to be the descendent of an aristocratic Spanish family. He was known in the courts for fraudulent activity and rustling cattle, but his personal flare and convincing words consistently got him acquitted. He died in 1929 and was buried in the Maple Grove Cemetery. When asked why an outlaw was buried among Dodge City’s best residents, they replied that they wanted to keep Ben Hodges in a place where they could keep an eye on him.
Isom Dart was born into slavery in Arkansas, 1849. Dart began stealing when he was commissioned by the Confederate army to hunt for them during the Civil War. He eventually worked his way into Mexico where we worked in the Rodeos as a clown. Going straight didn’t suit him and he began stealing cattle in Mexico and selling them in Texas. He moved to Brown’s Park, Colorado, a notorious refuge for cattle thieves. He tried going straight again by prospecting and also earned wide acclaim for his skills broncobusting. But he was drawn back into cattle rustling and joined the Tip Gault outlaw gang. Despite his criminal ways, Isom Dart was known as a kind and generous man, but he could never escape his cow rustling past. At the age of 51, he was shot in the back by the bounty hunter Tom Horn.
Nat Love (a.k.a. Deadwood Dick)
Nat Love was born in 1854 in Tennessee. As a young man his dreams for freedom were crushed by the power of White supremacists after the Civil War. He headed for Kansas looking to find schools for colored children. Shortly after arriving in the frontier town of Dodge, Nat Love landed a job as a cowpuncher and participated in the Texas-Kansas cattle drives for over ten years. He got his first job from Bronco Jim, a fellow Black cowboy and trail boss. Bronco Jim promised Nat a job if he could successfully ride their wildest horse, Good Eye. Although Nat broke the horse he claimed it was the toughest ride he ever had. In 1876, he won the roping and shooting events in Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory. His skill and strength inspired the crowd and they named him Deadwood Dick. In 1907, Deadwood Dick wrote his autobiography and it is the only full-length written account of the life of an African American cowboy.
Jesse Stahl was born in 1879 in Tennessee. Now an inductee in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Jesse was the greatest bronco rider of his day. He seldom won first place in the Rodeo competitions because of the color of his skin. But he never failed to out-ride and out-show his competition. In one particular instance, he placed second in a competition that he clearly should have won outright. In a daring and deliberate move, he rode out on a wild bucking horse that had never been ridden. The ride was magnificent and spectacular and made a mockery of the judges because Jesse Stahl broke the horse while riding it backwards! Stahl retired in 1929 but his cowboy legend is still known far and wide.
Bill Pickett was born in 1870 to poor Black Cherokees. He left school after the fifth grade to live outdoors and pursue his love of animals. He grew up to be five-foot-seven and weighed only 145 pounds, but his muscles were strong and he glided through the air with incredible finesse. He perfected his riding and roping skills, but Bill Pickett is most famous for his invention of Bulldogging. Bill Pickett, after observing a bulldog take down a steer by biting onto its lip, perfected his technique, which involved jumping from a horse onto a steer and wrestling it down to the ground by biting down the beast’s lip. The bulldogging event became one of the most popular at Rodeo shows. In 1907, Pickett took a contract with the famous 101 Ranch. He worked with Will Rogers and Tom Mix and performed in Rodeo shows all over the world.
Bose Ikard was born a slave in 1847. It is possible that his slave master Dr. Milton Ikard was his father. The entire family moved to Texas in 1852 and settled on the Comanche-Kiowa frontier. Indian raids forced Bose Ikard to learn cowboy skills at a young age. He earned his freedom for his military service to the Union during the Civil War and he went on to become a celebrated cowboy through his work with Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight. His exemplary work on the Goodnight-Loving Trail and his friendships with its founders, cemented his name as a cowboy legend of the Wild West.
Mary Fields was born a slave in Tennessee and grew up to be six feet tall and she weighed 200 pounds. She started working in the West in 1884 transporting goods for Mother Amadeus and the Ursuline nuns at St. Peter Mission in Cascade, Montana. She possessed amazing strength and wilderness skills. Under her apron she wore a Wesson gun and a .38 Smith and he was known to take down anyone who attempted trample on her rights. After ten years of work with the convent, she got into a fight with a hired hand that had done her wrong and Mary Fields was fired. But Mother Amadeus aided Mary in finding a job with the U.S. Post Office. She never missed a route to bad terrain or below freezing weather and she became known as Stagecoach Mary. When she was in her 70’s she opened a laundry service, which burned down in 1912. A legend in her time, the residents of the town rebuilt it for her.
William Robinson & George Monroe
African Americans looking for alternatives to mining found jobs in the city, but two African Americans found work with The Pony Express. William Robinson rode the mail between Merced and Mariposa relying on his endurance, strength and resourcefulness to complete the route. George Monroe was born the son of a prospector. He was most famous for his abilities as a stage driver. His reputation earned him the job of driving the former President, Ulysses S. Grant across the switchbacks of the Wanona Trail and into Yosemite Valley. The beautiful Monroe Meadows in Yosemite is named after him.
Ike Murphy, Jimmie Winkfield and The Kentucky Derby
The first Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs was in 1875. Of the fourteen jockeys involved in the race thirteen were Black. Not surprisingly it was an African American jockey that won the first Kentucky Derby. The greatest jockey of the 19th century was an African American man named Ike Murphy. He began racing horses at the age of fourteen. In the year of 1882 he won forty-nine of the fifty-one races he entered at Saratoga, New York. He won the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890 and 1891 and became the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. He died of pneumonia at the young age of 35 in 1896. Perhaps his untimely death was a blessing in disguise, as he never bore witness to the infiltration of racism on the tracks. As horse racing became a big bucks event, Whites controlling the finances insisted only Whites could ride as jockeys. In 1901 and 1902 Jimmie Winkfield was the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby.
Elvira Conley was born into slavery in 1845. She was freed at the age of nineteen during 1864. She married a retired and educated soldier, but when she discovered his infidelity she left him in the dust and headed for the West. She settled in Sheridan in the state of Kansas at the apex of the town’s lawlessness. Tall, proud and impervious to the bullying of local criminals, she opened her own laundry business. Her promises of fresh, clean clothes attracted the likes of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. Over the years, the three forged a strong friendship in the rough railroad town. In 1870, she left her laundry business and became the governess for the wealthy Sellar-Bullard family. She presided over four generations of the family, expressing the boldness and pride she had for the color of her skin.
Jess Crumbly of Cheyenne & The Texas Kid
The Wild West provided African Americans the chance for a life that could potentially be dictated by their skills and not the color of their skin. However, racial intolerance was still a part of daily life, albeit to a lesser extent than other areas of the United States. Jess Crumbly and John B. Hayes, better known as the Texas Kid, were known for their intolerance of segregation. Whenever The Texas Kid read a sign stipulating the bar was for “Whites Only” he would go inside and order a drink despite the color of his black skin. If the bartender refused him a beverage, The Texas Kid would back his horse into the bar and shoot out all the lights. Jess Crumbly stood six foot four and weighed 245 pounds. He was nicknamed Flip because anyone he punched flipped back in the air. Although the signs on the saloons were written in black and white, Flips fists swung freely knocking out color boundaries wherever he went.
Henrietta Williams Foster
Henrietta Foster was born a slave in 1827 in Mississippi. Better known as “Aunt Rittie”, she worked cattle bareback on a horse, she had a pool of knowledge about herbal remedies and she was a defiantly vocal woman. She was tougher than any man who crossed her path and she outperformed them with her livestock skills. She was known to be stubborn and ready for anything. Despite the fact that she was a woman of small stature, men across the land feared her.
Mustang horses were known for their endurance and unruly temperaments. Many attempts to coral a herd of mustangs often resulted in more casualties than horses, until Bob Lemmons appeared on the scene. He was born in Texas in 1848 to an enslaved mother and an unknown father. At the age of seventeen he was freed during the Civil War and by 1870 he owned his own land, sheep, cattle, goats and horses. He had also taught himself how to read. He developed a gentle technique of horsemanship by bonding and spending time with the mustang herds and earning their trust. Horses would flock to him and follow him anywhere he went of their own free will. His horsemanship skills were known far and wide across the country and by the time he died in 1947 he owned more than 1 200 acres of land.
Daniel W. Wallace
Daniel W. Wallace was born a slave in Victoria County, Texas. He was freed in 1860 at the age of twelve and took his first job on a trail drive. He continued to work for ranchers and fine-tuned his cowboy skills. He learned how to handle stampedes, operate firearms, chase down horses and cattle, fight against raids and ambushes and defend himself against bigotry and racism. By the age of twenty-five he bought a homestead with his savings and decided to attend high school to learn how to read and write. He met his future wife, Laura Owen, and together they went on to own 8 820 acres of land. They had a reputation for helping and feeding hungry Natives and for investing in the community’s education. They saw all four of their children educated and Daniel W. Wallace became a respected member of the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association.
John Slaughter was a large, strong man who worked his whole life as a cowboy. He was an incredible cowpuncher and was famous his fearlessness. While doing some work prospecting, Tombstone murderer, Frank Leslie, tried to jump and steal his claim. But Leslie was no match for John Slaughter who chased him away. In 1884, when boxing champ John L. Sullivan came to Tombstone and said he would give five hundred dollars to anyone who could last two rounds in the ring with him, John Slaughter was the first to volunteer. Slaughter got the first punch in, but he lost the match.
Britton Johnson was known as the best shot on the Texas frontier. His heroic story started in 1864 when he returned to his home to discover that Kiowa and Comanche Indians had raided his community, murdered his infant son and kidnapped his wife and their three other children. Among the abducted were White settlers and some children too. Britton Johnson rode off in pursuit of the Indian tribes with every intention to rescue his own family and the families of his community. How achieved his rescue is still a matter of debate. Some say he bartered for the captives with horses and some say he and the captives escaped during a daring night rescue. In the end, he was a true hero and had saved the lives of his family as well as the families of fellow White settlers.
Matthew Bones Hooks
By the time he was born in Orangeville, Texas, in 1867 his parents were free from the bonds of slavery. As their eldest child, Hooks learned to read and helped his parents raise his younger siblings. He was given the name Bones because he was so thin, but that didn’t stop him from being great at breaking horses. He was a devoted Christian and decided to move to Clarendon, a primarily White community that took years to accept him. But his amazing horsemanship skills were in high demand and he won the favor of the town’s residents. He was the first African American to join the Western Cowpunchers Association of Amarillo and the Western Cowboys Association of Montana. He was also the first Black man to serve on a jury. He was committed to establishing Black towns and wherever he was told he couldn’t go, he went anyway. In 1930, he constructed North Heights, a Black community northwest of Amarillo. The town boasted 35 families, a general store, an elementary school, a high school and four churches. He spent most his money on the aid of others and when he needed medical attention himself in 1949 he didn’t have the funds. Residents raised the funds for him and he was properly cared for until his death at the age of 83 in 1951.
Bass Reeves was born in 1824 to slave parents in Paris, Texas. After a severe physical fight over cards with his master, Reeves fled into Indian Territory where he lived with the Five Civilized Tribes until 1863. After the Emancipation Proclamation he was a free man and no longer a fugitive. He bought some land in Van Buren, Arkansas, raised a family and became a successful farmer and stockman. In 1875, Judge Isaac C. Parker was appointed to the Federal Western District Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Judge Parker, better known as the Hanging Judge, selected a marshal and two hundred deputies to rein in the lawlessness of the land. White outlaws had wrought the Indian territories with so much terror and violence anyone with white skin was considered an enemy. Bass Reeves, commissioned by Judge Parker, became first Black United States deputy marshal west of the Mississippi River. In relation to his White counterparts, he possessed a superior knowledge of Native languages and lands. Furthermore, as a Black man, he was shown preferential treatment over his White companions because the color of his skin was not associated with the ruthless behavior of White outlaws. Marshal Reeves was known for his utmost respect and commitment to the law. He never made any exceptions to the rules, not even for his own son who became an outlaw and Reeves personally arrested. Incidentally, despite the fact that Bass Reeves never learned to read or write he was the best in the land for serving up warrants. He continued to work in law enforcement until the end of his life in 1910.
Marshal Willie Kennard
Willie Kennard was born in 1832 and served in the Civil War as a U.S. cavalryman. In 1874, at the age of 42, he rode into a rough and tough town of outlaws named Yankee Hill in the state of Colorado. He decided to apply for a job as the town’s marshal, but the mayor insisted that the White citizens of Yankee Hill would give him more trouble than the gunslinging criminals. Kennard persisted and the mayor agreed to hire him as the town’s marshal if he could arrest the outlaw Caswit, a gruesome character who had raped a teenage girl and murdered her father. Kennard confronted Caswit in Gaylord’s saloon and blew the pistols out of Caswit’s hands. With his successful arrest, Willie Kennard became Marshal Kennard and brought law and order to the town for three years.
The Buffalo Soldiers comprised of members from the 9th and 10th Union Army Cavalry, as well as the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiment. From 1866 through the early 1890s, the Buffalo Soldiers served and fought along the western frontier of Indian Territory. The Buffalo Soldiers were a post Civil War peacetime unit devised to tame the West for further settlements. They earned their name from Natives who dubbed them “Buffalo Soldiers” because of their black, curly, buffalo-like hair. Their duties, however, were not constrained to the Wild West. They actively participated in the Spanish-American War alongside Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico and served on the far side of the planet in the Philippine-American War. Dressed in men’s clothing, Cathy Williams enlisted in Captain Charles E. Clarke’s Buffalo Soldiers Company A as William Cathay. No one in her company, except her cousin and good friend, knew that under the loose uniform and 5’9” frame stood a female soldier. She served in the military for two years. In 1968, having saved some money she grew tired of military life and faked an illness. Her sexe was discovered during a medical examination and, Cathy Williams, the only known female Buffalo Soldier was discharged October 14th, 1868. She went on to live a very long life and died in New Mexico at the age of 82. Buffalo Soldiers faced the same bigotry and discrimination after the Civil War despite the fact that they served their country with distinction and received numerous honors. Incidentally, it is a strange fate that the Buffalo Soldiers primary opponents were Native Indians, the first people to be oppressed by White colonists. The same lands and tribes that housed their runaway-slave ancestors were, in part, brought down by the efforts and successes of the remarkable Buffalo Soldiers.
EXPLORERS, PIONEERS AND FOUNDERS
The success of the famous expeditions of Lewis & Clark has often been credited to Sacajawea, a very diplomatic Shoshone woman. But little of that credit has been attributed to York, William Clark’s slave since childhood. Standing over six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, the man’s presence was hard to ignore. On behalf of his European masters, he served as an interpreter and an ambassador to the natives, who responded to him positively and respectfully. Members of the Flatheads believed York was a great warrior and the bravest member of his party. They believed his dark skin was made of charcoal because, at the time, it was customary for victorious tribal warriors to coat themselves in charcoal after winning a battle.
Estevan was born in Morocco in the early 1500’s. As the servant of Andres Dorantes, he boarded a ship bound for the Americas in 1527 along with 500 other men commissioned to explore the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Their landing in America was wrought with mismanagement, chaos and disease. In the end, only Estevan, his master and two other Spanish men survived. They were enslaved by local Indian tribes, but managed to escape. It would take them eight years to reach the Spanish headquarters in Mexico City. Estevan was known for his language and navigation skills and he was sold to Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza of New Spain. While guiding an expedition to Cibola, Estevan mysteriously disappeared. Two wounded Indian scouts reported that Estevan was captured and murdered by natives, but it is rumored that Estevan may have faked his own death in exchange for personal freedom. Estevan was the first explorer to reach Arizona and New Mexico. His legend and lore inspired what would become the European settlement of the southwest.
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable
The founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was born in 1745 in the Caribbean to a sea faring French father and an African slave mother. Upon his mother’s death, his father sent him to study in Paris. As a young man he worked under his father’s charge on his ships until they were shipwrecked in New Orleans. He managed to avoid being enslaved and moved towards the northwest frontier. He was an accomplished trapper and fur trader and he upheld strong relationships with the natives. He established the first trading outposts and settlements in the area known today as Chicago.
Abijah and Lucy Prince
At five years old, Lucy Terry was kidnapped from Africa and sold as a slave in Deerfield Massachusetts. At the age of sixteen, she won acclaim for her poem “The Bar’s Fight” and it became the first published poem by an African American. She was free from the bonds of slavery at the age of twenty-one when she married Abijah Prince, a former slave and military man. They were well respected by many of their White peers and lived on a farm in Guilford. However, they were not free from prejudice, as one of their White neighbors frequently vandalized their property and subjected their family to violence. In 1785, she single handedly rode on a horse across the state to protest the injustice to the Governor’s Council. She won her case, but it would not be long before she would find herself pleading for equal justice again. Backed by Isaac Ticknor, she argued a boundary-line dispute against an opposing counsel consisting of Royall Tyler, America’s first playwright and the future chief justice of Vermont’s high courts. Lucy Prince won over the court with her brilliant arguments and eloquent words. Despite her legal victories and the respect many White people had for her, she never won the right to have her children educated in her community.
Bango Family Dynasty
The Bango Family Dynasty began with Jean Bango, a former slave, who opened the first inn on Mackinaw Island sometime around 1787. His son Pierre became a topnotch explorer, translator and trader who joined and helped the North West Company in 1803. He eventually married an Ojibway Indian and served the British as their chief guide for their explorations of the Red River Valley. Jean Bonga’s grandsons went on to continue the family tradition and had very successful careers. Stephen Bonga was a skillful and powerful negotiator with Native Chiefs and George Bonga was a Cass expedition leader. In 1837, George founded the town of Bango in Cass County, Minnesota. When he passed away in 1885 and he was mourned in Congress and in the newspapers of New York and Chicago.
George Washington Bush
By the time George Washington Bush, his White wife and five children joined up with an Oregon bound wagon convoy, he had grown rich from cattle trades in Missouri. With his ample wealth, he provided financial assistance to his fellow White travelers. When they finally reached Oregon, a new law prohibited “people of color” to settle in the territory. Outraged, the party’s leader, an Irishman named Michael T. Simmons, refused to settle in a place that would reject his Black traveling companions. The group pushed north and settled in Puget Sound. But the Bush family was not free from the racist laws of their time. In 1853, 23 White citizens of the state of Oregon demanded that Bush’s land claim be validated. By 1854, as an elected member of legislature, Michael T. Simmons, asked Congress to exclude the Bush family from the racially intolerant laws and be given land of their own. Both requests were granted and the Bush family received 640 Acres of land, which is known today as Bush Prairie.
James Beckwourth was born to an enslaved mother and a White father in 1798. By 1827, Beckwourth had crossed the Mississippi at Saint Louis and made his way west across uncharted lands. His skills as an explorer, translator, warrior, hunter, and, rider earned him a great reputation and made him a legend. Among his many accomplishments was his discovery of a mountain pass through Sierra Nevada, which became known as Beckwourth Pass. In 1951, a great injustice was done to African American history and to the memory of the great pioneer who helped found the West and fought for the well-being of the Native tribes that adopted him. “Tomahawk”, a film produced by Universal International told the story of Jim Beckwourth and centered on the real life adventures of James Beckwourth, but the actor who played his character was Jack Oakie, a White man.
Edward Rose worked as a guide, interpreter and hunter for the most prominent trading companies of his time. The Missouri Fur Company of Manuel Lisa, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company of William Ashley and the American Fur Company of John Jacob Astor all trusted Edward Rose’s skills. His contemporary, James Beckwourth, described him as the best interpreter in all the Indian lands and according to U.S. army captain Reuben Holmes, Rose knew all that Indians knew. Like a true pioneer, Rose was a man who possessed magnificent wilderness skills and mental and physical stamina, which was admired by Natives, African Americans, and Caucasians alike.
Moses Harris was also known as the “Black Squire”. He was one of the West’s most sought after and reliable guides. His deep understanding of Native culture and his willingness to tolerate intense fatigue and privation gave him reputation that spread through the West. He often used his skills and endurance to rescue families stranded in remote areas without food and water.
Answering the call for U.S. settlers in what would soon become Texas, Greenbury Logan met with Stephen Austin. He was given Texan citizenship and a quarter acre of land. Loyal to his territory and the ideals of freedom, Greenbury Logan was one of the Black Texans who fought for Texan independence against Mexico in 1835. In actual fact, Texas’ fight for freedom was a major victory for slaveholders and Greenbury Logan found the freedom he had fought to preserve stripped away from him. Incidentally, prior to the arrival of Moses and Stephen Austin, a Spanish census disclosed that of the 1 600 residents in the province, 449 were African descendents who not only held Spanish names and who spoke Spanish fluently, they also shared the same civil rights and liberties as their Mexican counterparts.
Born to a slave father and a White mother in 1817, George Washington was soon adopted by a White family with his mother’s consent. The family moved west and finally settled in Oregon. By 1872, the Northern Pacific Railroad planned to run a rail line through his land. He grabbed the opportunity and founded the town of Centerville, later known as Centralia in the State of Washington. He sold lots of land for 5$ on the condition that a house valuing at least 100$ would be built upon each lot. He spent his profits building churches, creating a cemetery and providing relief efforts for the poor. He was known for his strength and kindness, which he proved to have in abundance during the Panic of 1893 when he single-handedly saved the town from starvation.
Aunt Clara Brown was a deeply religious woman who was separated from her husband, son and four daughters when they were each sold to different slave owners. When she was freed in 1856, she decided to set out for Kansas. She convinced a group of prospectors on their way to Pike’s Peak to hire her as a cook. Eight weeks later she arrived in Cherry Creek, known today as Denver. She went on to Central City where she set up a laundry business and amassed a small fortune. With her wealth she provided health care to the poor of all colors, she founded churches and she set out to Kentucky to locate her long lost family. Her search was in vain, but she returned to Denver with 26 ex-slaves. She paid for all of their travel costs. In 1882, she finally located one of her daughters, Eliza Jane, but her money was starting to run short. By the time she died in 1885, she had spent almost all or her entire fortune helping others to find freedom, health and happiness.
Lucy Gonzales Parsons
Lucy Gonzales was born a slave in Texas in 1853. A rebel of her time, she defied conventions as an outspoken African American woman who grew up under the rein of terror of the Ku Klux Klan. She was a beautiful and passionate woman who chose to marry a White man named Albert Parsons who was personally dedicated to fighting injustice and inequality. Driven out of state for the expression of their beliefs in an anti-Klan, pro equal justice paper in Waco that Albert edited, they moved north and settled in Chicago. They had two children and Albert became a labor leader. In 1886, following the Haymarket riot, a bomb was set off and seven policemen were killed. Eight union leaders were framed for the crime and Albert was one of them. Albert was executed along with two other union leaders. Lucy trooped on, raised the kids and continued to protest, landing herself in jail regularly. In 1905, she delivered a well-presented speech, which proposed the idea of passive resistance and introduced the building tools for the Civil Rights Movement. She passed away in a peculiar fire at her home in Chicago in 1942. Upon seeing the fire, friends rushed to the house hoping to save her, her books and her invaluable writings. But they arrived only to find that the FBI had seized them all.
Following her Mormon owner West, Biddy Mason and her three daughters made the journey to California. On the voyage Biddy Mason served the function of midwife, cook and cowgirl. By 1856, much to her dismay, her owner decided to return to the South. Having an agenda of her own and no intention to return to the South, Biddy Mason served her owner legal papers calling for her freedom. Biddy Mason offered the court two days testimony. When her master failed to appear before the courts, she and her daughters were declared free. With the substantial savings she acquired while providing midwifery services over the years, Biddy Mason went on to acquire significant amounts of Los Angeles real estate. She helped found the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. As her wealth grew, she donated to nursing homes, prisons, schools, and helped many in need. By the time she died in 1891, her family was one of the richest in California.
Mexican California offered a land of opportunity for African Americans. For one, the society was much more open and tolerant to interracial marriages. Furthermore, earning wealth and holding office was not exclusively for the lily-white. Pio Pico was a culmination of these factors as his ancestry was African, Native American and European. He went on to earn wealth and fortune and became Governor of California twice over. His brother, Andreas, served as a general during the U.S.-Mexican War and achieved a great victory over U.S. forces in San Pascual.
Maria Rita Valdez & Francisco Reyes
Los Angeles was founded in 1781 by a group of 44 people, two were White, some were Natives and twenty-six were African descendents. Among the founding families of Los Angeles were the African grandparents of Maria Rita Valdez, owner of Rancho Rodeo de Las Aguas, known today as Beverly Hills. Fransisco Reyes, owned the San Fernando Valley and became the mayor of Los Angeles despite his African ancestry.
William Leidesdorff was born in the Virgin Islands in 1810 to a Danish planter and his African slave wife. In 1841, he sailed into the port of Yerba Buena a small, dusty town of 200 residents that he would soon transform into San Francisco. He went on to purchase land in town as well as 35 000 acres just to the east of John Sutter’s sawmill. As his power and fortune grew, he became interested in businessmen seeking to make California part of the United States. His financing and advice as the first African American diplomat helped the U.S. win their victory against Mexico. Under the new American administration, Leidesdorff increased his fortune and power. In 1847, he constructed the famous City Hotel, which was San Francisco’s first hotel and he set sail San Francisco’s first steamboat. In 1848, he organized the city’s first horse races, and as treasurer of City Council, he built the first public school. Furthermore gold had just been discovered at Sutter’s Mill near Leidesdorff enormous acreage and the Gold Rush was on California’s doorstep. Sadly, later that year, at the height of his fortune and fame, Leidesdorff fell ill with Typhus and died. His funeral was attended by the entire city as residents closed their businesses for the day and flew their flags at half-mast.
Mifflin W. Gibbs
Mifflin W. Gibbs was born in Philadelphia in 1828. His father was a Methodist minister and he took to advancing his literary skills and helping his fellow citizens at an early age. He was an active member in the Underground Railroad and the Philadelphia Antislavery Society and encouraged by Frederick Douglass and Charles Lenox Raymond, he joined their lecture tour. But in 1850, enthralled by the opportunity the Gold Rush offered, he headed west with ten cents in his pocket. Gibbs rode west with explorer John C. Frémont and shined shoes along the way. He and his friend, Peter Lester, went on to open the Pioneer Boot and Shoe Emporium. They also devoted their free time to the fight for civil rights and spoke out against the new Black Laws. He launched California’s first Black newspaper and in 1969 he graduated from Oberlin College and in 1873 he was elected as a judge in the city of Little Rock and was later appointed as U.S. consul to Madagascar.
William H. Hall
By 1848 word about wealth in California spread all over the globe. California became a hotbed for hardworking and ambitious African American men and women looking to better their life and the lives of their families. One such man was William H. Hall who made enough of a fortune to pay for his lavish wedding in New York and went on to deliver a lucrative lecture series called The Hopes and Prospects of Colored People in California.
Alvin A. Coffey
As California grew and great fortunes were to be gained, bigotry and racism began to work their way into California’s legislation and policies. The Foreign Miner’s Tax was imposed on people of color to ensure that the gold fields were left for Whites. In 1849, as the Missouri slave to Dr. Bassett, Alvin Coffey was brought to California. In two years he amassed a small fortune and bought his and his family’s freedom. However, his master sneakily took the money and did not free Coffey. Instead, he sold Coffey to another master in Missouri who sent him back into the gold fields to pan handle as his slave. Eventually, Alvin Coffey was able to buy his and his family’s freedom and he went on to become the first African American member of the California Pioneers’ Association.
Daniel Rogers suffered a similar misfortune as Alvin Coffey. When he went to buy his freedom from his Arkansas master with a thousand dollars worth of gold dust, his master pocketed the cash. Outraged and incensed by the master’s deceit and dishonor, White residents in Arkansas raised enough cash to provide Daniel Rogers his freedom. They also gave him a letter crediting Rogers for his honesty and integrity. Rogers went on to purchase his family’s freedom and they settled in California.
Moses Rodgers was a former slave who worked as an engineer during the Gold Rush and his gold mining endeavors earned him a fortune. He was a well-known and accomplished metallurgist and he worked at the Mount Gaines Mine as their superintendent. He went on to purchase mines in Mariposa County and he married one of the daughters of Emmanuel Quivers who forced the desegregation of schools in the region.
Barney Ford and Henry O. Waggoner
Barney Ford and Henry O. Waggoner grew up as slaves in the South and taught themselves how to read and write. By the time Ford escaped on the Underground Railroad, Henry O. Waggoner was working as a newspaper correspondent for Frederick Douglass. Over the course of their lives, Ford and Waggoner opened several successful businesses in Denver and, with the help of Ed Sanderlin and W.J. Hardin, they established the first adult education classes in Colorado. Ford is also the man behind the legend of “Nigger Hill”. The legend says that Ford and a handful of African American companions were digging for gold, but because they were Black the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling prohibited them from filing a land claim. To get around the injustice, Ford filed the claim under the name of his White lawyer. When Ford and his team struck gold in 1860, White vigilantes drove them off the land to seize their gold. But they never found any and they began the rumor that Ford had outwitted them and buried the gold on the mountainside, which became known as Nigger Hill. Many attempts were made to find Ford’s gold, but no one ever struck gold.
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