Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum


The Black West
by William Loren Katz

This book tells the story of African Americans in developing the western frontier. Katz describes in the Introduction how black people were dropped from nearly all of the history stories about the west. After a closer look, it is clear that they penetrated the west as slaves, runaways, explorers, fur trappers, cowboys, cavalrymen, outlaws, poets, homesteaders & sheriffs. These pioneers-of-color longed for a home of their own, a place to educate their children, protect their women & live out their dreams.

At the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787, representatives of the new American nation met to develop a new Constitution to set guidelines for the expansion of slavery. Slave owners were more creative by calling slaves “indentured servants” & slavery increased in frontier western centers. In the 1840s, slaves in the west carried out battles against slavery & many black women challenged slavery in the courts. A slave named Mary learned that Mexican law prohibited bondage & brought suit for her freedom. The court ruled in her favor & she became the first western slave to win her freedom through the legal system. On the other hand, in the 1850s the Ohio House passed a bill to make capture of runaway slaves easier. This bill denied legal rights to blacks & stated that Ohioans who aided fugitives could be fined up to $500. There were other Ohioans who continued to aid slaves; Senator Salmon P. Chase was known in the Ohio courts as “the attorney general of the fugitive slaves.”

The western antislavery movement produced many organizations & newspapers. By 1837, Ohio’s 213 antislavery organizations placed second only to New York’s 274 & ahead of 145 in Massachusetts. There were many underground railroad stations in Indiana, Ohio, & Kentucky. An important underground railroad station was located at Oberlin College in Ohio. In 1833, five routes converged in Oberlin where the college was one of the earliest to admit black students. The western sections of this railroad which dated from the period following the War of 1812 moved people northeast from Ohio & Indiana to the shores of Lake Erie & from Illinois & Iowa toward the southern part of Lake Michigan. Black people could safely move to Canada from these lakes. Ohio later gave the world its first book on the underground railroad - published in England in 1860 entitled “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” by Reverend William Mitchell.

The underground railroad spread to Kansas & Missouri. The Kansas-Nebraska Act created a series of events that ended in a mini civil war. Mississippi Valley farmers resented opening new land to slavery and 20,000 antislavery settlers were planning to move to Kansas. Laws were created to limit free speech, free press, & office holding for those who did not oppose slavery. By 1856, 800 pro-slavery forces from Missouri attacked Kansas. Three days later, John Brown & the Kansas raiders retaliated.

Blacks who participated in early Spanish expeditions helped create a California culture that made them equal. The California gold rush brought men from all over world; however, there was great resentment toward black people. There were petitions favoring black exclusion from the mining regions. Myths were created that said that blacks had some mysterious power to detect gold. Blacks continued to play a role. For example, Daniel Rogers gave his Arkansas master $1,000 in gold dust for his freedom; the owner kept the money & refused to release him. Other Arkansas whites got involved & presented the owner with a certificate testifying to his “honesty, industry & integrity.” Rogers then purchased his entire family & moved to California.

By 1890, there were 500,000 black people living in Texas & Oklahoma. Black & white cowboys were becoming legends. Nearly 5,000 black cowboys helped drive cattle up the Chisholm Trail after the Civil War. The black cowboys found less discrimination on the trail than in town & more equality on the ranch rather than in the communities. These cowboys suffered less discrimination than almost any other occupation at that time. Blacks were hired to do the hardest work & few were in the position of trail boss. There was no discrimination in their wages or sleeping arrangements. In bars, even in Texas, only an informal segregation policy was observed - blacks at one end of the bar & whites at the other end. Clashed between black & white cowboys were rare. The names of a few famous black cowboys include Nate Love, Cherokee Bill (Billy the Kid’s counterpart), & Bill Pickett.

After the Civil War in 1866, the U.S. government dispatched infantry & mounted troops into the western territories to prevent conflicts between settlers & the Indians. Four black regiments - the 9th & 10th Cavalry & the 24th & 25th Infantry - were assigned to preserve peace. They patrolled from the Mississippi to the Rockies, from the Rio Grand to the Canadian border & sometimes into Mexico in pursuit of outlaws or Indians. Although their assignments were more difficult & dangerous, these black soldiers had fewer court martials & boasted the lowest desertion rate in the frontier army. In 1876, the 9th Cavalry had six desertions & the 10th Cavalry had 18 deserter compared to 170 deserted in the 3rd Cavalry, 72 in the 7th Cavalry, & 224 in the 5th Cavalry.

One of the most disgraceful chapters in the U.S. military is the refusal to protect qualified black cadets at West Point from prejudice & hatred. Of the 20 black candidates admitted to West Point in the 19th century, only three graduated. Henry O. Flipper was the first graduate in 1877. In 1881 while assigned to the 10th Cavalry, Lt. Flipper was tried for “embezzling public funds & conduct unbecoming an officer.” He was acquitted of the first charge & found guilty of the second. In retrospect, it is clear that his guilty charge was related to the fact that he had gone riding with a young white woman while serving at Ft. Concho. Lt. John Alexander, West Point’s second black graduate served for seven years as an officer of the 9th Cavalry in Nebraska, Wyoming, & Utah. The third graduate in 1889 was Charles Young who was assigned to the 10th Cavalry. His career spanned 30 years - serving as a commander of the black Ohio Volunteer Army during the Spanish- American War. Near the beginning of World War I, Colonel Young was dropped from active duty. The official explanation was “high blood pressure” but it is believed that this was done to prevent Young from future leadership roles. To prove that he was fit, Young mounted his horse & rode form Ohio to Washington DC & back. He was placed back on active duty but was assigned to diplomatic duty in Liberia. For about half a century after his West Point graduation (until 1936), no blacks graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

One of the most enigmatic figures in western black history was Edwin P. McCabe. He was elected as Kansas state auditor & then suddenly left to found all-black Langston City, Oklahoma. In a few years, Langston City had a population of more than 2,000 people & by 1897 the legislature granted 40 acres to Langston College. In 1889, McCabe campaigned to make Oklahoma a black state with Langston City as its capital & himself as governor. The idea received coverage in the black press since it was an opportunity for blacks to prove that they could properly utilize their citizenship. In 1907 McCabe, hoping to reverse Oklahoma’s movement toward segregation, sued in court to overturn the segregation of railroad passengers. He moved to Chicago but returned year after year to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1914, the court ruled against him & announced that segregation was legal in Oklahoma’s trains, public conveyances & facilities. While in Oklahoma for 20 years, 30 black towns were sprouted & in Langston the illiteracy rate fell to 6%. McCabe’s courage brought gifts of civilization to black people. By 1900, 72% of the citizens in Oklahoma could read, 70% could write; for women ages 15-45 years old, 96% could read & 95% could write.

Black women made their mark on the western frontier, also. In 1868, an ex-slave named Elvira Conley established a laundry in Marshall, KS where Buffalo Bill & Wild Bill Hickok were customers & friends. Conley also met the wealthy Sellar-Bullard family that supplied dry goods to the railroads. By 1870, she was the family governess & for the next 60 years, through four generations of Sellars & Bullards, traveled from Sheridan, KS to Kit Carson, New Mexico, San Francisco, & to Naples, Italy as she & the family vacationed in style.

In 1875, Nevada widow, Sarah Miner, built her husband’s express & furniture hauling business into a $6,000 enterprise. It was lost in a fire but she rebuilt it a year later. Black women ran hotels, hairdressing shops, restaurants, & boarding houses; they built churches, orphanages, schools, & literary societies. Mary Fields drove a stage coach while in her 70’s delivering the U.S. mail in Cascade, MT & Central City, CO. Clara Brown sponsored black wagon trains to the state & started a church. In Seattle in 1896, Susie Revels began writing for the black newspaper “Republican;” she married the editor & by 1900 was the assistant editor. In 1866, Cathy Williams disguised as William Cathay served as a private in the U.S. Army. When she was admitted to a hospital in 1868, her identity was discovered & the Army discharged her.

Black women spearheaded goals toward formal education, moral piety, & economic advancement. They built the black western church. By 1860, the literacy rate was 74%; the 1860 census showed black female students ahead of whites in attendance. In 1900, Mattie Harris was the first & only black female to graduate from a San Francisco high school in a class of 1,500 students.

Black western women were less likely to suffer white rape, child abuse, police brutality, & violent attacks on their family than those in the south or New England. They were more likely to receive a decent education & a better job.

In conclusion, the black migrant to the frontier found no hiding place from traditional white American attitudes. Repeatedly white settlers wanted a white west. Black settlers in the west soon organized their opposition to discrimination & slavery. As time went on, there were wide variations in discrimination patterns but black men & women found strategies for their survival & growth.

This book includes many photographs & art work depicting black men, women & children who pioneered the west. It is an excellent reference for anyone interested in learning about the lives of African Americans & the role the played in the western expansion.

©Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum dot PO Box 531187dot Indianapolis, IN 46253
copyright restrictions