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Posted on: February 22, 2021

How the West was Black

As another Black History Month crosses the calendar, many across the nation are taking a look at the tragedies and triumphs of the African-American experience, from slavery to Selma, from Harlem to Atlanta. But what about the Black history of the West?

by Jo Lutz

As another Black History Month crosses the calendar, many across the nation are taking a look at the tragedies and triumphs of the African-American experience, from past to present, slavery to Selma, Jim Crow to Martin Luther King. From Harlem to Atlanta. But what about the Black history of the West?Stagecoach Mary Graphic 1

The fact of the matter is that frontier culture is often portrayed as overwhelmingly White, from early dime novels that consecrated the myth of the cowboy to modern Hollywood. One rarely hears that in fact as many as 25% of cowboys were Black. Much more literature is focused on post-slavery experiences east of the Mississippi, like the Reformation and northern migration. Meanwhile, following the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery, former slaves with limited prospects joined the military from all over the nation and were deployed across the western frontier, these Buffalo Soldiers playing a pivotal historical role in U.S. expansion… and Native subjugation. While we are reminded by literature on these topics that racism did not stop at the Mississippi, it is often remarked that many Black people preferred life out west, enjoying a kind of “rough equality” on the range.

The Silver City Museum Store has an entire book section dedicated to Black Western history, and I want to share some gems from it about the incredible lives of Black cowboys, stagecoach drivers, rodeo stars, Indian scouts, entrepreneurs, and more.

The “shortest book with the most pictures” award goes to Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes of the Old West, by Lillian Schlissel. This reader weights these attributes heavily when choosing history books, but you may disagree. Regardless, this accessible book reveals the amazing tales of the legendary mountain man Jim Beckworth, and the freed slave named York who accompanied Lewis, Merriweather, and Sacagawea on their expedition and later lived with Indian tribes west of the Rockies. It tells the adventurous life of Nat Love, who ran away from slavery at fifteen to become a famous cowboy, never staying in one place long, accomplishing great feats of horsemanship, having adventures and earning nicknames. When the railroads eventually brought the trail-driving lifestyle to an end, Love became a Pullman porter and wrote an autobiography.

There was Barney Ford, who owned a hotel in Nicaragua, yet when he returned to the U.S. he found there were many hotels that would not rent him a room. A neighborhood in the Denver area where he bought a mining claim is now named for him.

There were Black rodeo stars and bronc busters like Jesse Stahl and Bill Pickett, whose signature trick was wrestling a bull to the ground by biting its lip as he had seen a dog do in his childhood. It was called “bulldogging.” My favorite is probably Stagecoach Mary, who is so great I almost don’t want to spoil. We’ll get to her in a minute.

The flip-side of the accessibility of Black Frontiers, which can be easily digested by middle or high school students, is that is often seems over-simplified in the service of lionizing its subjects. This comes across strongly in the chapter on Buffalo Soldiers, which spends a lot of time celebrating their military prowess and includes an un-elaborated tidbit that they “helped capture… the dangerous Apache chief Geronimo.”  

Hmm. That’s a way of putting it!

For a more grown-up book that still tells exciting narratives about many of these same figures, definitely check-out The Black West by Tricia Martineau Wagner. This is the Goldilocks option of Black cowboy stories. It has more detailed accounts and less questionable editorializing, and does contain a few photos.

The more academically inclined might rather read Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, On the Stage, Behind the Badge, edited by Bruce A. Glasrud and Michael N. Searles. It has small print and large footnotes, and also has chapters devoted to Nat Love, Stagecoach Mary, and other individuals in addition to themed chapter like “Singing Cowboys” and “Lawmen.” No photos though!

The most local stories come from New Mexico’s Buffalo Soldiers 1866-1900, by Monroe Lee Billington. It has several chapters devoted entirely to Fort Bayard. It described the roles of both infantry and cavalry in the Indian wars, camp and garrison life, prejudice and discrimination. We are reminded again of just how diverse military and frontier life was during and after the civil war by the statistic from the introduction that 10% of Union soldiers were Black. For more background on this topic, we also sell New Mexico and the Civil War by Dr. Walter Earl Pittman: https://silvercitymuseumsociety.org/product/new-mexico-and-the-civil-war/.

And last but not least, African American Women of the Old West, by Tricia Martineau Wagner: https://silvercitymuseumsociety.org/product/african-american-women-of-the-old-west/. This book brought the most pleasure because it creates novel-like narratives about each of the women – many, like Stagecoach Mary, Biddy Mason, and Mary Ellen Porter, who also appeared in books above. But here, scenes from their stories are imagined.

We are introduced to Mary Fields with proper gusto: she’s sitting in an all-male saloon in Montana where she was special permission from the mayor to drink and play poker, all the while chomping her cigar which it is said she smokes or chews whether doing laundry or protecting her cargo from wolves and bandits.

The music and banter stop as she sees a man outside, storms out, punches him flat on the ground, and returns to report that his skipped laundry bill “has now been paid in full.” This is what happens when a woman who has spent her life driving stagecoaches and being the second woman ever to deliver the U.S. Mail overland by horseback finally retires to become a laundress. Despite being well into her 70s in this scene, she is still 6-foot and 200 pounds, still handy with a firearm, and still keeps a cigar and a jug of whiskey with her at all times. And still is not to be messed with.

Books not linked in the text can be purchased over phone or email by contacting Melody Collins at store@silvercitymuseum.org or 575-597-0223.

All material in this piece is drawn from the books mentioned herein. Questions and comments can be directed to communications@silvercitymuseum.org.

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