The westward migration of nearly half a million Americans in the mid-nineteenth century looms large in U.S. history. Classic images of rugged Euro-Americans traversing the plains in their prairie schooners still stir the popular imagination. But this traditional narrative, no matter how alluring, falls short of the actual—and far more complex—reality of the overland trails. Among the diverse peoples who converged on the western frontier were African American pioneers—men, women, and children. Whether enslaved or free, they too were involved in this transformative movement. Sweet Freedom’s Plains is a powerful retelling of the migration story from their perspective.
Tracing the journeys of black overlanders who traveled the Mormon, California, Oregon, and other trails, Shirley Ann Wilson Moore describes in vivid detail what they left behind, what they encountered along the way, and what they expected to find in their new, western homes. She argues that African Americans understood advancement and prosperity in ways unique to their situation as an enslaved and racially persecuted people, even as they shared many of the same hopes and dreams held by their white contemporaries. For African Americans, the journey westward marked the beginning of liberation and transformation. At the same time, black emigrants’ aspirations often came into sharp conflict with real-world conditions in the West.
Although many scholars have focused on African Americans who settled in the urban West, their early trailblazing voyages into the Oregon Country, Utah Territory, New Mexico Territory, and California deserve greater attention. Having combed censuses, maps, government documents, and white overlanders’ diaries, along with the few accounts written by black overlanders or passed down orally to their living descendants, Moore gives voice to the countless, mostly anonymous black men and women who trekked the plains and mountains.
Sweet Freedom’s Plains places African American overlanders where they belong—at the center of the western migration narrative. Their experiences and perspectives enhance our understanding of this formative period in American history.
About the Author
Shirley Ann Wilson Moore is Professor Emerita at California State University Sacramento, where she specialized in U.S. and African American history. She received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1989. Moore is the author of To Place Our Deeds: The African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910–1963 and coeditor, with Quintard Taylor, of African American Women Confront the West, 1600–2000.
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Sweet Freedom's Plains
African Americans on the Overland Trails, 1841â"1869
By Shirley Ann Wilson Moore
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Shirley Ann Wilson Moore
All rights reserved.
The Early Black Presence in the West
When Esteban got away from [Marcos de Niza] ... he craved to gain honor and fame in every thing and to be credited with the boldness and daring of discovering, all by himself, those terraced pueblos, so famed throughout the land.
Pedro de Castañeda, 1640
The forts that now afford protection to the traveler were built by ourselves at the constant peril of our lives, amid Indian tribes nearly double their present numbers. Without wives and children to comfort us on our lonely way; without well-furnished wagons to resort to when hungry; no roads before us but trails temporarily made.
James P. Beckwourth, 1856
AFRICAN AMERICANS WHO SET OUT on the overland trails in the mid-nineteenth century were not the first African-descended people to journey across the continent in search of freedom, riches, land, and adventure. People of African ancestry had been a presence on the American continent since the early days of Spanish and other European exploration; their presence in what is now known as the American West predates the arrival of Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. The nineteenth-century overland migrations that brought countless African American emigrants westward mark a critical point in the migrational arc of African-descended people into the western region — an arc that would continue well into the twentieth century. The roots of the movement are found in the sixteenth century, as explorers and settlers of African ancestry pushed northward into "the West" to establish new outposts for the empire of New Spain, a realm that included today's southeastern United States, stretching from west of the Mississippi River to what is now Mexico and Central America.
Explorers and Settlers
New Spain's African-descended pioneers, enslaved and free, often intermarried with the European and indigenous peoples with whom they traveled or encountered on their trek north and upon arriving at their destinations. Such interracial, cross-cultural alliances served the political and economic interests of the expanding empire, giving it a veneer of legitimacy in the region and bringing stability, however tenuous, to the all-important business of trade. Thus, most transactions — economic, political, or social — took place via intricate and interdependent networks that grew from generations of intermarriage and kinship ties and operated within a racially and culturally accommodating context.
Historian Anne F. Hyde, writing about the diversity of the western frontier before the dawn of the great overland migrations, noted that accommodation among the peoples of the area "shaped the communities they built ... and revealed a set of deeply gendered and always contested definitions of who mattered." This heterogeneous and fluid setting presented opportunities and posed problems for nineteenth-century black overland emigrants, just as it had for the African-descended pioneers who first entered the region. Both groups, though separated by time, geography, and background, fought for self-determination and justice — for inclusion among the ranks of those who "mattered" — as they blazed uncharted paths, trod the trails, and settled in what now composes the present-day American West.
Esteban and Others
Historian Quintard Taylor has written that "African American life in the West began with nature's violence" when Esteban (also known as Estevanico), the Moroccan slave of Spanish explorer Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, accompanied his owner on Pánfilo de Narváez's 1527–28 treasure-hunting expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. Narváez's fleet was destroyed by a hurricane, and Esteban, cast ashore with fifteen other men, became the first African to set foot in what later became Texas and the western United States. He and his party endured many hardships, including a starvation winter on a sandbar near present-day Galveston. They were captured by coastal Native people and spent five years enslaved by them. By September 1534, Esteban was one of only four survivors of the original party. He and this small group, led by Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, escaped their captors and fled into the interior, where they encountered friendly indigenous people. Esteban's skill and fluency in sign language thrust him into the important roles of interpreter, ambassador, and negotiator with the Native populations of the region. His efforts helped the depleted band of conquistadors survive an eight-year, 15,000-mile march across the Southwest. With the help of the Shuman Apaches, whose guidance Esteban helped secure, the group crossed the Rio Grande and trudged through Chihuahua and Sonora, finally arriving in Mexico City in July 1536.
Just three years later, in March 1539, under orders from the viceroy of New Spain, Don Antonio de Mendoza, Esteban, the Franciscan friars Marcos de Niza and Onorato (whose illness prevented him from completing the journey), and a sizable retinue of Native allies set out from Culiacán (the northernmost Spanish outpost) on another expedition that sought the fabled cities of Cíbola. Esteban likely had been purchased by Friar Marcos de Niza, and was to serve as the party's guide and interpreter. Shortly before reaching their destination, Esteban sent messengers ahead to the pueblo to announce their arrival. Zuni leaders warned him not to enter the town, but Esteban pushed on to the first pueblo, where he was captured and subsequently killed.
The facts of Esteban's death are unclear, but his influence on the indigenous populations he encountered in his travels is undeniable. Believing him to be a powerful healer, they were impressed by the black man who wore "bells and feathers on his ankles and arms and carried plates of various colors." Historian Ramón A. Gutiérrez has written that the Zunis regarded him as a "black Katsina," or ancestor spirit and healer. Equally notable is Esteban's importance to early western settlement. His explorations not only reinforced the Spanish presence on the continent but helped pave the way for the founding of important towns in the West and Southwest, precipitating interaction among the various Native, Spanish, and Anglo cultures in this hotly contested area — an interaction that would have profound implications for the region's history.
Over the next century, people of African ancestry served as explorers, scouts, and settlers on the frontlines of New Spain. In 1540–42, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's expedition retraced Esteban's path to the northern frontier. Coronado's company included an entourage of more than 1,000 people, including Africans and American Indians. An unnamed free black man served as interpreter for Juan de Padilla, the friar for the Coronado expedition. When Padilla remained behind to minister to the Kansa Indians in 1541, the black interpreter stayed with him.
Women of African Descent
Not all early African-descended explorers and settlers of the West were men. Women of African ancestry composed a significant portion of western settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and were, in the words of historian Dedra S. McDonald, "more than fixtures on the high desert landscape." They participated in all aspects of settlement and community building. African-descended women joined contingents of Spanish settlers who pushed northward from Mexico to start colonies in New Mexico and Alta California (the northwestern province of New Spain), helping to establish schools, churches, and towns in those areas.
The 1781 expedition recruited in Mexico by Captain Fernando X. Rivera to found a pueblo somewhere between the San Gabriel mission and the Santa Barbara presidio in Alta California included a number of women of African ancestry, their spouses, and children. Most of these recruits came from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, where nearly one-third of the inhabitants claimed African heritage. A significant number had resided in the village of Rosario where two-thirds of the residents were listed in the census as mulattoes. Persuaded by offers of "cash, supplies, tools, animals, clothing, a limited period of no taxation, and access to land," they left Alamos, Sonora, Mexico, under military escort in February 1781. After a grueling journey of several months, this band of "Indians, mulattos, and Spaniards" arrived at Mission San Gabriel where they spent a month in quarantine as a precaution against smallpox. In September 1781, the group of forty-six pobladores (settlers) pushed on to establish the Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula, which is known today as Los Angeles.
Historian Albert S. Broussard has written that women of African or partial African descent who participated in the settlement of New Spain, whether free or enslaved, tended to "live less violent lives" than their male counter parts, yet they faced other threats to their security. In 1600, Isabel de Olvera, the daughter of a black father and a Native mother who resided in Querétaro, New Spain (present-day Mexico), joined the Juan Guerra de Resa expedition to the colony of Santa Fe (present-day New Mexico) as the servant of one of the Spanish women in the group. Before departing, de Olvera sought official protection of her rights as a free, single, black woman. Presenting a deposition to the alcalde (mayor), she declared:
As I am going on the expedition to New Mexico and have reason to fear that I may be annoyed by some individual since I am a mulatta, and as it is proper to respect my rights in such an eventuality by affidavit showing that I am a free wom[an], unmarried, and the legitimate daughter of Hernando, a negro [sic], and an Indian named Magdalena, I therefore request your grace to accept this affidavit, which shows that I am free and not bound by marriage or slavery. I request that a properly certified and signed copy be given to me in order to protect my rights, and that it carry full legal authority. I demand justice.
Isabel de Olvera's story suggests that women of African heritage in New Spain's empire remained vulnerable to racial and gender exploitation as they engaged in the work of settlement and community building. However, they could and did claim control over their lives, taking legal action to defend themselves against maltreatment.
De Olvera's successful petition for safe passage to New Mexico stands in stark contrast to the situation of countless nineteenth-century African American women, enslaved and free, who traveled westward on the overland trails without protection or legal recourse against the predations of slave masters, slave hunters, unscrupulous employers, and others.
Some two hundred years after Isabel de Olvera submitted her legal petition before departing for Santa Fe, and more than three centuries after Esteban's harrowing march across the Southwest, a black man named York would also traverse the West. Much about him remains a mystery, but he has been described as "large, dark, agile and strong." He made his journey, not as a free man intending to settle, but as the slave of Capt. William Clark, who, with Meriwether Lewis, led the exploratory Corps of Discovery expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific between 1804 and 1806. York became the first documented American slave to cross the continent, though, unlike de Olvera, he had no legal rights.
Just as Esteban had done for his party centuries earlier, York contributed crucial interpreting, trading, and scouting skills to the team. His negotiating prowess and the rapport he established with the Native peoples they encountered were vital to the expedition's success. He was recognized and treated as a full member of the Corps and engaged in all decision making, voting, and hunting activities with the group. When the journey ended, York expected to be freed and reunited with his wife in Kentucky as a reward for his considerable service. But Clark held onto him for another decade. Confronted with York's dismay and anger, Clark unsuccessfully tried to break his slave's defiance with beatings, imprisonment, and threats of sale. Finally, in 1816, York was freed but the fate of this black explorer is unclear. William Clark contended that York hated being a free man and died while attempting to return to his former master. Mountain man Zenas Leonard provides another account, one that has York living among the Crows in the 1830s as a respected member of the tribe. Still another version of the story contends that York remarried and spent a comfortable life as the owner of a drayage service operating between his home in Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee. What ever path York's life may have taken after gaining freedom, his experiences in the Corps of Discovery place him among the earliest African-descended explorers and travelers to enter the West.
Unlike York and Esteban, who explored the West as sojourners, or Isabel de Olvera and other settlers of New Spain's empire who traveled under government edict, a small group of African-descended men spent most of their lives in the West, far from governmental regulation and the rigid racial proscriptions that invariably accompanied settlement. These men, whose lineage often reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of the area, belonged to an exclusive fraternity of explorers, trappers, traders, interpreters, and scouts who crisscrossed the mountains, deserts, and valleys of the West. Some mountain men were employed by the large trading companies that had sprung up to supply the demand for beaver pelts; others worked independently as "free trappers," not bound to any company. All had come to the mountains to make a living in an occupation that promised, according to historian Robert M. Utley, "adventure, excitement, personal freedom, and the nearly total absence of authoritarian restraint." Not quite the unsociable, wandering loners often depicted in popular views, they nonetheless cultivated reputations as fiercely independent individuals of enormous endurance and courage.
What ever their background and motivation, mountain men of African descent were in the forefront of western exploration prior to the advent of the overland migrations. And when the fur trade began to decline, some managed to reinvent themselves, hiring out their impressive array of resources and skills to the wagon caravans that had begun to roll out over the unfamiliar and daunting complex of western trails.
Edward Rose, the son of a white trader and a black-Cherokee woman, was one of the most competent and daring of the mountain men. He was, in the words of Robert M. Utley, a "big, powerful man of volatile temper yet undoubted ability." As a young man, Rose worked as a deckhand on a keelboat that took him from Kentucky, where he was raised, down to New Orleans. In 1805, he headed north to St. Louis where, in 1807, he joined Manuel Lisa's fur-trading expedition bound for the Bighorn River in modern-day Wyoming. Serving periodically as a guide, hunter, and trapper for a number of fur-trading companies, his knowledge of Native languages and cultures made him invaluable to the trappers who called upon him to negotiate with the indigenous peoples of the region. Charles Keemle, one of the leaders of an early 1820s trapping expedition that included Rose recalled that "he alone understood their language, and, of course, could tell them any and every thing he pleased. ... His word was law and he well knew how to give it an elevated tone."
At least two Native American groups, the Absarokas (Crows) and the Arikaras, held him in great esteem. His willingness to fight alongside the Absarokas as they waged war against their enemies only solidified his standing with them, and in 1807, they adopted him into the tribe. In 1820, the Arikaras (in what is now South Dakota) bestowed the same honor on him. White trapper Zenas Leonard encountered Rose (whom he mistakenly thought was York of the Lewis and Clark expedition) in the winter of 1832–33, living in a Crow village near the mouth of the Stinking River (now called the Shoshone River in present-day Wyoming). Rose was apparently enjoying "all the dignities of a chief," surrounded by several wives. Many of his white contemporaries, however, held a less favorable opinion of the black mountain man whom they regarded, despite his skills and accomplishments, as self-serving, dishonest, and untrustworthy. Sometime in 1833, as Rose and two companions made their way across the frozen Yellowstone River on an ill-fated trip from Fort Cass to Fort Union, a band of Arikara warriors attacked the group, killing all three men.
Peter Ranne and Polette Labross
Peter Ranne, another black mountain man, explored the Southwest and the Great Salt Lake region as a member of Jedediah Smith's trailblazing Southwest Expedition of 1826–27. Ranne, who was free-born, is credited with being the first man of African ancestry to enter the boundaries of present-day Nevada. Described in company records as a "man of color," Ranne joined Smith's trapping expedition to hunt beaver in the Cache Valley of northern Utah and southeast Idaho. He and his fellow trappers endured a grueling trip across the Mojave Desert, crossed the Colorado River, and eventually straggled into California to the villages of the Mojaves, where they recuperated for two weeks before continuing their journey northward into the San Joaquin Valley. Smith returned to Salt Lake, leaving Ranne and most of the party in California for several weeks. When he rejoined the group, the trappers began working their way up the Oregon coast in search of beaver. In Oregon, they set up camp just north of the Umpqua River, where, in July 1827, a band of Kelawatsets attacked and killed most of the company, including Ranne. Smith, who was away from camp scouting out a new river crossing with two other trappers and a Native guide, narrowly escaped the same fate.
Excerpted from Sweet Freedom's Plains by Shirley Ann Wilson Moore. Copyright © 2016 Shirley Ann Wilson Moore. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1. The Early Black Presence in the West,
2. On the Eve of Overland Migration: Antebellum Slavery and Freedom,
3. The Jumping-Off Places,
4. The Providential Corridor,
5. Community and Work on the Trails,
6. Life, Death, and Acts of Kindness,
7. Sweet Freedom's Plains,
8. Place of Promise,