Friday, October 19, 2012

Black Women in the West

© 2001 Kae Cheatham and mostly published in The Portland Observer, 7 Feb. 2001

"Go West, young man, go West." Horace Greeley popularized this John B.L. Soule phrase in 1851, and Greeley also insisted that the western lands should be "reserved for the benefit of the white Caucasian race." But at the time he was calling for white men to go west, the West contained a sizable population of men who were black, and a growing population of black women.
Black women inhabited farms, towns and cities from the Gulf coast to northern California. The beginning of the 19th century saw Mississippi river towns, such as St. Louis, which had been under French rule, with significant populations of free French-speaking blacks. From 1817 and into the 1840s, untold numbers of blacks, slaved and free, emigrated to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) when the Five Civilized Tribes were forcibly removed from the southeastern states. During this time of westward expansion, black women also trekked along in servant capacity to entrepreneurs and pioneers moving to Arkansas, Texas and the western Territories. Texas was home to thousands of black women. Most were slaves, some were also free--former Spanish slaves. Wherever military forts were established, officers moved west with their families and domestic servants. By the 1870s, black women nurses, wives and teachers, mostly connected with the black military, joined this population, while black women from southern states lead the way to Kansas as "Exodusters" to escape the persistent backlash of the Reconstruction South.
History information, however, followed the sentiments expressed by Greeley and for more than a century, the mystique of carving out a niche in the massive western landscapes was restricted to white males. It has only been in the last thirty years that blacks have begun to appear in western history. Texts have bloomed with information about the black soldiers who served on the western frontier. Then came the admittance that black cowboys also existed--not just a few, but many. It is estimated that more than 5,000 black cowboys worked the cattle drives from the 1860s to 1890s.
As the renaissance of history continued, women have been credited for their part in settling the West. At first only white waifs, wives and bawdy girls were mentioned, but recent presentations have begun exploring the broader aspects of women's role in the westward expansion. The information about women now includes women of color.
The west coast has a particularly proud heritage as black women aided the region's spectacular rise of culture and wealth. In 1859 California (just eight years after Greeley's narrow-focused urging), the women of Sacramento's black community began a school--a school whose pupils won medals of achievement from the Sacramento Board of Education. The majority of the twenty-five to thirty students were black and female.
Where did this black community come from? More than 2,000 free black men had hurried to Old California to take part in the Gold Rush, and some sent for their families. California, like Texas, had a small population of former Spanish slaves and mixed-blood blacks from before the arrival of Americans. Again, the whites who came west brought their slaves. Many of those servants took advantage of territorial laws and sought their freedom.
One such person was Biddy Mason who, as a slave, had herded her master's cattle West. Her three daughters were with her, and when their owner planned to return to Virginia in 1856 (presumably to sell his slaves), Mason and her family won a legal battle for their freedom and stayed in southern California. Mason, a skilled midwife and herbalist, built an empire by investing in real estate. She was one of the first women of color, under American rule, to own a home. By the 1870s, she was a wealthy woman, but never forgot the hardships she had suffered. Her home was always open to people who needed shelter, no matter their race; she helped found the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles; she established charitable operations during the 1880 flood.
Biddy Mason died in the 1890s, but nearly a century later, her good works were remembered by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who dedicated a large tombstone to her memory. Many of her descendants still live in the Los Angles area, and Biddy Mason Day began in 1989.
Philanthropists and rags-to-riches stories usually get recorded, and there are several black women who fill this category. Among them, along with Biddy Mason, is Clara Brown, who made several fortunes in Colorado Territory real estate in the mid-19th century and helped hundreds of blacks settle in the Central City region. Businesswoman-activist Mary Ellen Pleasance was co-founder of the first Bank of California, developed shelters for abused women and aided fugitive slaves.
Several black western women did not amass a fortune, but created such a unique impression, they are remembered even today. Elvira Conley started her western life as a successful laundress in rough-and-tumble Sheridan, Kansas. Among her friends were Wild Bill Hickok and other notables of the late 1860s. Cathey Williams moved West as a girl with her mother and sisters. Lured by military pay and adventure, she changed her name to William Cathey, and for two years served as a Buffalo Soldier, earning a medal for bravery. And no one could forget Stagecoach Mary Fields, who stood at over six feet tall. She traveled West in 1884 to aid Ursuline nuns and settled in Cascade, Montana Territory, where she became a driver for Wells Fargo, one of the state's first postmasters, and was noted for her ability to hold her liquor.
Many of the intrepid souls who ventured West, no matter their color, are remembered only because western culture thrives today from their effort. Horace Greeley's bigoted ambition for the western territories was thwarted even as he spoke, and the strength of character, inventiveness and vision that formed the West can be credited to blacks as well as whites, to women as well as men.

I came across this article while going through some files. Most of it was published in the Portland Observer, and I think it's in the Articles section of the GITP Web site. It's worth another run-out, especially since the two books I've published in print this month (Hammer Come Down: Memoirs of a Freedman and On Promised Land) both deal with blacks in the Old West.

Several excellent nonfiction books have been published in the last decade that offer an in-depth look at black women in the west. Just typing those words into a search engine provides abundant information.