Slavery in America
Not all plantation slaves were field hands. Many worked in the 'Big House' as maids, cooks, laundresses, butlers and coachmen. These house servants were better clothed and fed than the field hands, and saw themselves as a slave aristocracy. The larger plantations also employed skilled masons, carpenters, blacksmiths and coopers.
Although most slave holders controlled their charges by public floggings or confining to stocks, some masters sought to control their slaves by way of rewards ... these included days off at Christmas, more status as drivers or skilled workers, extra clothing, food, or tobacco and larger garden plots.
Many slaves who found conditions on the plantations too grim to bear fled to the freedom of the Northern states and Canada. Many of them travelled on the so-called 'Underground Railroad'. This was a secret organisation of private citizens and church members which helped the runaway slaves to escape, provided them with food, clothes and shelter, and enabled them to forge new and unshackled lives.
The railroad was at its busiest in the 1840s and 1850s when above 1,000 slaves a year travelled along its network of routes through 14 Northern states, including Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, whose southern borders formed a rough dividing lines between North and South.
Even after slavery was officially abolished in 1865, blacks still suffered coercion through status such as the so-called Jim Crow laws, designed to maintain racial segregation, and through organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
The history books often overlook it, but the American West actually had a good deal of the multiculturalism we hear so much about these days. Spaniards, of course, were trailblazers in the Southwest and California, Chinese immigrants played a big part in hammering together the transcontinental rail lines, Europeans cam by the boatload to farm the prairies and mine the hills, and like so many of their white counterparts, African-Americans were out there putting into practice the admonition popularly ascribed to Horace Greeley: 'Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.'
Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable was born in the Caribbean of French and African parentage, and in 1779 he established a trading post on a river bank near Lake Michigan. Du Sable's post was the first permanent settlement at the place now called Chicago, making him in effect the city's founder.
Another frequently-overlooked figure from the mountain-man era is James Beckwourth, known to the Crow Indians as 'Morning Star'. Beckwourth was born in 1798 in St. Louis, Missouri of Afro-European parentage. Restless by nature, he picked up and went west at an early age.
Beckwourth soon became one of the most feared Indian fighters on the frontier. In 1824 he was adopted by the Crow Indians and later became a tribal leader. A rough-and-ready character who was always on the move, Beckwourth worked as a trapper, prospector, Indian fighter, army scout, and plain wanderer. He is remembered best, however, for establishing a route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that still bears his name: Beckwourth Pass.
Ironically, Beckwourth's first biographer didn't even mention his African-American heritage. Perhaps such 'oversights' aren't surprising. After all, Horace Greeley was rather blunt about which men he had in mind when he dispensed his famous advice. The West, he said, 'shall be reserved for the benefit of the white Caucasian race.' Of course, Greeley was already too late; blacks had been a part of the West for decades. As early as 1790, a Spanish census indicated that 18% of California's population was of African descent.
Before the Civil War, blacks moved west along with the general population of the fledgling nation. For those who had escaped bondage on the underground railroad, far-flung western settlements were a safe haven from slave-hunters and persecution. For others, like and ex-slave named Clara Brown, the frontier offered a chance to restore their lives and reunite their families.
'Aunt Clara' was born in 1803 in Virginia. As a slave she saw her own families sold to different slaveholders and she herself had been sold several times before purchasing her own freedom in 1859 and taking a job as a cook on a wagon train to Central City in Colorado.
Upon arriving in the mining camp she opened a laundry, worked as a nurse, and established the first Sunday school in town. And by 1866 she had managed to save $10,000.
After the Civil War, freed slaves searched for places where they might better their status. Poverty and oppression had become so severe by the 1870s that a host of destitute freedmen found themselves compelled to move on to the plains. One of them was Benjamin 'Pap' Singleton, a charismatic figure who encouraged thousands of former slaves to walk along or boat up the Mississippi River in search of fertile farmland. Known as the Exodus of 1879, as many as 40,000 black homesteaders followed Singleton's lead to Kansas and other western states.
Other men found opportunity in the Army. Black soldiers made up the rank-and-file of the 9th and 10th Cavalries that were formed after the war to preserve law and order on the western frontier ... not always an easy thing to do. Most ex-slaves, these troopers proved to be effective fighters whom their Indian adversaries dubbed 'buffalo soldiers', because their hair and dark skin reminded them of the great beasts. The soldiers accepted the name proudly and placed a symbol of a buffalo on their regimental crest.
From the Canadian border south into Mexico their mission was to make peace, and sometimes war, with the Indian tribes and track down desperadoes like Pancho Villa. They did a good job at it too, yet were not often accorded fair treatment, as the historian William H. Leckie noted. 'Their stations were among the most lonely and isolated to be found anywhere in the country ... Discipline was severe, food usually poor, recreation difficult, and violent death always near at hand. Prejudice robbed them of recognition and often of simple justice.'
Despite hardships, the buffalo soldiers remained loyal, tallying up some of the highest re-enlistment rates and lowest desertion rates in the Army. Frederic Remington recorded his impressions after joining a black unit on patrol: 'They may be tired and they may be hungry, but they do not see fit to augment their misery by finding fault with everybody or everything. In the particular, they are charming men with whom to serve'.
There were plenty of black cowboys too. Some historians estimate that African-Americans constituted as many as a quarter of the cowboys who rode the cattle trails in the latter half of the 19th century. One of the most flamboyant and intrepid was Nat Love, better known as Deadwood Dick.
In his memoir, Love remarked on the absence of a colour barrier among cowboys; men were judged on their skill as horsemen and cowpunchers. Toughness helped too, in an occupation as dangerous as this one. Love bragged about his own prowess as a cowpoke: 'I carry the marks of 14 bullet wounds on different parts of my body, most any one of which would be sufficient to kill an ordinary man, but I was not even crippled.'
Amongst the outlaws there were also blacks, including Isom Dart who previously had worked as a cowboy.
A different kind of notoriety was achieved by Bill Pickett, famous for his contributions to the sport of rodeo. Around the turn of the century he was regarded as the finest cowboy on the crew of the renowned 101 Ranch in Oklahoma.
While sporting with his comrades, he invented a competition known as bulldogging in which a cowboy jumps off his horse and wrestles a steer to the ground. The name comes from Pickett's way of subduing the animals by biting their lower lips much as a bulldog does.
America's Indigenous Peoples
Trail of Tears
In the entire history of mankind
There has been no race of men who have lived with more passion, poetry and nobility
Than the American Indian.
Never have there been braver knights, more reckless horsemanship, such tragic nobility ...
Bound together by some strange enchantment that dismisses all misery and poverty,
Blending the reality of the great outdoors with rituals, spirits, and dreams.
They have created a sober history that will never die.
Poetry made of blood not flowers, that will touch a light to the Spirit -
As long as America is remembered to this magnificent race of men and women.
We as Native American Indians understand these things
But does the white man or the black?
... Shadow Wolf ...