Black Women of the Old West – William Loren Katz (1995)

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A literary friend of mine lent me this rather fascinating coffee table book featuring the role of black (African American) pioneers in the old cowboy Wild West. As I’m really interested in learning more about the African American experience, this book ticked most of the boxes that I look for in a good read.

As it’s more of a coffee table book, it’s concentrated mostly on photographs of the sometimes anonymous women who were living the pioneer life at the time. Generally speaking, I don’t see much focus from many people on the life of African Americans during the late nineteenth century as America traveled west across its new territories, but they were there just as much as The Little House on the Prairie family were.

Afam_pioneer_familyA number of the women who were featured in this collection went west as domestic help to pioneering families, but quite a few of these folk were also determined to be successful independent farmers, ranchers and other professional workers (e.g. teachers, accountants etc.). (Check out my review of another fascinating read of the Exodusters who flowed into Kansas for the ranching opportunities.)

A number of young AfAm women came west as mail order brides for men who were in mining camps and doing other types of work. The men who signed up for the service bought a one-way ticket for the young woman in question, and then, sight-unseen, the two would contractually get married to live in the west. (How very brave were these mail order brides! For some, this invitation to the west was just what they needed to escape terrible home situations so it seems that it benefited both parties for the most part.)

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(Above) – Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) was the first AfAm postal carrier in the county.

Many freed slaves had little experience apart from working on the land or helping in a domestic role, and it was really interesting to me to learn that once freed, African-Americans (as a group) were intent on getting an education, both for themselves and especially for their children. Literacy was the key to freedom and success, and these families were typically much more educated than the other groups out on the frontier (whites, Hispanics etc.) and their school attendance was at a notably higher level. Former slaves knew and understood the important of knowledge, and so were determined that their families were going to be schooled.

I went ahead and made a few random notes from this read:

  • An African American woman used to own all the real estate in the area now called Beverly Hills in LA
  • In OK and other states, the newly freed slaves joined up with local Native American tribes (although initially the Native Americans embraced slavery as much as the white people had), and in the late 1800’s, 18% of Cherokees were AfAm, and 14% of Choctaws were AfAm.
  • The Native Americans had been introduced to the slavery concept by white people who wanted to make sure that the tribes would not harbor runaway slaves. Most tribes ended up embracing slavery, except for the Seminoles who had a fascinating overlap with the Buffalo Soldiers.
  • One of the earliest settlements of AfAms was in Mercer County, OH, in 1832.
  • Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) (photo above right) was the first AfAm mail carrier in the US, and drove a horse and wagon (not a stagecoach) on her route in the wilds of Montana. She wasn’t an employee of the US Postal Service, but had bid and won a contract to deliver mail as she was the fastest person who would drive a team of six horses. She never missed a day of work, and if there was deep snow, she would put on snowshoes and deliver the mail sacks on her back.

What I found to be most interesting to read was the common thread of how AfAms thrived in spite of the awful conditions and in spite of how challenging life was. Families had few resources, but they still came west. I wonder just how much more successful AfAms would have been if there’d be a stronger support system for them. There was the Freedman’s Bureau, but it was decades before the idea of ending slavery became common place and widely accepted. The sheer doggedness and determination of these AfAm pioneers is astonishing to me, and I wish their stories were told more often.

(If you haven’t already read this article on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, it’s a powerful and provocative piece.)

So, really enjoyed looking at the photos in this book. (The writing itself was pretty dreadful, so the pics made the book really.)

Other reads on similar topics and reviewed by JOMP are:

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