Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Way out West: Images of African Americans in the Wild West

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the American West was a place that blacks felt they could start over.  Between 1865 and 1920, thousands of blacks left the South to establish towns, make money, and create better lives.  Movies tend to ignore their presence, but African Americans were a part of the Wild West as lawmen, outlaws, soldiers, cowboys, settlers, and adventurers.




Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves escaped slavery into Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma) sometime during the Civil War.  After working as a scout and a tracker he was hired as a deputy U.S. Marshal in 1875.  He reportedly made 3,000 arrests and killed 14 outlaws during his 32 year career.   


This flier promoted an anniversary celebration for Benjamin "Pap" Singleton's birthday.  Singleton was one of the leaders of the Exoduster movement of African Americans who left the hardships of the South and settled in Kansas.  Many of Singleton's colonies failed and life in Kansas was difficult for the new settlers.  Singleton's Dunlap Colony, however, was successfully established in the late 1870s.


 Henry Williams and Reece Switzer were settlers of Nicodemus, Kansas.  Founded in 1877, Nicodemus was one of the black towns established during the Exoduster Movement.

Nona Marshall photographed in her ostrich feather hat during the late 19th century or early 20th century in the Arizona Territory.

Also known as Ned Huddleston, Isom Dart was an outlaw in Wyoming Territory.  He was also nicknamed the "Black Fox" or the "Calico Cowboy", and rode with the Tip Gault Gang.  After life as a horse thief and cattle rustler he decided to give that up and set up his own ranch.  But some ranchers didn't believe he really gave up cattle rustling, and they hired hitman Tom Horn to take care of him.  Horn decided not to bring him in alive, and gunned Isom Dart down in 1900.     


 Lou Southworth was a settler and fiddler in Oregon.  His master took him on the Oregon Trail into Oregon Territory in 1853.  Southworth tried gold mining in southern Oregon and California to pay for his freedom, but he soon realized that he could earn more money from music than mining.  So, he became a violin instructor and played at dance schools in California and Nevada.  He earned enough money to pay for his freedom and became free in 1859.  


Paul Cephas Howell, about 1880.  Howell settled in Salt Lake City in 1874, and became the first black police detective in the United States.


George Stevens and his wife Lucinda Vilate Flake.  His mother was Spanish and her parents were African American, but they were legally married in Utah in 1872.  Interracial marriage became illegal in Utah in 1888 and would remain illegal until 1963.


Bill Pickett was a rodeo performer of African, European, and Cherokee ancestry.  Born in Texas in 1870, Pickett performed in silent films and the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show between 1905 and 1931.  He invented steer wrestling (or bulldogging), toured the world, and was friends with entertainers like Will Rogers and Tom Mix.   


"Stagecoach" Mary Fields arrived in the town of Cascade, Montana in 1884.  6 feet tall, and rarely without a pistol hidden beneath her apron, a shotgun, a jug of whiskey, and a cigar, Fields became the first African American and the second woman to work for the US Postal Service in 1895.  In her 60s, she rode a stagecoach across the dangerous Montana territory, delivering mail on time no matter the weather or terrain.  She didn't take any nonsense from any man - one newspaper said she had "broken more noses than any other person in Montana."  Fields eventually became a beloved citizen of the town of Cascade.  She could have free meals at a town hotel, and residents even rebuilt her house after it burned down in 1912.


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