African Americans in the American West, 1528 to the Present

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The stockyards next to the Santa Fe Railroad tracks at Dodge City were the end of the trail for many of the Texas to Kansas cattle drives of the 1870s and 1880s. As such, it was a gathering point outside Texas for thousands of white and black cowboys who had spent months in isolation. Dodge City, however, was not Texas which at the time was increasingly characterized by racial restrictions which affected even the most independent-minded African American drover. Dodge City, or at least the part along notorious Front Street that entertained cowboys, proved surprisingly free of racial segregation. That tolerance probably stemmed from a combination of reasons including Kansas's reputation for racial liberalism and the economic realities of the hundreds of black cowboys eager to spend their wages in the saloons, restaurants, hotels, brothels and other businesses along Front Street. Whatever the reason, Dodge City businesses welcomed all regardless of race. White and black drovers shared hotel rooms, card games, cafe tables and, when necessary, jail cells. Historian C. Robert Haywood provides a glimpse of that remarkable southwestern Kansas anomaly to the 19th Century racial order.

If Dodge Citizens were not of one settled mind in dealing with the permanent black residents, there is also little to indicate unanimity of action or attitude toward the black transients who arrived with the summer trail herds. The transient population, black and white, frequently outnumbered the permanent residents when summer season brought cattlemen and cowboys to town... There is no way of accurately determining the number of black cowboys who came to Dodge or were there at any one time. George W. Sanders of the Trail Drivers Association, as valid an authority as there is, estimated that about 25% of all cowhands were black. Estimates made at the time indicated there were usually around 1,550 cattlemen and cowboys in Dodge during the summer-trail season. Of these, about 1,300 were cowboys. This would mean that as many as 325 black men were in or near the town from June to August... Black cowboys, with the same dollars in their pockets as their white compeers, represented a significant factor in Dodge's economy.

Although subject to some of the same attitudes and customs as the permanent black residents, the black cowboys expected and received better treatment. The freedom and equality of range life had conditioned them to a more integrated friendship... As long as Dodge was a raw, open cow town, the black cowboy felt nearly as comfortable there as he did on the range or trail... Just how relaxed a black, trail-herd cowboy...could be is illustrated by Colonel Jack Potter's description of the arrival of a cattle crew when "old Ab" Blocker's colored cook, Gordon Davis, marched into Dodge City, mounted on the back of his left wheel oxen, with fiddle in hand, playing "Buffalo Girls Can't You Come Out Tonight."

Few, if any, of the early hotels, bars, and restaurants were segregated. J.A. Comstock recalled his own error in trying to exclude "a young mulatto cowboy" from the Dodge House where Comstock was clerk. After the cowboy had checked in, Comstock assigned a drunken white cowboy to share the extra bed in the same room. The black didn't mind sharing the room, but not with a raucous inebriate. When he ordered the drunk out of the room at pistol point, the man fled. Because of his action, Comstock's boss told him not to accept the black cowboy the next night. But when the clerk told him there were no rooms, the cowboy drew his pistol and waved it in Comstock's face, saying: "You are a liar!" The clerk quickly rechecked his roster and found a suitable room.

Source: C. Robert Haywood, "'No Less a Man': Blacks in Cow Town Dodge City, 1876-1886," Western Historical Quarterly 19:2 (May 1988): 168-170.


During the 1870s Fort Griffin was a "typical" frontier military town with a large floating population of gamblers (including briefly Doc Holliday), prostitutes, con men and other hustlers who preyed on the soldiers stationed there. Added to the mix were rowdy cowboys whose violence enhanced the town's reputation for lawlessness. By the early 1880s, however, settlers filled the open spaces and the town increasingly became more "respectable." What follows is a brief discussion of that transition, focusing on one of the last episodes of lawlessness which ironically involved Dick Bell, a black cowboy.

As the 1870s came to an end, the edge of the plains was "fast settling up," in the words of boosters, and the potential for expanding into the Rolling Plains, the Southern High Plains, and even the trans-Pecos seemed limitless. Over the next decade railroads would cut through the grasslands, cattle would fill up the open spaces, farmers would plow the bottomlands, and towns would mushroom where just a few years earlier such scenes would have been inconceivable... The formative development of the Clear Fork country...would be complete by the end of the 1880s, and the experience of its pioneers would leave an indelible mark on the regional character of West Texas...

When the new decade began, Fort Griffin remained the most prominent town in western Texas, but clearly it had lost the vibrancy that had once made it the unrivaled center of the frontier... Despite townspeople's every effort, Griffin could not overcome its notoriety. Lawlessness, though infrequent, continued to reinforce outsiders' negative perceptions, contributing further to the town’s demise. During 1879 the killings of 'Cheap John' Marks and Charles McCafferty captured wide attention. The next year the moribund little village suffered two more incidents that rivaled any of the 'spectacular' killings that occurred against the colorful backdrop of Griffin's heyday.

The first evolved out of a drunken spree, when African American cowboy Dick Bell inexplicably mounted his horse and shot a boy's pet, then harassed a black teamster and some buffalo soldiers before a posse cornered him in a mesquite thicket. A running gunfight through the town followed, whereupon Bell took several wounds; as he wheeled around to face his pursuers, he accidentally shot his own horse and then went down himself. Some men loaded Bell onto a discarded door and left him to die at the home of an elderly black woman. Miraculously, he recovered. The Echo reported that Dr. Powell removed a bullet from his face and that he was "carrying six more balls in his body but is doing well." So well, in fact, that Bell escaped, followed by wild stories that he had killed "an even dozen men...."

Source: Ty Cashion, A Texas Frontier--The Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1849-1887, (Norman: 1996), pp. 264-265.


The Pendleton Roundup is the most famous annual rodeo in the Pacific Northwest. Yet few contemporary spectators or participants realize that African Americans were among the founders and first performers during its early years. The account below provides a brief introduction.

In 1908, a group of cowpunchers in Pendleton, Oregon, arranged to give an exhibition of bucking, bulldogging, roping, and other "wild west" stunts at the old ball park were the present Round-Up grounds are situated. These cowboys included Charles Buckner, "a colored man whose people lived south of Pendleton on Stewart Creek on a ranch." The punchers gave a two-day show which has been an annual event since 1910 known as "The Round-Up."

The following year a [local] black cowboy, George Fletcher, earned the reputation of "great" by his fellow riders and spectators. At age 21, during the three-day show his rides qualified him for the finals' contest. It was a spine-tingling spectacle to see him ride three of the best broncs--"Scarback," "Hot Foot," and "Going Some." On that day he proved able to "fork" the best. It is told that Fletcher...made such a brilliant showing at Pendleton, that when the crowd heard that he had not been allowed to win, they tore up his hat in little pieces and sold them in the stands to give George a prize." Other black who made a name at the Pendleton Round-Up were S.B. Therman and Lewis Mosley.

During World War I, as an enlistee while in Paris, France, Fletcher rode a so-called outlaw horse. "The crowd shouted Viva, viva! To them he was more than just a rider. He was a celebrity." According to one chronicler, Fletcher received 400 francs and "the undying admiration of the French people."

Source: Clifford P. Westermeier, "Black Rodeo Cowboys," Red River Valley Historical Review 3:3 (Summer 1978):13.


The following vignette from a 1971 Master's thesis, illustrates the range of black entrepreneurial activity in Arizona Territory in 1890 at a time when the African American population was only 1,357 out of a total population of 88,243.

It is surprising to note that many Negroes from 1860 to 1880 not only had personal estates valued between seventy-five and two hundred seventy-five dollars, but several owned land ranging from one thousand dollars to two thousand dollars in total valuation. What is even more interesting is that from 1860 to 1900 as may as two hundred black men and women owned and operated their own businesses. Among those were William Neal and his wife, the daughter of Wiley and Hannah Box, who owned and operated the Mountain View Hotel in Oracle. Another hotel owner and operator was a Mrs. Lee, who came from Phoenix to Tucson in the mid-1890s and opened the Orndorff Hotel, which housed and employed several Negroes. Henry Ransom of Tucson was a part owner of the San Xavier Hotel and Joe Mitchell and Henry Corlay were Tucson's first Negro homesteaders and semi-realtors.... Mary A. Green, recognized as the first [black woman] in Phoenix, was able to obtain a loan from her employers...and purchase a small restaurant which she owned and operated successfully while still retaining a position as the Gray family cook. Robert L. Stevens, known as Phoenix's first wealthy black man, owned a department store in that area which catered solely to the needs of the city's black population. There were several other independent black businessmen in the Phoenix area, including Frank Shirley, who operated a chair of barber shops, Perry Pain, the first Negro hotel operator in Phoenix, and William P. Crump, owner and operator of the Phoenix Afro Wholesale Products Company.

These individuals who were the owners and operators of small businesses were the exceptions and not the rule: but their success helped illustrate the fact that Negroes could come to Arizona and establish themselves, despite the hardships of living in a frontier environment, and in spite of the feelings of prejudice and discrimination generated by those around them. The majority who come, however, were not so lucky. Most Negroes came to Arizona with no skills and were forced by....circumstances to seek employment at the bottom of the economic ladder. It is true that there were many white settlers who were likewise unskilled, but it seems that potential employers were generally more eager to hire [them]. But, for the most part, Negroes showed themselves to have been equipped to adapt to the frontier environment....

Source: Robert Kim Nimmons, "Arizona's Forgotten Past: The Negro in Arizona, 1539-1965," (MA Thesis, Northern Arizona University, 1971), pp. 84-86.


Although black western history is usually written in the context of groups of settlers either in urban or rural settings, perhaps more often in this region than in any other area of the United States, individual black families created homes and lives for themselves surrounded by EuroAmericans, Asian Americans, Latinos or Native Americans. The family of Era Bell Thompson is one example. Era Thompson eventually became an internationally famous photojournalist for Ebony Magazine. However, her early life was spent in North Dakota. The following vignette describes part of that life.

Questions such as "where is North Dakota?" and "what is the world was a nice Negro like you doing in that godforsaken country in the first place?" led [Era Bell] Thompson to write her autobiography, American Daughter, about the influences of her experiences in North Dakota. As a black child growing up in North Dakota during the late teens and twenties, Thompson was the object of interest and prejudice. "I was very luck to have grown up in North Dakota where families were busy fighting climate and soil for a livelihood and there was little awareness of race," she states...

Thompson, daughter of Stewart Calvin (Tony) and Mary Logan Thompson, was born August 10, 1905, in Des Moines, Iowa, and was nine when the family moved to North Dakota in 1914... Like other immigrants to Dakota, the Thompson family had been drawn by the promise of a better life. Era Bell's brother Hobart had come to North Dakota in 1913 to work for his uncle, James A. Garrison, who had homesteaded near Driscoll. Hobart also worked for Robert Johnson, a black farmer who lived near Steele... Stewart and Mary Thompson had come to North Dakota at the urging of Garrison, Stewart's half-brother, to escape the problems of the city, problems which included limited job opportunities for their sons.

Garrison, with his Irish wife Ada and their two children, had homesteaded, receiving a patent on 160 acres near Driscoll on September 30, 1907. Tony Thompson and Garrison's mother, Mina Garrison, who was born into slavery January 19, 1821, and had come to North Dakota in 1909 to live with her son, James, died there May 21, 1911... [Garrison] wrote glowingly of the boundless prairie, the new land of plenty where a man's fortune was measured by the number of his sons, and a farm could be had even without money...

Era Bell Thompson's reactions to North Dakota were different from those of the rest of the family. She was excited about seeing Indians and about riding ponies. Her mother looked from the train window to the bleak, treeless, snowcovered land which was not at all like her native Virginia... Thompson's first reactions were to the beauty of North Dakota:

It was a strange and beautiful country my father had come to, so big and boundless he could look for miles out over the golden prairies and follow the unbroken horizon where the midday blue met the bare peaks of the distant hills. No tree or bush to break the view, miles and miles of grass, acre after acre of waving grain, and up above, God and that fiery chariot which beat remorselessly down upon a parching earth... Now and then the silence was broken by the clear notes of a meadowlark on a nearby fence or the weird honk of wild geese far, above, winging their way south. This was God's country. There was something in the stillness that spoke to Pop's soul, and he loved it.

Source: Kathie Ryckman Anderson, "Era Bell Thompson: A North Dakota Daughter," North Dakota History 49:4 (Fall 1982):11-12.

CHAPTER SIX: Buffalo Soldiers and the Defense of the West

Approximately twenty five thousand African American men served in four all-black regiments, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantry, between 1866 and 1917. This chapter explores the varied experiences of those "buffalo soldiers" in the West. In The 9th and 19th Cavalry: First Years, First Officers, and First Recruits, Ninth Cavalry, 1866, we see the initial issues and challenges involved in the formation of these regiments. Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Davis, Army Life in Nebraska: The Fort Robinson YMCA, African American Families on the Military Frontier, and The 24th Infantry in Salt Lake City put forward various descriptions of life at military outposts in the region. Black Soldiers and the Opening of the Llano Estacado, Regimental Bands in New Mexico Territory, and Black Troops and White Strikers in Idaho suggests the significance of their presence in the West beyond the usually advanced "pacification of Indians" role. Conversely, that role is highlighted in Black Soldiers Rescue a New Mexico Town. The ambivalent, contradictory relations between blacks and Indians is suggested in the vignettes Isaiah Dorman at the Little Big Horn, 1876 and Private W.A. Prather's Poem, while the story of the first black officer to serve in the West is profiled in The Henry O. Flipper Saga. In A Black Officer Speaks at Stanford we get an opportunity to hear the attitude of one African American soldier toward the major social issue for America's black citizenry--the place of Booker T. Washington's philosophy of accommodation in the campaign for the abolition of second-class citizenship. Soldier-civilian conflicts are highlighted in The Sturgis Episode, 1885 and The Houston Mutiny and Race Riot, 1917. Finally, The Fight at Carrizal depicts the last major military engagement of the buffalo soldiers, ironically not in the western United States but in Northern Mexico.

Terms for Week Six:

Isaiah Dorman

Edward Hatch

Benjamin Grierson

Fort Davis

Emanuel Stance

Llano Estacado

Henry O. Flipper

Charles Young

Houston Mutiny

Brownsville Affray

Suggs, Wyoming

Fort Robinson YMCA

Mrs. James Brown

Strugis, Dakota Territory

Tularosa, New Mexico

The Battle of Carrizal

Burke, Idaho

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African Americans in the American West, 1528 to the Present iconDirector, Shepperd Leadership Institute/University of Texas ofthe Permian Basin 2007 -present American State Bank Board Member 2006-Present Adjunct Professor

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African Americans in the American West, 1528 to the Present icon15. Introduction to African American Humanities (4)

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