African americans in the american west

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from 1528 to the Present

Professor Quintard Taylor

Department of History

University of Washington

Winter, 2008
Not to know what happened before one was born is to always remain a child.


As slaves they had long been aware that for themselves, as for most of their countrymen, geography was fate. Not only had they observed the transformation of individual fortune made possible by the westward movement along the frontier, and the Mason-Dixon Line had taught them the relationship between geography and freedom… They knew that to escape across the Mason-Dixon Line northward was to move in the direction of greater freedom. But freedom was also to be found in the West of the old Indian Territory. Bessie Smith gave voice to this knowledge when she sang of “Goin’ to the Nation, Goin’ to the Terr’tor’” and it is no accident that much of the symbolism of our folklore is rooted in the image of geography. For the slaves had learned through the repetition of group experience that freedom was to be attained through geographical movement, and that freedom required one to risk his life against the unknown.

--Ralph Ellison

Oklahoma City, 1980

If the people of any race have no record of their past, or have no aspirations or achievement that they think worthwhile, that race becomes a drone in the community and is treated as a nonentity. Therefore it is the duty of each race to feel keenly the necessity of keeping some record in which are chronicled their past efforts to verify their statements, and show that they appreciate the part they have played as members of the body politic of the community in which they live... We should learn to record our doings, or we will be unprepared for the future examination and remain a nonentity in the great universe in which we live.

--Samuel DeBow and Edward Pitter

Seattle, Washington, 1922


I have assembled in this manual instructional aids which will help enhance your understanding of the lectures and readings for this course, African Americans in the American West, 1528 to the Present, or which explain and clarify the organization and require­ments of the course. These aids include vignettes which are usually statements by important historical figures or commentary by observers of critical events and episodes in the history of black Americans in the United States, statistical tables, informa­tion sheets and maps.
Also included are lists of weekly terms introduced and emphasized during the lectures or discussed in the assigned readings. These terms reflect some critical event or development for a particular period of American history or refer to a concept which will help you better understand the historical process and our contemporary nation. Since I will randomly choose some of the terms for your midterm and final exams you should learn the definition and historical significance of each of them. Those terms not specifically discussed in class will be explained in your textbooks so it is particularly important that you do all of the assigned reading. All of the instructional materials are arranged in the approximate order in which they will be dis­cussed during the quarter.
One final note: you should view the materials in this manual not simply as additional information you will have to learn for the exams but as data that will help you better comprehend and assimilate the varied issues addressed in the lectures and textbook reading assignments. If you have any questions about any of the information presented in this manual please contact me during my office hours which are listed below.

The following films and documentaries are part of a growing list of titles on the African American west. Many of them are in the Media Center collection in Odegaard Undergraduate Library. Although the following videos are not requirements of the course I urge you to selectively view them to enhance your understanding of the history of the black people who populated this region.
Within Our Gates: A silent film produced by Oscar Michaeux in 1919.
Black Pioneers: True Faces of the West, The first two episodes of a projected eight episode series on the black west. These episodes were produced by the University of Wyoming, 1996.

Jackson Sundown: A 1995 documentary on a legendary Native American rodeo performer at the Pendleton Roundup around 1910-1912. The documentary also features rare film of George Fletcher, the most prominent African American performer with the Roundup.
Buffalo Soldiers: A highly sentimentalized "hero's story" of black soldiers with vignettes and interviews with buffalo soldier descendants.
The Bicycle Corps: America's Black Army on Wheels: This University of Montana documentary produced in 2000 describes the 2,000 mile journey in the summer of 1896 of members of the 25th Infantry from Ft. Missoula, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri, to test the feasibility of bicycles as transportation for infantry soldiers.
Dearfield: The Road Less Traveled: A 1996, 30 minute documentary of the life and death of Colorado's most successful all-black town. The documentary also focuses on O.T. Jackson, the town founder.
Black Indians: An American Story: This 60 minute documentary produced in 2000 explores the dual identity of people of African American and Native American Ancestry.

CHAPTER ONE: Spanish Origins
The first black settlers in the region that would become the American West originated in Mexico and traveled north rather than west. Their experiences are profiled in the following vignettes. The first vignettes, Esteban and the "Discovery" of the U.S. Southwest and The Death of Esteban describe the role of one Spanish-speaking African in establishing Spain's claim to Northern Mexico. Race and Class in Colonial Mexico and Race Mixture in Colonial New Mexico describes the multiracial population which emerges first in Mexico City and later in the remote provinces across much of Northern New Spain. That theme is also pursued in Marriage in Colonial New Mexico: The Rodriguez Saga and Slavery and Freedom in Spanish New Mexico. Two vignettes show the concerns of black women at the time. Both Isabel De Olvera Arrives in New Mexico which describes the first black woman on the Northern frontier of New Spain, and Anttonia Lusgardia Ernandes Fights for Her Son discuss the status of black women in the region. The vignettes Afro-Spaniards in the Far Southwest and The Founding of Los Angeles describe the black and mulatto settlers in colonial California while Sonora y Sinaloa: Madre Patria Chica de Los Angeles describes the area of origin of these settlers. Black Settlement in Spanish Texas describe their counterparts in Texas. Free Blacks on the Texas Frontier describes the initially successful effort by some African Americans to find freedom and economic security on the "cultural frontier" of Mexican Texas. Santa Anna and Black Freedom and The Yellow Rose of Texas describe African Americans and the Texas independence campaign. The final vignettes describe the first English-Speaking African Americans who arrive in the region after 1800. The vignette York and the Lewis and Clark Expedition profiles the slave who accompanied the most famous western explorers. Edward Rose and the Overland Astorians and James Beckwourth: Mountain Man discuss the two most famous black fur trappers in the West. Finally, the vignette William A. Leidesdorff and John A. Sutter, describes the former as a prosperous pre-Gold Rush California merchant.

Terms For Week One :
Isabel De Olvera
Founders of Los Angeles:
Luis Quintero and Maria Petra Rubio

Jose Moreno and Maria Guadalupe Gertrudis

Manuel Camero and Maria Tomasa

Antonio Mesa and Ana Gertrudis Lopez,

Maria Manuela Calixtra and Basilia Rosas

Maria Rufina Dorotea and Jose Antonia Navarro
Pio Pico
Sebastian Rodriguez Brito
Anttonia Lusgardia Ernandes
William Goyens
Moses and Stephen Austin
Benjamin Lundy
Fanny McFarland
Emily (West) Morgan
The Ashworth Clan
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
James Beckwourth

Most accounts of Esteban, the African-born slave whose exploits helped establish the Spanish claim to what is now the southwestern section of the United States, are written from the perspective of the Europeans who sponsored his foray into the Zuni village of Hawikuh in 1539. Ramon A. Gutierrez, however, attempts to explain Esteban through the eyes of the Indian leaders who encountered and were forced to kill him "so that he would not reveal our location to his brothers."
In May of 1539, as preparations were being made to call the katsina (ancestor spirit) to bring rain, the Zuni warriors of Hawikuh spotted a black katsina approaching from the west. The katsina was unlike any they had ever seen before. He was large in stature, wore animal pelts, and was richly adorned with large pieces of turquoise. He "wore bells and feathers on his ankles and arms, and carried plates of various colors." Many Pima, Papago, Opata, and Tarahumara Indians accompanied the katsina. The called him Estevanico, a great healer and medicine man. The men showered him with gifts, and the women, hoping to obtain his blessings, gave him their bodies. All along Estevanico's route, he constructed large prayersticks (crosses) that he commanded everyone to worship.

Hawikuh's cacique awaited the arrival of the black giant with great foreboding. While still a day's distance from the village, Estevanico sent the town chief a red and white feathered gourd rattle and a message that "he was coming to establish peace and to heal them." When the chief saw the rattle, he became very angry and threw it to the ground saying, "I know these people, for these jingle bells are not the shape of ours. Tell them to turn back at once, or not one of their men will be spared."

Undaunted by what his messengers told him, Estevanico proceeded to Hawikuh. The road to the village was closed symbolically with a cornmeal line, and when the black katsina crossed it, the pueblo's warriors took him prisoner and confined him in a house outside the village. There, "the oldest and those in authority listened to his words and tried to learn the reason for his coming." The katsina told them that other white katsina, children of the Sun, would soon arrive. The cacique thought these words were crazy, and when Estevanico demanded turquoise and women, he had him killed as a witch and foreign spy.

The old men of the village huddled together in the kiva, pondering the meaning of what had been said and done. Repeatedly they asked, Who was this black katsina? Whence had he come? What did he want? Would more katsina shortly arrive, as Estevanico said. The old men were silent on these matters, as were the ancient myths. The answers to these questions would be found not in the Pueblo world but in a distant land across a sea in a place the black katsina called Castile...

Source: Ramon A. Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Stanford, 1991), pp. 39-40.

Although the death of Esteban at the hands of the Zuni Indians is certain, the reason for his murder remains a mystery. Four possible explanations appear below. The first is provided by Fray Marcos De Niza, the second is from Captain Hernando de Alarcon who sailed up the Gulf of California one year later where he met Indians who were aware of Esteban's encounter with the Zuni, the third is Francisco Vazquez de Coronado's report to Governor Mendoza in 1540 after he had reached Hawikuh, and the fourth, the narrative of Pedro de Castaneda, a member of the Coronado Expedition.
Fray Marcos's account: As we were on our way, one day's journey from Cibola (Hawikuh), we met two...Indians of those who had gone with Esteban. They were bloodstained and had many wounds. Upon their arrival, they and those who were with me began such a weeping that they made me cry too, both through pity and fear. They asked how they could keep still when they knew that of their fathers, sons, and brothers who had gone with Esteban, more than three hundred men were dead. They said that they would no longer dare go to Cibola as they used to... I asked the wounded Indians about Esteban and what had happened... They told me that when Esteban was within a day's travel of the city of Cibola, he sent his messengers with a gourd to the ruler of the place, informing him of his visit and of how he was coming to establish peace and to heal them. When the emissaries handed the ruler the gourd and he saw the jingle bells, he became very angry and threw the gourd to the ground, saying, "I know these people, for these jingle bells are not the shape of ours. Tell them to turn back at once, or not one of their men will be spared." The messengers went back very dejectedly,, and [told] Esteban. He told them not to fear, that he would go there, for although the inhabitants gave him a bad answer, they would receive him well.

So Esteban went ahead with all his people, who mush have numbered more than three hundred men, besides many women, and reached the city of Cibola at sunset. They were not allowed to come into the city, but were placed in a large house, quite a good lodging, which was located outside of the city. Then the natives of Cibola took away from Esteban everything he carried, saying that it had been so ordered by their lord. "During the whole night," the wounded Indians said, "they did not give us anything to eat or drink. The next morning, when the sun had risen the height of a lance, Esteban went out of the house and some of the chiefs followed him, whereupon many people came out of the city. When Esteban saw them, he began to flee, and we did also, They at once began to shoot arrows at us, wounding us, and thus we remained until night, not daring to stir. We heard much shouting in the city, and we saw many men and women on the terraces, watching, but we never saw Esteban again. We believe that they shot him with arrows and also the others who were with him, as no one except ourselves escaped."

Hearing with the Indians said, and in view of the poor conditions for continuing my journey as I desired, I could not help but feel some apprehension for their loss and mine... Thus I turned back with much more fear than food...

de Alarcon's account: I asked [the chief] about Cibola and whether he knew if they people there had ever seen people like us. He answered no, except a negro who wore on his feet and arms some things that tinkled. Your Lordship must remember this negro who went with Fray Marcos wore bells, and feathers on his ankles, and arms, and carried plates of various colors. He arrived there a little more than one year ago. I asked him why they killed him. He replied that the chieftain of Cibola asked the negro if he had any brothers, and he answered that he had an infinite number, that they had numerous arms, and that they were not very far from there. Upon hearing this, many chieftains assembled and decided to kill him so that he would not reveal their location to his brothers. For this reason they killed him and tore him into many pieces, which were distributed among the chieftains so that they should know that he was dead.

Coronado's account: The death of the negro is perfectly certain, because many of the things which he wore have been found, and the Indians say that they killed him here because the Indians of Chichilticale said that he was a bad man, and not like the Christians who never kill women, and he killed them, and because he assaulted their women, who the Indians love better than themselves. Therefore they determined to kill him, but they did not kill any of the others who came with him...
Castaneda's account: After the friars and the negro Esteban set out, it seem that the negro fell from the good graces of the friars because he took along the women that were given to him, and collected turquoises, and accumulated everything. Besides, the Indians of the settlements they crossed got along better with the negro, since they had seen him before. For this reason he was sent ahead to discover and pacify the land so that when the others arrived all they would have to do would be to listen and make a report of what they were searching for.

When Esteban got away from the said friars, he craved to gain honor and fame in everything and to be credited with the boldness and daring of discovering, all by himself, those terraced pueblos, so famed throughout the land. Accompanied by the people who followed him, he tried to cross the uninhabited regions between Cibola and the inhabited area. He had traveled so far ahead of the friars that when they reached Chichilticale...he was already at Cibola.

I say, then, that when the negro Esteban reached Cibola, he arrived there laden with a large number of turquoises and with some pretty women, which the natives had given him. The gifts were carried by Indians who accompanied and followed him through every settlement he crossed, believing that, by going under his protection, they could traverse the whole country without any danger. But as the people of the land were more intelligent that those who followed Esteban, they lodged him at a lodging house which they had outside of the pueblo, and the oldest and those in authority listened to his words and tried to learn the reason for his coming to that land.

When they were well informed, they held councils for three days. As the negro had told them that farther back two white men, send by a great lord, were coming, that they were learned in the things of heaven, and that the were coming to instruct them in divine matters, the Indians thought he must have been a spy or guide of some nations that wanted to come and conquer them. They though it was nonsense for him to say that the people in the land whence he came were white, when he was black, and that he had been sent by them. So they went to him, and because, after some talk, he asked them for turquoises and women, they considered this an affront and determined to kill him. So they did without killing any one of those who came with him... The friars were seized with such fear that, not trusting these people who had accompanied the negro, they opened their bags and distributed everything they had among them keeping only the vestments for saying mass. From there they turned back without seeing more land than what the Indians had told them of. On the contrary, they were traveling by forced marches, with their habits up to their waists.

Source: George P. Hammond, and Agapito Rey, eds., Narratives of the Coronado Expedition, 1540-1542 (Albuquerque, 1940) pp. 77, 145, 177-178, 198-199.

As the Esteban vignette, and those which follow, attest, historians have taken great pains to establish the presence of persons of African ancestry in the history of colonial Mexico. The task before the next generation of historians is to determine the quality of the life they led and their interaction not only with the Spanish but with Indians and the various bi- and multi-racial populations which emerged in the region. In the following vignette R. Douglas Cope analyzes the population of Mexico City between 1660 and 1720, and in the process, suggests some possibilities for this next stage of historical inquiry.
African slaves had accompanied the Spaniards from the beginning. Before the century's end, tens of thousands more would be imported. As foremen, managers, and skilled laborers, Africans provided invaluable aid to the process of Hispanic colonization; as slaves and thus potential insurrectionaries, they provoked the fear and contempt of their masters. But for the Spanish, Africans were the devil they knew. Still more troublesome was the inevitable yet unexpected emergence of the castas, products of miscegenation, new kinds of people for whom names had to be invented: mestizos, castizos, zambos, and many other names.

The Spaniards, of course, had always been a minority in Mexico, their scattered cities bulwarks against the indigenous countryside. But by the early seventeenth century, the rapid growth of the castas had created large non-Hispanic populations in Spanish urban centers and mining campus and even in the Spaniards' chief redoubt, Mexico City. How could the heirs of the conquistadors sustain their rule over this multiracial melange without the benefit of a standing army? Spaniards thought themselves superior to the people they dominated. The trick lay in convincing Africans and Indians of this tautological line of reasoning.... The Spanish monopolized political power and dominated the elite occupations, thereby enjoying a grossly disproportionate share of Mexico's wealth. In contrast, Indians, Africans, and mixed-bloods languished in low-paying, low-prestige positions...

We should not [however] assume that subordinate groups are passive recipients of elite ideology. Mesoamerican Indians, for instance, demonstrated a remarkable ability to resist cultural impositions...and indigenous structures and patterns survived the conquest on a much more massive scale and for a longer period of time than had seemed the case when we had to judge by the reports of Spaniards alone...

We would do better, then, to view culture as a contested terrain, in which people from all walks of life (and not just the dominant group) engage in a continuous process of manipulating and constructing social reality. In a multiracial society such as colonial Mexico, ethnic identity itself became a prime point of contention and confusion. Elite attempts at racial or ethnic categorization met with resistance as non-Spaniards pursued their own, often contradictory...self-definition...

Race, after all, was not the only dividing line in colonial Mexico. Nor was it the only principle of social organization... A mulatto marries a mestiza. Who can say what combination of affection, sexual desire, family considerations, and economic calculation went into that decision. We cannot know, from the act itself, whether one partner exulted in an opportunity or the other agonized over marrying "down." The problem requires a more comprehensive...approach... What material and social constraints shaped their world? What role did race play? How did their beliefs compare with those of the elite? And what kinds of relations existed between those two components of society?
Source: R. Douglas Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720 (Madison, 1994), pp. 3-7.

The 16th and 17th Century historical records of the U.S. Southwest are replete with examples of persons of African ancestry who accompanied Spanish explorers and colonizers. The Juan de Onate party that established a colony along the upper Rio Grande near Santa Fe, in 1598, included at least five blacks and mulattoes, two of whom were soldiers. Most of those explorers and settlers were men. However in 1600 one black woman, Isabel De Olvera of Queretaro, the daughter of a black father and Indian mother, accompanied the Juan Guerra de Resa relief expedition to Santa Fe to strengthen the Spanish claim on the region. Her arrival predates by 19 years the first known landing at Jamestown, Virginia, of twenty persons of African ancestry in British North America. De Olvera, who was a servant for one of the Spanish women, was apparently concerned about her safety and status in the frontier region and gave the following deposition to the alcalde mayor of Queretaro. To buttress her claim, Olvera presented three witnesses, Mateo Laines, a free black man living in Queretaro, Anna Verdugo, a mestiza who lived near the city, and Santa Maria, a black slave of the alcalde mayor.
In the town of Queretaro in New Spain, January 8, 1600, there appeared before Don Pedro Lorenzo de Castilla, his majesty's alcalde mayor in this town, a mulatto woman named Isabel, who presented herself before his grace in the appropriate legal manner and declared:
As I am going on the expedition to New Mexico and have reason to fear that I may be annoyed by some individual since I am a mulatto, and as it is proper to protect my rights in such an eventuality by an affidavit showing that I am a free women, unmarried, and the legitimate daughter of Hernando, a negro and an Indian named Magdalena, I therefore request your grace to accept this affidavit, which show that I am free and not bound by marriage or slavery. I request that a properly certified and signed copy be given to me in order to protect my rights, and that it carry full legal authority. I demand justice.
The alcalde mayor instructed her to present the affidavits which she thought could be used and ordered that they be examined in accordance with this petition and that she be given the original. He so ordered and signed. DON PEDRO LORENZO DE CASTILLA. Before me, BALTASAR MARTINEZ, royal notary.
Source: George P. Hammond, and Agapito Rey, eds., Don Juan de Onate: Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628 (Albuquerque, 1953), pp. 560-562.

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