African-American Westward Migration Research Paper

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African-Americans and Western Expansion

Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, very little was written about black participation in Western expansion from the colonial period to the 19th Century, much less about black and Native American cooperation against slavery. This history was not so much forbidden or censored as never written at all, or simply ignored when it was written. In reality, blacks participated in all facets of Western expansion, from the fur trade and cattle ranching to mining and agriculture. There were black cowboys and black participants in the Indian Wars -- on both sides, in fact. Indeed, the argument over slavery in the Western territories was one of the key factors in breaking up the Union in the 1850s and leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In the past thirty years, much of the previously unwritten and unrecorded history of the Americas since 1492 has been given serious academic treatment for the first time, so much so that neoconservative historians [footnoteRef:1]like Alan J. Levine argued that the process had gone too far in the other direction, and that while racism was "generally accepted in the Western world in 1900" this was no longer the case today. Therefore, social and cultural historians had been putting too much emphasis on "race-structured" narratives and theories, not realizing that "there is nothing unique, or especially bad, in the record of modern Western expansion."[footnoteRef:2] Perhaps the racially-motivated acts of genocide and slavery were not much different in effect than similar actions in other parts of the world motivated by religious, linguistic, ethnic or even political differences, but given that the lives of those blacks who participated in Westward expansion hardly seemed to exist in the historical record for thirty years, it will very likely require more than thirty years to correct the former imbalance. [1: Alan J. Levine, Race Relations within Western Expansion (Westport, CT: Greenfield Press, 1996), p. 1.] [2: Levine, p. 5.]

Black slaves and free persons took part in the expansion of the United States to the West from the very beginning of the colonial period, although they were literally written out of history by Frederick Jackson Turner and other scholars until fairly recent times. In traditional frontier history as well as popular culture, the West has been "lily white." Although popular culture has always been saturated with Western motifs, images and myths, from the Marlboro Man to Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Levi's jeans and Smith & Wesson revolvers, for most of U.S. history, blacks were simply written out of the narrative.[footnoteRef:3] Even so, blacks lived on the frontiers "as scouts and pathfinders, slave runaways and fur trappers, missionaries and soldiers, schoolmarms and entrepreneurs, lawmen and members of Native American nations."[footnoteRef:4] Crispus Attucks, the first man shot in the 1770 Boston Massacre, was a black Natick Indian, for example, although this was largely unknown to most whites until recent times.[footnoteRef:5] Contemporary historians estimate that 20-25% of cowboys in the Texas cattle industry in the 19th Century were black, while the "cotton kingdom" areas of Louisiana, Arkansas and east Texas could never have been developed without black slaves.[footnoteRef:6] Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a famous fur trapper, was born in Haiti of a white father and African mother, educated in France, and founded the first permanent settlement in what later became Chicago in 1779.[footnoteRef:7] On the Lewis and Clark expedition, William Clark's slave and childhood friend York accompanies the famous explorer, and was of great help in negotiating with the Native Americans they encountered along the way.[footnoteRef:8] [3: Sara E. Quay, Westward Expansion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), p. xiv.] [4: William Loren Katz, The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African-American Role in the Westward Experience of the United States. (NY: Random House, Inc., 2005), p. xiii.] [5: William Loren Katz, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 10.] [6: W. Sherman Savage, Blacks in the West (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976), p. 2.] [7: Katz, 2005, p. 32.] [8: Katz, 2005, p. 34.]

James Beckwourth fought against the Seminoles in Florida and then became an early pioneer in Nevada and California, where he was involved in the rebellions against Mexican rule. He was acquainted with famous military figures like the explorer James Fremont and William T. Sherman. He was later one of the leaders of the Crow Indians on the Great Plains, and settled in Denver, Colorado in 1859, when the city was still new. In 1864, Beckwourth was forced at gunpoint to take part in the Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne Indians, but testified before Congress against Col. James Chivington, the commander of the Colorado Volunteers who ordered the slaughter. When he died in 1868, he was buried among the Crow Indians.[footnoteRef:9] [9: Katz, 2005, p. 37.]

From the earliest times in the 16th and 17th Centuries, black slaves and Native Americans cooperated in fomenting rebellions against white rule and in running away and forming maroon communities in Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. Blacks often settled and intermarried with Indians, and even though Native Americans signed treaties to return all runaway slaves, they almost never did.[footnoteRef:10] In the western hemisphere, the first slave rebellion occurred in 1522 on sugar plantations owned by Governor Diego Columbus in Santo Domingo, and "nearby native Americans joined the rebels."[footnoteRef:11] Frederick Doulgass, the great 19th Century abolitionist and civil rights leader, was of "mixed African, Indian, and white ancestry.[footnoteRef:12] So was Wildfire (Edmonia Lewis) whose father was a slave and mother a Chippewa Indian, and later went on the become a famous sculptress in the United States.[footnoteRef:13] Florida was a "perpetual harbor for our slaves," as Andrew Jackson put it in 1819, and had been since the 16th Century. Throughout the early-19th Century into the 1840s, the U.S. government fought wars against the Seminoles, who were the last Native American nation removed from the East to the Indian Territory -- or Oklahoma as it became known after 1907. Black slaves and their descendants were an integral part of the Seminole communities in Florida and Oklahoma, and "the Seminole alliance mounted the strongest maroon insurgency, and the most resolute armed resistance to human bondage in the United States."[footnoteRef:14] [10: Katz, 2005, p. 9.] [11: Katz, 1986, p. 33.] [12: Katz, 1986, p. 11.] [13: Katz, 2005, p. 11.] [14: Katz, 2005, p. 20.]

Charles Beard and his generation of historians thought that antislavery was almost irrelevant to the Civil War, which they regarded primarily as a struggle between North capitalists and Southern aristocrats. Since the 1960s and 1970s, however, this earlier understanding about the causes of the most destructive war in U.S. history has been modified greatly, with the conflict over the expansion of slavery into the Western territories in the 1850s again taking center stage. Blacks were only a tiny proportion of the Western population in 1860, numbering about 33,000, although this rose to 72,000 by 1880 due to post-Civil War migrations.[footnoteRef:15] Blacks who settled in the West even though they were often denied voting and citizenship rights, and were also excluded completely from states like Iowa, Illinois and Oregon. In most areas before the Civil War, they were not allowed to attend the public schools, petition the state legislatures, serve on juries, testify in court or run for public office. Even though whites generally shared the Free Soil views of the Republican Party in the West, "white Westerners vaunted antislavery views often stemmed not from idealism, but from racial hatred of black people, free and slave."[footnoteRef:16] [15: Savage, p. 4.] [16: Katz, 2005, p. 47.]

Eric Foner found that the 1850s were one of the most intensely ideological decades in U.S. history, and that the "two decades before the Civil War witnessed the development of conflicting sectional ideologies," each of which regarded the other as a threat to its future control over the West.[footnoteRef:17] For Republican politicians like Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner and William Seward, the aristocratic South was a Slave Power whose rulers intended to dominate the entire continent, sweeping aside the institutions of free labor and free market capitalism. They regarded the North as a democracy and "a dynamic, expanding capitalist society" in which free labor was the basis of all wealth and where ordinary white men had opportunities for advancement and upward mobility.[footnoteRef:18] All of this would be lost for both whites and blacks if the Southern planters succeeded in their plans to make slavery a national institution, while the Southern leaders were certain that if the North ended up dominating the new Western territories the balance of power would shift against them forever and slavery would be doomed to eventual extinction. [17: Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1970, 1995), p. 9.] [18: Eric Foner, p. 11.]

By the time the Compromise of 1850 was adopted, the South had already lost control of the House of Representatives due to the North's rapid increase in population,…[continue]

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