There were many black pioneers of the Old West. These included both men and women. One of the best-known black cowboys was Nat Love, sometimes known as Deadwood Dick. He was born a slave in Tennessee in 1854, and headed West at the age of 15. He arrived in Dodge City and soon landed a job as a cowpuncher. He wrote his biography in 1907 and told of meeting some of the bad men of the Old West, including Billie the Kid and Frank and Jesse James.
However, his claim to fame came when he entered the rodeo at Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory on July 4, 1876. He could rope, saddle and ride a wild mustang better than any man. He became known for his rodeo skills. An excellent series on Nat Love and the black cowboys can be found in the Robert Miller books.
Many people probably remember the cowboy television shows of the past featuring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickok. I grew up watching these shows, but I did not see any about black cowboys. I can still remember Roy Rogers in his white hat, with his beloved horse, Trigger, at his side. He was one of the singing cowboys of the time.
However, there was a black singing cowboy in the early days of film. His name was Herb Jeffries. One of the movies he made in 1939 was called "The Bronze Buckaroo." There were several other black Westerns made, but they were not shown to a wide audience. Images are powerful. This is one reason why it is important to show African-Americans in a variety of roles, because the images that you grow up with can stay in your mind forever.
Black women also played many important roles in the Old West. One who comes to mind is Mary Fields, also known as Black Mary. She was born in 1832. In the town of Cascade, Mont., Fields had no equal. She was 6 feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. She was good with her fists and always carried a six-shooter.
When I think of the great history of the U.S. Postal Service, I think of Fields. She was the second female to ever drive a U.S. mail coach. She got the job through the influence of a nun named Mother Amadeus. The folks around Cascade knew her as a freight hauler, laundress, restaurant owner and the driver of a mail coach. She delivered the mail seated on top of the mail coach for eight years without missing a day. She was known as Stagecoach Mary.
Fields also helped the nuns in Cascade build a school. She worked hard through the harsh winters and did most of the tough work. She died in 1914 at the age of 82. When you think of the post office, don't leave Mary Fields out of its history.
Another black woman who became a pioneer in the Old West was Clara Brown. Due to her kind ways, she was known as Aunt Clara. Brown was born a slave in 1803 in Gallatin, Tenn. She had a hard life but found ways to survive. Brown got a job on a wagon train and walked most of the 600-mile trip. She later started a laundry business and turned her home into a hospital and shelter for the homeless.
Many of her family members were separated during slavery and Brown was determined to find as many of them as possible. After the Civil War, she saved more than $101,000. She used much of the money to purchase land, and the rest to find her family. She was successful in locating 34 of them. Some historians believe that she was the first black settler in Colorado. She died at the age of 82.
George W. Bush was an entrepreneur and a black explorer of the Oregon territory. He lived from 1790 to 1863. He was born a free man in Pennsylvania and fought in the battle of New Orleans under Andrew Jackson. Bush was a traveling man and when he went West, he carried more than $2,000 in silver with him. Remember the old wagon train movies? Well, Bush was in the business of purchasing wagon trains and mule teams.
He traveled with a group to Oregon in 1844. They ran into trouble because Oregon law at the time did not allow blacks to settle there. Bush had made friends with some of the Native Americans and French Canadians on former trips to the West, and with their influence he was able to cross into Canadian territory. He established a 640-acre farm known as Bush Prairie. He fed a lot of people and saved many lives during the harsh winters.
If you want to know more about African-Americans in the Old West, read William Loren Katz's book, "The Black West." The following statement appears in the introduction of the book: "More than just another slice of Black Americana gone astray, the African presence on America's frontier poses key questions about the way the West developed -- and particularly about how U.S. history is written. Why has this been left out of our textbooks?"
Eva M. Doyle is a columnist for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the first in a four-part series.