Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Black men and women appeared much earlier in this continent's history than is generally acknowledged. An African-born slave, Esteban (Estevanico), accompanied the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca across the southern Texas plains. African Americans were also part of Coronado's expedition through the Central Great Plains in 1540–42. At the advent of Americans in the Great Plains, York, a black servant to William Clark, was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition through the Plains to the Pacific and back. And Isaiah Dorman, a guide and explorer who worked among and against Native Americans for twenty years, ended his life as the only African American casualty at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana in 1876.

The first significant migration of African Americans into the Great Plains began in 1857, when fugitives from the slave state of Missouri crossed into eastern Kansas Territory where free-state forces were dominant. By 1865 nearly 9 percent of the population of the new state of Kansas was African American, the highest proportion ever reached in Kansas. Most lived in the developing urban areas of eastern Kansas, including Leavenworth, Wyandotte County, and North and South Lawrence. A few pushed as far west as the Neosho Valley.

A large infusion of blacks into the Great Plains occurred after the Civil War with the establishment of the all-black Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiments, with the Ninth and Tenth–the "buffalo soldiers"–being particularly influential. These regiments, which served throughout the Plains, absorbed thousands of men who would have otherwise returned to their homes in a time of few jobs and economic depression.

At the same time, western territories were looking for new residents as they sought statehood,and "Exodusters"–black men and women who moved mainly to Kansas and Oklahoma–added their numbers to the growing populations of all colors. For example, Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, a former slave, recruited 200 to 300 black settlers to his Cherokee County Colony in southeastern Kansas in the 1870s. About 6,000 Exodusters moved to Kansas in 1879, when "Kansas fever" was at its peak. Every county in central Kansas had African American settlers by 1885, though regionally they were only a small proportion of the total population.

African American settlers also moved to Nebraska during the early 1880s, settling in Custer, Dawson, and Hamilton Counties. A black community was established near Overton, Dawson County, by a group of ex-slaves who had escaped into Canada and returned to the United States after the Civil War. This community thrived for several decades until the passage of the Kinkaid Act in 1904 enticed many to take out 640-acre homesteads in Nebraska's Sandhills. By 1917 nearly 100 families had settled primarily in Cherry County along a stretch of the North Loup River.

Thousands of black and Hispanic cowboys worked in the Great Plains during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Employed because they had "horse sense," gained from working on farms in the South and on antebellum ranches in the Southwest, these men were snapped up by ranching operations that were growing rapidly to meet the demands of large populations who desired inexpensive meat. Mexican "vaqueros" were the main models for the American cowboy, but African American men who were eager and experienced cattle workers and African American former cavalry and infantry soldiers also rode the range. By the late 1870s, when the open-range cattle industry was at its peak, as many as 9,000 of an estimated 35,000 cowboys were African American.

The development of railroads and towns in the Great Plains after 1870 offered employment to African American cowhands, miners, nannies, small business owners, oxen drovers, freighters, cooks, railyard workers, section crews, and entertainers. Professional employment as dentists, doctors, nurses, ministers, merchants, and teachers gave African Americans positions of authority and influence. Clara Brown established herself as a prominent business entrepreneur and philanthropist in Denver in the late 1860s, and Dr. M. O. Ricketts became the first African American graduate of the University of Nebraska's College of Medicine in 1884 and later a state legislator.

Outside large cities, many black pioneers settled in towns near military forts or railroads. Though their numbers were relatively few, some African American families established ranches. Daniel Webster "80-John" Wallace was the scion of a cattle family in West Texas. Alonzo Stepp and James Edwards started cattle operations in Wyoming that grew to a substantial size in the first half of the twentieth century.

The railroads in particular offered employment opportunities to black men and–to a lesser degree–women. Though the "front end" jobs of engineer, fireman, and administrator were taken by European Americans, the "rear end" occupations of cook, porter, and conductor were left for men and women of color. Later, many of these workers would establish ancillary businesses such as laundries, food preparation, and maid services.

Lawmen such as Bass Reeves, Zeke Millar, and Bob Fortune were feared emissaries of the law in northern Texas and Oklahoma, working for the "Hanging Judge," Isaac Parker. Some black men also veered to the other side of the law, becoming bandits, bank robbers, and outlaws of all stripes. At least one of the "Black Barts" of the Dakotas was an African American.

Nat Love, or "Deadwood Dick," if his autobiography can be believed, personified the African American experience in the Great Plains. An ex-slave, he rubbed shoulders with outlaws and lawmen in Dodge City in 1869, rode the Chisholm Trail as a cowpuncher, became a rodeo champion in Deadwood City in the 1870s, and ended up as a Pullman porter.

Pioneering was difficult for anyone, regardless of skin color, yet these black trailbreakers were in evidence from southern Texas to Edmonton and from Denver to Kansas City. They were, in essence, everywhere that other pioneers chose to work and prosper. Sometimes they succeeded, and sometimes they failed, but it was the true legacy of the frontier experience that hard times were visited evenly on all who came West.

Jack Ravage University of Wyoming

Durham, Philip, and Everett L. Jones. The Negro Cowboys. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965. Ravage, John W. Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1997. Shortridge, James R. Peopling the Plains: Who Settled Where in Frontier Kansas. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

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