In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 15281990, by Quintard Taylor, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998, $29.95.
Esteban, a Spanish-speaking slave, survived a November 1528 shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico and became the first African American to set foot in what would become the western United States. Other blacks would accompany Spanish explorers to the Southwest as well. Author Quintard Taylor, chairman of the history department at the University of Oregon, reminds us of those often overlooked early Westerners in the first chapter of this impressive 415-page overview of the African-American West. Because he has to cover four centuries, he naturally doesn’t linger too long with them or even with more famous black Westerners such as the cowboys and buffalo soldiers. He points out that our fascination with those black groups tends to obscure the fact that by the early 1870s most black Westerners resided in cities and towns. Historians, he says, have exaggerated the number and influence of cowboys–whether they be white, black or other–and have overestimated the number of African Americans in the industry. “Overall, black cowboys were about 2 percent of the total in the West,” he writes. In Search of the Racial Frontier, the author notes in his introduction, is “not primarily a study of colorful individuals” but is more a “collective biography.” He adds that there were indeed “rugged black cowboys, gallant black soldiers and sturdy but silent black women” in the West but that his book “will forcibly challenge the stereotype of the black westerner as a solitary figure loosened from moorings of family, home and community.” This is good stuff, even if many of us do love to read about those rugged, gallant and/or sturdy individuals, black or white.