Black Westerners

Historian Quintard Taylor noted in a 1996 magazine article, “The ghost of Walter Prescott Webb’s 1955 comment that the West is defined by its scarcity of ‘water, timber, cities, industry, labor and Negroes’ continues to intrude on the region’s popular consciousness.” Thankfully, in the 25 years since Taylor’s observation, enough books and articles have been written about black men and women in the American West to lay to rest the ghost of Webb’s comment.

To name a trio of those books: Taylor’s groundbreaking 1998 work In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990; 2008’s African American Women Confront the West, 1600–2000, edited by Taylor and Shirley Ann Wilson Moore; and 2016’s Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, Behind the Badge, edited by Bruce A. Glasrud and Michael N. Searles. From the 1990s on countless books have been written about buffalo soldiers, the black men who served in the Army out West, though way back in 1967 William H. Leckie wrote The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (revised editions feature the subhead A Narrative of the Black Cavalry in the West). In 1999 Art T. Burton came out with Black, Buckskin and Blue: African-American Scouts and Soldiers on the Western Frontier, though he has also informed readers of his books and articles (several of which have appeared in Wild West) that not all black Westerners were cowboys or soldiers; some were in fact lawmen and outlaws. Burton’s excellent first offering, Black, Red and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territory, 1870–1907, was published in 1991. His biography Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves was released in 2006.

As longtime Wild West readers may recall, this magazine, which debuted in 1988, has covered black soldiers on the frontier beginning with Wayne R. Austerman’s June 1991 article “Army’s Unluckiest Regiment,” about the 38th U.S. Infantry’s hard-luck buffalo soldiers. In February 1995 we ran Reginald E. McDaniel’s “Buffalo Soldiers Won Their Spurs,” with the teaser, “Despite prejudice, substandard wages, poor food and a cholera epidemic, the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments went on to carve a name for themselves in the West.” In this issue we are happy to revisit the 10th in two feature articles. Frequent contributor John Monnett writes about the little remembered August 1867 Battle of Prairie Dog Creek (not to be confused with an 1876 fight of the same name) in “First Fight for the 10th Cavalry,” and in “White Buffalo” first-time contributor David Harrington cites 10th Cavalry Captain Henry Carpenter’s heroic action in two fall 1868 clashes less than a month apart—Beecher Island and Beaver Creek.

Congress authorized the formation of the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, as well as four black infantry regiments, in 1866. The move came amid the Reconstruction era, as the government sought to redress the inequities of slavery and the readmission to the Union of the 11 Southern states that had seceded. After the war many blacks immigrated to the West in search of new opportunity (as did many white Southerners). Buffalo soldiers saw much duty in Texas, where they sometimes clashed verbally and physically with civilians. On the postwar cattle drives north black men found opportunity on ranches and the open range (by some estimates one in four cowboys from the 1860s to ’80s was black). But other blacks in Texas—which didn’t officially recognize the freedom of all slaves until federal troops arrived on June 19, 1865, and didn’t fully rejoin the Union until March 30, 1870—weren’t so welcome. Outlaw gangs that overran Reconstruction-era Texas often targeted black residents, as Gregory Michno points out in “‘Worse Than the Hostile Comanches,’” in the October 2021 Wild West. “Between 1865 and ’68,” he writes, “the Freedmen’s Bureau recorded 281 known incidents of violence against black women and 25 against black children.” By 1865 there were an estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas, far more than any state west of the Mississippi except Louisiana. After emancipation most freemen stuck around to work for wages. One thing is perfectly clear: Whether mistreated or not, black men, women and children were not scarce in the Lone Star State. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s historical novel Man From Montana came out in April 2021. His earlier novels include 2019’s Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 and 2014’s Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories.

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