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The Black West
We Americans have learned about the development of the West from history books, school texts, novels, movies and TV screens. In so doing we have been silently saddled with the myth that the frontier cast of characters included only white and red men. Although western stereotypes abound-treacherous red men, hearty pioneers, intrepid explorers, gentle missionaries, heroic and handsome cowboys and cavalrymen — black men and women do not appear.
In 1942 Pulitzer-prize historian James Truslow Adams, author and editor of more than two dozen volumes on American history, insisted that black men "were unfitted by nature from becoming founders of communities on the frontier as, let us say the Scotch Irish were preeminently fitted for it...." To be sure, black men had "many excellent qualities," Adams noted, "even temper, affection, great loyalty...imitativeness, willingness to follow a leader or master," but these were, one must agree, "not the qualities which...made good...frontiersmen...." The racial bias and misinformation upon which this statement was based has been traditional among American historians — and has prolonged our ignorance.
Black men sailed with Columbus and accompanied many of the European explorers to the New World. Pedro Alonzo Nino, said to be black, was on Columbus's first voyage, and other Africans sailed with him on his second voyage the following year. By Columbus's third voyage in 1498 the black population of the New World was expanding, its economic value slowly being recognized by the Spanish and Portuguese.
The Spaniards saw the Africans as both useful and dangerous. In 1501 when a royal ordinance first gave official sanction to the importation of African slaves to Hispaniola, many feared to use them because of their rebelliousness. Two years later Governor Ovando of Hispaniola complained to King Ferdinand that his African slaves "fled among the Indians and taught them bad customs and never would be captured." His solution, however, based on labor needs, was to remove all restrictions on their importation. He evidently won his point at the Spanish court. On September 15, 1505, King Ferdinand wrote him: "I will send more Negro slaves on your request. I think there may be a hundred. At each time a trustworthy person will go with them who may share in the gold they may collect and may promise them ease if they work well." By 1537, the governor of Mexico noted, "I have written to Spain for black slaves because I consider them indispensable for the cultivation of the land and the increase of the royal revenue." Ten years earlier Antonio de Herrera, royal historian to King Philip II of Spain, estimated their New World colonies as having about ten thousand Africans. This was ninety-two years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. By 1600, more than ninety thousand Africans had been sent to Latin America. The landings at Jamestown and Plymouth were still to come.
When the Spanish conquistadores left Hispaniola to explore the mainland of the Americas, black men accompanied them. In 1513 Balboa's men, including thirty Africans, hacked their way through the lush vegetation of Panama and reached the Pacific. There the party paused and built the first ships ever constructed on America's west coast. In 1519 Africans accompanied Cortez when he conquered the Aztecs; the three hundred Africans dragged his huge cannons. One of Cortez's black men then planted and remained to harvest the first wheat crop in the New World. Others were with Ponce de Leon in Florida and Pizarro in Peru, where they carried his murdered body to the cathedral.
Pioneer Maroon Settlements
From the misty dawn of America's earliest foreign landings, Africans who broke their chains fled to the wilderness to create their own "maroon" settlements (after a Spanish word for runaways). Europeans saw "maroons" as a knife poised at the heart of the slave system, perhaps pressed against the entire thin line of white military rule in the New World. But for the daring men and women who built these outlaw communities in the wilderness, they were a pioneer's promise.
In remote areas of the Americas beyond the reach of European armies many became strongly defended agricultural and trading centers bearing such names as "Disturb Me If You Dare" and "Try Me If You Be Men." Maroon songs resonate with defiance: "Black man rejoice/White man won't come here/And if he does/The Devil will take him off." For more than 90 years in 17th century Brazil the Republic of Palmares fought off onslaughts by Dutch and Portuguese troops. In 1719 a Brazilian colonist wrote to King Jao of Portugal of maroons: "Their self-respect grows because of the fear whites have of them."
Women played a vital role in these pioneer settlements. Often in short supply, they were sought as revered wives and mothers who would provide stability, the nourishment of family life and children, the community's future. Families meant these enclaves would strive for peace, but that their soldiers would fight invading slave-catching armies to the death.
Two women ruled maroon settlements in colonial Brazil. Fillipa Maria Aranha governed a colony in Amazonia where her military prowess convinced Portuguese officials it was wiser to negotiate than try to defeat her armies. A treaty granted Aranha's people independence, liberty and sovereignty. In Passanha, an unnamed African woman hurled her Malali Indian and African guerrilla troops against European soldiers.
Throughout the Americas Africans were welcomed into Native American villages as sisters and brothers. Often enslaved together, red people and black people commonly united to seek freedom. "The Indians escaped first and then, since they knew the forest, they came back and liberated the Africans," writes anthropologist Richard Price about the origins of the Saramaka people of Suriname in the 1680s. He is describing an American frontier tradition as old as Thanksgiving.
A Native American adoption system that had no racial barriers recruited black men and women in the battle against encroaching Europeans. Artist George Catlin described "Negro and North American Indian, mixed, of equal blood" as being "the finest built and most powerful men I have ever yet seen."
Before 1700 maroons were generally ruled by Africans, but after that they were more likely to be governed by children of African-Native American marriages. Carter G. Woodson, father of modern black history, called this racial mixture "one of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States." In the 1920s research at Columbia University by anthropologist Melvin J. Herskovits proved that one in every three African-Americans had an Indian branch in their family tree.
Beginning with a Jamestown, Virginia battle in 1622 whites complained "the Indians murdered every white but saved the Negroes." Charleston's Colonel Stephen Bull urged division of the races in order to "Establish a hatred between Negroes and Indians." Europeans prevented their meetings and marriages, ended enslavement of Indians and introduced African slavery to the Five Civilized Nations, the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles. But John Bartram found Indian slavery was so gentle it permitted slaves to marry masters and find "freedom...and an equality."
"We make Indians and Negroes a checque upon each other lest by their Vastly Superior Numbers we should be crushed by one or the other," stated Reverend Richard Ludlam. Native Americans were hired or bribed to hunt slave runaways, and slaves were armed to fight Native Americans. When local nations refused, fighters from distant regions were hired.
But the white lid never closed shut. In 1721 the Governor of Virginia made the Five Nations promise to return all runaways; in 1726 the Governor of New York had the Iroquois Confederacy promise; in 1746 the Hurons promised and the next year the Delawares promised. None ever returned a slave.
To the consternation of slaveholders, two dark peoples began to unite as allies and family from the Atlantic westward.
Stephen Dorantes or Estevan
The first African whose name appears in the historical chronicles of the New World was an explorer of many skills, though he lived and died a slave. Estevan, born in Azamore, Morocco, at the turn of the fifteenth century, was the servant of Andres Dorantes and has variously been called Estevanico, Stephen Dorantes or Esteban. On June 17, 1527, in San Lucas de Barrameda, Spain, he and his master boarded a ship for the New World. Estevan was then about thirty and possibly no more than his master's manservant. Both were part of a five-hundred-man expedition to explore the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, an assignment authorized by King Charles I and headed by his newly commissioned governor of Florida, Pánfilo de Narváez. In all probability Estevan was not the only African in the party; but he became the first to shape the course of history both for people living in the New World and European newcomers.
On April 14, 1528, the Narváez expedition landed in Florida, probably at Sarasota Bay, and began its planned exploration. Almost immediately it floundered on a combination of inept management and natural calamities and its numbers were steadily reduced through starvation, desertions and even cannibalism. In one Indian village, which they would later rename "Misfortune Island," through disease the party dwindled from eighty to fifteen. Finally only four were left, Estevan, his master and two other whites. All four were soon enslaved by Indian tribes. During a semiannual Indian gathering the four met and, like slaves anywhere, began plotting their escape. At the next Indian gathering the three white and one black slave escaped together, plunging westward along the Gulf Coast.
The only record of the years of wandering was later recorded by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, their leader. He told how the four managed to get along with Indian tribes by posing as medicine men, using the sign of the cross, Christian prayers and incantations, and some efforts at minor surgery. Estevan, Cabeza de Vaca noted, "was our go-between; he informed himself about the ways we wished to take, what towns there were, and the matters we desired to know." In 1536, eight years after the Narváez party had landed in Florida, its four sole survivors reached Spanish headquarters in Mexico.
The three white men left for Spain, Andres Dorantes selling Estevan to Antonio de Mendoza, viceroy of New Spain. Estevan's stories, embellished from Indian tales about Cibola or "The Seven Cities of Gold," enthralled his Spanish listeners, particularly when he produced some metal objects to demonstrate that smelting was an art known in Cibola.
In 1539 Governor Mendoza selected Father Marcos de Niza, an Italian priest, to lead an expedition to Cibola. Estevan was the logical choice for his guide. The African was sent ahead with several Indians and two huge greyhounds, and instructed to send back wooden crosses whose size would indicate his nearness to his goal. Estevan again decided to pose as a medicine man, this time carrying a large gourd decorated with strings of bells and a red and white feather. Soon many Indians were drawn to the party of this mysterious black man. And one by one huge white crosses began to arrive in Father Marcos's camp, carried by Estevan's Indian guides, who also reported that the African's entourage had swelled to three hundred and he was being showered with jewelry. There was also the evidence of the crosses: each was larger than the last, and every few days another arrived. Father Marcos issued orders to hasten the march to Estevan and Cibola.
Father de Niza Sends Estevan Ahead
But no further word came from Estevan. Weeks later two wounded Indians arrived and told Father Marcos of Estevan's capture and the massacre of the entire expedition just as they were about to enter an Indian village. Their report concluded, "We could not see Stephen any more, and we think they have shot him to death, as they have done all the rest which went with him, so that none are escaped but we only."
Estevan's story does not end with his death. He was the first non-Indian to explore Arizona and New Mexico and the stories and legends of his journey stimulated the explorations of Coronado and de Soto.
The Death of Estevan
Estevan Becomes a Zuni Legend
Estevan also lived on in a Zuni legend which told of a brave black man who had entered their village and had been slain. Though no one ever found the Seven Cities of Gold, the belief in their existence and the search for them not only led to exploration of the entire American Southwest, but gave the newcomers from abroad the material they would shape into the first great American folk myth. That an African slave should first search the New World for a mythical land of wealth and comfort is symbolic of the black experience in America.
Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable
In the world of Daniel Boone and Chief Pontiac, their friend Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable was an anomaly. This tall, handsome, urbane black foreigner, Paris-educated and an admirer of European art, was known far and wide on the frontier both for his skills as a fur trapper and his ease in getting along with red and white men. Yet his niche in history is based simply on the trading post he established in 1779 at the mouth of the Chicago River. As the first permanent settlement of Chicago, it made Du Sable the city's founder. (Indians later pointed out to visitors that the first white man to come to Chicago was black.)
Du Sable was born in 1745 in Haiti to a French mariner father and an African slave woman. After his mother's death, his father sent young Du Sable to Paris for an education. Later he worked as a seaman on his father's ships. At twenty he was shipwrecked near New Orleans; fearful that he might be enslaved, he persuaded Jesuits to hide him until he was strong enough to leave the South.
He headed northwest and became a fur trapper. A British report of July 4, 1779, pinpointed both his geographical and political position: "Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, a handsome Negro, well educated and settled at Eschikagou, but was much in the interest of the French." This suspicion led to Du Sable's arrest for "treasonable intercourse with the enemy," for the British and French were at war. The charges were soon dropped, the official report admitting Du Sable "has in every way behaved in a manner becoming to a man of his station, and has many friends who give him a good character."
During the sixteen years Du Sable lived at the mouth of the Chicago River, he devoted himself to building his business and attending to his domestic duties. He brought to his crude log cabin a Potawatomi Indian woman named Catherine, and twenty-three European works of art. Soon the couple had a daughter and a son. Though Du Sable acquired eight hundred acres of land in Peoria, he always considered Chicago his home. His settlement grew to include a 40-by-22-foot log house, a bakehouse, a dairy, a smokehouse, a poultry house, a workshop, a stable, a barn, and a mill. Besides trading in furs, Du Sable was a miller, a cooper, a husbandman and whatever else was needed around the settlement.
In 1788 Du Sable and Catherine were married before a Catholic priest at Cahokia. Two years later their daughter was married and in 1796 they became grandparents. That same year Du Sable, closely aligned with the Indians of the region, decided to run for election as chief of the neighboring tribes. He lost. In 1800, perhaps as a result of this defeat, he sold his Chicago property for twelve hundred dollars and left the area forever. He lived on, fearing only two things -that he would become a public charge and that he would not be buried in a Catholic cemetery. As old age overtook him he did have to ask for public relief. But in 1818, when he died, he was buried in the St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery.
Every American school child studies the heroic Lewis and Clark expedition that spent two and a half years charting the vast Louisiana territory. And although they have learned about the Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, who proved invaluable to the expedition, they have not been told of York, Clark's black slave. There are more statues of Sacajawea in the United States than of any other woman. By contrast, York has slipped out of the pages of history.
Yet, York was a hard man to ignore. He was over six feet tall and over two hundred pounds in weight. For many of the Indian tribes he was the main attraction and they came from miles around to see him. York cleverly played to the hilt his role as the expedition's exotic. While among the Mandans in North Dakota, York allowed tribesmen to wet a finger and try to rub off his color. Clark noted in his diary how he utilized the huge black man: "I ordered my black Servant to Dance which amused the crowd very much, and Somewhat astonished them, that So large a man should be active &c, &c." Among tribes such as the Gros Ventres, York was regarded as great medicine, his wild leaps and bounds delighting all who witnessed them. In Idaho among the Nez Percé he not only danced and allowed them to try to rub off his color, but also concocted a unique story of his origin. Wrote Clark: "By way of amusement he told them that he had once been a wild animal, and caught, and tamed by his master; and to convince them showed them feats of strength which, added to his looks, made him more terrible than we wished him to be." The tribe, however, evidently was not unhappy with him and, along with the white males in the party, permitted him to take an "Indian wife" during the expedition's two-week stay. A week later, August 16, 1805, when the expedition reached the Indians of the Lolo Pass, Lewis recorded that York "who was black and had short curling hair...had excited their curiosity very much. And they seemed quite as anxious to see this monster as they were the merchandize which we had to barter for their horses."
A Flathead Indian Meets York
But York's value to the expedition was not based solely on his color, his size, or his agility. On the contrary, he displayed remarkable skills in hunting, fishing and swimming. Not only a major asset in winning the friendship of the Indian tribes, York also assisted Sacajawea as an interpreter.
At the end of the long journey that took Sacajawea and the fortyfour men all the way from St. Louis to the Columbia River and back, Clark freed York. The huge black man, according to one tale, immediately set out west where he became chief of an Indian tribe. York found his freedom in the wilderness he helped explore.
Florida's Black Explorers
Beginning in the colonial period and particularly arising from the New World conflict between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, black slaves in the English colonies soon discovered that Florida offered a haven to deserters from the British. A large but undetermined number fled to Spanish-owned Florida. Its fertile swamps and fields provided lush farming and grazing land where ex-slaves could safely begin life anew, raise families and prosper. Homes were built, flocks and land tended, and families raised free children. Some black men chose to marry into the Seminole tribe, and others chose to live in separate black communities. The choice was theirs, and there were no barriers. In 1816, U. S. Colonel Clinch reported on the extent of black settlements along the Appalachicola River: "Their corn fields extended nearly fifty miles up the river and their numbers were daily increasing."
By this time Colonel Clinch was leading an army of Creek mercenaries and regular U. S. Army units with Navy support into Florida, to crush what Andrew Jackson had denounced as "a perpetual harbor for our slaves." This was a U.S. invasion of Spanish land. The first step in this huge search-and-destroy operation was to blow up "Fort Negro." The explosion killed almost all of its hundred black and red warriors and two hundred women and children. So great was the destruction that the conquerors, in the words of Colonel Clinch, "compel'd the soldier to pause in the midst of victory, and to drop a tear for the sufferings of his fellow human beings, and to acknowledge that the great ruler of the Universe must have used us as an instrument in chastising the blood thirsty murderous wretches that defended the Fort." Garcia, the black leader, who miraculously survived the destruction, was slowly and painfully put to death. The few survivors were led back to the United States and slavery. In his initial orders, General Jackson had asked that they not only destroy the fort but "return the stolen Negroes and property to their rightful owners."
Fort Negro, 1816
Far from ending the black encampments in Florida, this illegal invasion by the United States only intensified black and red resistance to American rule. General Jackson pursued what he called "this savage and negro war" until 1819 when the United States purchased Florida. But guerrilla warfare and occasionally pitched battles between the American forces and the red and black defenders continued until the 1840s. In 1836, General Philip Jessup characterized the conflict: "This, you may be assured, is a Negro, not an Indian war." An American soldier, John T. Sprague, in his The Florida War, marveled at the "wonderful control" the black men exercised over the Seminoles. The leading scholar on the Seminole Wars, Professor Kenneth W. Porter, has noted that the last one (1838-1842), "the most serious Indian war in the history of the United States...should rather be described as a Negro insurrection with Indian support."
In the U. S. Congress, Ohio's Representative Joshua R. Giddings repeatedly took the floor to denounce his government for armed attacks on "those who had fled from oppression, who had sought asylum in the swamps and everglades of Florida, who had fled from the oppression of professed Christians, and sought protection of savage barbarians. Against them the warlike energies of this mighty nation were brought to bear, for no other cause than their love of liberty." His The Exiles of Florida documented the story of the black Floridians and the injustice of a U.S. government acting as a slave catcher.
Perhaps no phase of our history better illustrates the strong alliance forged on the frontier by black and red men against their common oppressors than the early history of Florida. And perhaps no story more clearly illustrates the power of white racial hatred to destroy the fortunes and lives of black and red frontiersmen.
Copyright © 1987, 1996 by Ethrac publications, Inc.
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