Black Fur Traders and Frontiersmen
Beyond The Pale
African-Americans in the Fur Trade West
by William W. Gwaltney
Superintendent, Fort Laramie National Historic Site
National Park Service
Fort Laramie, Wyoming
(Copyright 1994 by William W. Gwaltney. Originally published by LWF Publications in the January, 1995 edition of Lest We Forget.)
The fur trade conjures up images of hardy, savvy longhunters, hardworking, carefree voyageurs and stout-hearted mountain men bent on profit and adventure. Like all aspects of American history, the fur trade is a many layered story of different cultures. Recent interest by scholars, writers, film makers and history enthusiasts has re-opened an age in history that has escaped the notice of much of the public thus far. On that page is written the role of African-Americans in the opening of the American West. Fur Trade Historians, in their search for information, repeatedly come across references to black mountain men, traders and even black voyageurs in narratives of the American fur trade. This article will attempt to illustrate the wide ranging impact made by blacks in all areas of the fur trade. The persons and events cited in this article have all been culled from common sources of fur trade research and do not represent special collections or volumes not available to the casual researcher. Many readers will recognize the various sources from which these bits of information have been taken and may remember seeing some of them in his or her own fur trade readings.
Slaves in the Fur Trade
Blacks held positions in the fur trade ranging from slave to free trappers and from camp keeper to independent entrepreneur. Slavery was still legal in the United States during the fur trade era and numerous traders and fur company principals utilized slaves to help create their fur trade empires. William Clark's slave, York, who apparently never had any other name, accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition across the continent and back. While the men of the expedition were said to have worked well, it was also said by one of the two leaders of the expedition that the only two who could be relied on to do as they were told were York and the Newfoundland dog, Scammon.
Fur trade narratives often mentioned black slaves. A black man named Reese who was a servant to Francis A. Cardon was killed by members of the Blood band of the Blackfoot tribe at Fort Chardon on the Mouth of the Judith River. The killing took place in 1842 or 1843 according to Elliott Coues, but Charles Larpenteur remembered the event taking place during the winter of 1844-1845. Chardon made public his vow to revenge Reese's death. It is not known what job Reese held but it is fairly safe to say that in that part of the west in the 1840's it may have had something to do with the fur trade.
In 1835, a slave belonging to a Judge Martin was killed by Indians in present day Oklahoma. The death was recorded by none other than George Catlin, Pioneer anthropologist and artist.
Fur trapper Davy Jackson's slave, known only as Jim, accompanied an expedition to California through Santa Rita del Cobre in Mexico, and over the desolate Gila trail. Lewis Saum, in his book, The Fur Trader and the Indian, mentions a black man named Mose at Fort Sarpy engaged in the fur trade. A black man named Auguste is also mentioned as being at Fort Berthold with artist and traveller, Rudolph Frederich Kurz.
Englishman John Palliser remembered several blacks at Fort Union Trading Post during 1847 and 1848. They included a man known only as Joseph and a black cook who worked at the fort. At Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River, a trio of slaves were well known and mentioned by several visitors in their diaries and narratives. Charles Bent, one of the founders and partners in the fort operation, had brought from St. Louis his slave Charlotte, who was assigned the task of preparing food and drink for the fort employees and visitors. Charlotte was well known for her skill at cooking and especially for her stews of buffalo seasoned with herbs and assorted vegetables. Charlotte's griddle cakes, French pastries and pumpkin pies were known throughout the southern Rocky Mountains. Charlotte was one of a very few non-native women on the Southwestern frontier and was extremely popular whenever a dance or fandango was held at the fort. Charlotte often boasted of being "de only female lady in de whole dam Injun country" and was no doubt proud of her accomplishments and her reputation as a cook extraordinaire, source of gossip and news as well as being an active part of a large scale fur trade operation.
Charlotte's husband, Dick Green is mentioned as being a large black man and probably served as the fort blacksmith although there are some who speculate that the fort blacksmith was yet another black man.. The blacksmith would have had the responsibility of keeping horses, mules and oxen shod, repairing wagon hardware, traps, chains, and keeping the fort fixtures in repair. Both Dick and Charlotte Green are mentioned conspicuously in numerous journals and diaries by persons who stopped at Bent's Fort in the 1830's and 1840's. Dick and Charlotte were given their freedom in 1847 after Charles Bent was killed by a group of Mexicans and Pueblo Indians during the Taos Rebellion. Charles Bent had been appointed Territorial Governor and in an attempt to rid New Mexico of the hated gringos a plot to kill all 'Norte Americanos" was hatched in Taos in January of 1847. When news of the killing reached Bent's Fort the trappers there were stunned. They were furious and their blood lust began to rise. A party of trappers under Ceran St. Vrain started for Taos for revenge and with them rode Dick Green.
When the Pueblo and Mexican forces were finally brought to bay at Taos Pueblo just outside of town the trappers found that the pueblo was already being engaged by elements of Stephan Watts Kearney's Army of the West. Artillery under Captain Sterling Price pounded a hole in the thick adobe walls and the trappers began their deadly assault. The first inside was Dick Green who single handedly killed several of the enemy, according to some accounts, with his bare hands. For this act of courage and carnage, Dick and Charlotte were freed by a grateful William Bent and they returned to Missouri. Dick Green's brother, Andrew, was also employed at Bent's Fort first as a slave and later as a free trapper and trader after being given his freedom. Andrew had worked as a cook and as a blacksmith's assistant before gaining his freedom and is listed in 1848 as a Bent Company Trader on an official license.
Free and Otherwise
Trading posts often had black employees in various capacities including horse wrangler, cook, trader, laborer, interpreter, hunter and trapper. Jim Hawkins was a black man working at Fort Union Trading Post on the upper Missouri River. Today the site is Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. Hawkins was the cook at Fort Union and later held the same job at Fort Laramie in present day Wyoming. Hawkins ran away with a company boat while at Fort Union and went to work for Pierre Sarpy. He was evidently a slave and sent some of his pay to his master in St. Louis and kept the rest. Rudolph Frederich Kurz mentions Hawkins and his fascinating career in his journal which has now been printed numerous times. Fort Union was also home to Jasper, a black man whose job at the fur trading post was not recorded.
Fur trade narratives often mention black trappers and traders but often quickly pass over the man's history and career leaving the reader frustrated and confused. According to Alpheus Favor in his book, Old Bill Williams, a black man named Ben was killed along with Major Curtis Wellborn and three other men by Osages braves on November 17, 1823. No other information on Ben is given. A black man named Willis, who was a member of William Ashley's 1823 expedition, was wounded when Indians attacked the expedition's keelboat on the Missouri. African-American trapper and trader Jim Beckwourth was also a member of Ashley's early forays into the upper Missouri river country.
Jacob Dodson and Sanders Jackson were both free blacks who accompanied John C. Fremont on his expedition to California in 1848. Dodson went with Fremont and Kit Carson on all three expeditions to California and Oregon and braved the same threats and hazardous conditions as the rest of the group. Dodson also fought in California's struggle for independence during the Bear Flag revolt..
Oregon frontiersman George William Bush was an African-American who had seen combat as a soldier during the battle of New Orleans in 1814. In the mid 19th Century, Bush and his party of white companions rode from the Mexican border to the Columbia River only to find that the territory had passed a law stipulating that any black who entered Oregon would be seized and whipped to discourage settlement.
After many miles of riding together Bush's companions took an understandably dim view of this law and vowed loudly that no one would molest Bush. No one did.
Black Trappers and Traders
Many blacks founds themselves attracted to the free life of the fur trapper and voyageur. None was more famous that James Pierson Beckwourth. The son of a slave mother and a white plantation owner, Beckwourth would see the fur trade run it's course and would experience a meteoric rise to notoriety and success. His skill and suitability to the wilderness environment in which he found himself were awe inspiring. His ability and eagerness to learn and master fur trade skills was phenomenal. Beckwourth succeeded in becoming one of the most skillful, powerful and dramatic of that rare breed of free trappers. Beckwourth's career spanned almost fifty years and saw him advance from wrangler to cook, then on to hunter, trapper, interpreter, trader, war chief of a band of Crow Indians, explorer, soldier, scout and ghost writer of an autobiography. Beckwourth was also a hotel keeper and pioneer California rancher. Despite dismissals from certain historians over the years, Beckwourth's story of life during the fur trade era has emerged again under the light of recent historical evaluations and discoveries as a useful and largely accurate document reflecting what life was like during the hey-day of the American Fur trade.
Other black trappers and mountaineers including Edward Rose, a notorious brigand whose life story is almost as fantastic as that of Beckwourth. There is also Auguste Janisse and Polette Labrosse whose paths in the Rocky Mountains crossed those of others whose stories were recorded. Peter Ranne, a free black, rode with Jedediah Smith over the Mojave Desert during that grueling journey that threatened the life of the toughest mountaineer. Ranne is thought by some to be the first black to have come to California over a land route.
Some authors have ventured the opinion that southwestern traders Charles Autobees and Tom Tobin were half brothers and that the mother that they had in common was a black woman who had been brought to this country from the Caribbean. If this is true then these two famous trappers can be counted among the ranks of African-American mountain men. photographs of both Tobin and Autobees appear to give some credence to this theory as they both appear to have African features and dark coloration.
Allen Light, a black hunter, traveled with Isaac Sparks to California before 1836. Light and Sparks had trouble with Indians and both faced the dangers time after time without flinching.
In his famous work, The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman mentions a black man having arrived at a Sioux camp where he was cared for after surviving on the plains without food or clothing for 33 days. John Brazeau, a black war leader among the Sioux is also mentioned in a number of fur trade narratives.
It was very likely that Brazeau told Zenas Leonard that he had come west with Lewis and Clark. As far as anyone can tell, Brazeau was telling a bald faced lie, probably for fun. Leonard had met a black man at a Crow Village at the mouth of the Stinking River and was told he had returned with a man named McKinney from the east and had been in the Far West 10 or 12 years by 1832. Leonard said that the black man had a deep knowledge of the Crow manner of living and that he spoke their Indian language fluently.
In 1840, a large black man known only as Andy, joined with scalp hunters James Kirker, Peg Leg Smith and Shawnee Spiebuck to join in the dreadful undertaking of hunting Apaches in the southwest for cash bounties.
Besides trapping and trading, blacks also served as voyageurs for Hudson's Bay and the American Fur Company. The Bonga brothers were both masters of the canoe, paddle and the portage tumpline. Both served with distinction and both came to love the life of the voyageur as no other.
Blacks also came to find themselves as principals in the fur companies that ruled the wilderness in the west and northwest. Sir James Douglas of the Hudson's Bay Company was reputed to be a mulatto and Jacques Clamorgan also has been identified by some historians as having African ancestry. James Beckwourth acted as a trader for the American Fur Company, the Bent, St. Vrain Company and was an independent trader among the Cheyenne and the Arapaho.
Alexander Leidesdorff was a very successful trader in early California and his intelligence and business acumen made him a rich man. Black fur trade entrepreneurs were not an unusual phenomenon according to historian Kenneth W. Porter, who wrote, "The earliest (blacks) known to be connected with the fur trade were among those who occupied the highest functional category, that of independent entrepreneurs."
Many writers who spent time on the early western frontier mention the presence of numerous blacks. African-Americans are mentioned in the writings of such notable early western observers as Garrard, Kurz, Palliser, Irving, Catlin, Ruxton, Albert, Farnum and deMontaignes. These men wrote what they saw and what they knew, but their remembrances have been forgotten by many Americans.
The truth is that, black men, too, learned the skills needed in the mountains, met the Indians on their own terms and savored that period of history that we know today as the era of the fur trade. They were as much a part of the story of the early days of the west as anyone and they deserve to be remembered.
William W. Gwaltney, military and western frontier historian and re-enactor, resides in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Formerly the Superintendent of the Booker T. Washington National Monument, Hardy, Virginia, he is presently Superintendent of the Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Fort Laramie, Wyoming. He has held positions with the National Park Service at a number of other historic sites in the western states, including the Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis, Texas.