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A Different View of the American West

Story by
Nancy Joseph

In 1528, Esteban, a Spanish slave of African descent, was part of an expedition departing from Havana to explore the North American mainland. He survived a shipwreck and landed in what would become Texas. He and other survivors were enslaved by coastal Indians for five years, then escaped to the country's interior where friendlier Native Americans accepted them as medicine men. With his ability to "talk fluently with his hands," Esteban become an interpreter, emissary, and diplomat with the natives before returning to Mexico City eight years later.

Esteban's dramatic story marks the arrival of Africans in the American West. For the next three centuries, thousands of Africans would migrate to the western United States--some as slaves, others as free men--across the U.S.'s southern border.

Quintard Taylor

Quintard Taylor

That Africans settled in the West centuries before the Civil War is a surprise to many people, says Quintard Taylor, a scholar of African American history who recently joined the UW faculty as Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Chair of American History in the Department of History. Taylor, author of In Search of the Racial Frontier, admits that he was somewhat surprised himself.

"I thought the story of African Americans in the West started when fur-trading blacks came from the East in the early 1800s," he says. "I was surprised at the extent to which Spanish-speaking blacks would be part of the story. They have been almost completely unknown to scholars of African American history."

In his book, Taylor documents the history of blacks in the American West from Esteban's arrival through the civil rights era of the 1960s. From the start, he says, their experience was different than that of African Americans in the East or South, largely due to the cultural diversity of the West.

The influence of Spanish culture, which was more tolerant of racial diversity than Anglo culture, meant that blacks in the West had greater freedom than those back East--until the mid-1800s. That's when European Americans from the East and South, with strong ideas about racial norms, began migrating west in large numbers and imposing their views.

Taylor finds that stereotypes about blacks in the old West abound, particularly the belief that most of them were cowboys. "That is one of the biggest stereotypes I have to contend with," he says. "In reality, cowboys were no more than three percent of the work force at any time." And although there were African American fur traders, ranchers, and homesteaders in the nineteenth century, most African Americans headed for urban areas such as San Francisco or Denver.

"Our fascination with the rural West often obscures this urban life," writes Taylor in his book. "As early as 1870, most African American westerners resided in cities and towns. These nineteenth-century urbanites were influential far beyond their numbers as the organizations and institutions they created, the values they shared, the goals they sought through politics and civil rights influenced successive generations well into the twentieth century."

Black urban westerners established churches, fraternal organizations, social clubs, newspapers, and literary societies. In San Francisco, the oldest black urban community in the West and the largest for many years, African Americans produced two newspapers that reached far beyond the city limits.

In every city, African Americans performed similar work. Woman worked for wealthy households; men worked as hotel waiters, railroad porters, cooks, and janitors. Some had their own businesses and a few entered the professions as doctors, lawyers, newspaper editors, and teachers.

Were Western cities more hospitable for blacks than those in the East and South? "Certainly African Americans believed that they were," says Taylor. "And indeed, a city like Seattle in the nineteenth and early twentieth century did have fewer restrictions. But there was a backdrop of significant discrimination against Asians at the same time, which allowed African Americans to escape the attention of the white majority. The same held true in other cities. So yes, a lot of African Americans really did believe they had found racial paradise. But that doesn't mean racism wasn't present."

What Taylor hopes people understand from his book is that the racial complexity of the West--with its Hispanic influences and its mix of Native American, African American, Asian American and other cultures--is at the heart of African American history there. The West's early diversity, he says, is what makes it different from the African American experience in the East.

"I don't want to suggest that the West is more liberal and therefore better than other areas of the country," he says. "The story is simply different. And it's different mostly due to racial demographics."

We can expect to hear more from Taylor on this subject. In the next few years, he plans to write a monograph on the history of the African American West in the twentieth century.