African-American Women on the Western Frontier

By Hardaway, Roger D. | Negro History Bulletin, January-March 1997 | Go to article overview

African-American Women on the Western Frontier


Hardaway, Roger D., Negro History Bulletin


African Americans have been in the American West for as long as European-Americans have been. Africans came to the New World with Columbus and other Spanish explorers in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the early nineteenth century, an African American named York was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that went to Oregon. A few black "mountain men," including Jim Beckworth and Edward Rose, worked in the Rocky Mountain fur trade that flourished in the years following the Lewis and Clark exploration.

In the 1840s and succeeding decades, the number of blacks in the American West increased substantially. African Americans were miners in California, Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona; cowboys on the trails from Texas to Montana and the Dakotas; military scouts in the Indian Wars; soldiers in the frontier army; homesteaders on the Great Plains; community builders from Nebraska to Oregon and from Texas to California; and elected public officials in several western territories and states including Kansas, Wyoming, and Washington. They were prostitutes, barbers, beauticians, hoteliers, cooks, nannies, stage coach drivers, Pony Express riders, preachers, outlaws, lawmen, porters, newspaper publishers, real estate developers, lumber jacks, domestic servants, and laborers. In short, they were a small--but significant--part of those who settled and developed the American West.

Compared to European-Americans, the number of African Americans on the western frontier of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not great. In most western territories and states, African Americans comprised less than one percent of the population during the frontier era. Moreover, the number of black women in the West compared to black men was also small.

These two facts have led most historians of the American West and of the African-American experience in the United States to make two interrelated omissions. First, they have basically ignored the black presence in the West. And secondly, when they have mentioned western Blacks, they have concentrated upon the male experience--mountain men, cowboys, buffalo soldiers--and neglected to discuss those intrepid black females who were western pioneers. Discussing a few black women who lived on the western frontier can alleviate partially this unfortunate situation and make a contribution to a body of work being developed by only a few historians.

One of the first black women who went west was Jane Elizabeth Manning James. Jane Manning was born in Connecticut in 1818 and converted to Mormonism in about 1842. She went to the Mormon community at Nauvoo, Illinois, where she worked as a domestic servant in Joseph Smith's home and married another black Mormon, Isaac James. She, her husband, and their baby son followed the Latter-day Saints to Utah in 1847. Although Jane and Isaac James later divorced, they struggled together for years to develop a farm, accumulate some property, and raise a family of seven children.

When she was fifty-three years old, Jane sold her farm and built a house in a residential area of Salt Lake City. She worked as a domestic servant and laundress to support several of her children and grandchildren. She also made and sold soap and raised garden vegetables in order to eke out a sparse livelihood. In the meantime, she was active in her church, joining the ladies' auxiliary, doing charity work, and pleading in vain for church leaders to end the religion's discriminatory treatment of its few black members. She died as she lived--poor but devout--in 1908, just a few days shy of her ninetieth birthday.

Another African-American woman to travel with Mormons to Utah led a life almost totally different from that of lane James. This woman, known originally only as "Bridget," was born the same year as James--1818. But Bridget was born a slave in Mississippi, and she went to Utah in 1848 with her master, Robert Smith, who had converted to Mormonism. …

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