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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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