Veejane (veejane) wrote,

IBARW: Awesome People You Have Never Heard Of

There are a lot of ways to teach history, and there are good points to every method. One major downside to the Great Men method, where you basically hop and skip from one big name to another, is that you miss out on the everyday texture of life, you tend to privilege people who already had power (Great Men have a strange habit of being white), and you completely ignore the people who weren't famous (like, say, a whole bunch of Great Women). However, one of the upsides to the Great Man method is to showcase people who, thanks to their demographic category, are a minority of the everyday people, and might be elided out of a texture-style history lesson. So, a couple of stories, to give texture to the texture (so to speak).

James P. Beckwourth: Yep, He's Black
Beckwourth was a Mountain Man of the West, trapping for furs as early as 1819 with William Ashley up the Platte River. That makes him a generation older than Kit Carson, and the fact he survived his many decades in the West is a testament to his skills. An autobiography, edited by a fellow named T. D. Bonner, came out in 1856, which tells of Beckwourth's adventures and exploits in trapping, trading, and participating in Indian warfare during his years living among the Crow. Historians argue a lot about how much of that autobiography is true; earlier historians tend to call him a big far liar, and later historians look to quotes from Ashley and William Tecumseh Sherman that describe Beckwourth as a magnificent figure of prowess, skill, and diplomacy. I tracked down his autobiography, and it's a pretty straightforwardly self-aggrandizing tale in the vein of contemporaneous hero-chapbooks about Carson. (None of which Carson himself authorized or was consulted on.) It hasn't been proved untrue, in the main; but it's a little bit of a Mary Sue inasmuch as Beckwourth never tells any stories about being thrown from a horse into a mud puddle, or ever admits to a mistake.

T. D. Bonner was a white man, and there are a couple of things we know about Beckwourth that are absent from his autobiography: (1) Beckwourth was the son of a black slave woman and a white man; and (2) like the vast majority of his colleagues, Beckwourth was illiterate. Which is to say: Bonner obviously consulted Beckwourth, recording a great deal of lore and personal history in the process, but it cannot be said that Beckwourth wrote his own autobiography. It is very doubtful he ever had it read to him, so he might never have known what was claimed about him in print. And in the course of 200+ pages, never once is it mentioned that the main character is a black man.

We have a photograph of Beckwourth, from his later years: he had darkish skin and recognizably Africanish features. Nobody who met him could possibly fail to recognize his heritage. All those people who lauded him over the years, had him in their homes as an honored guest, went into business with him, trusted him with secret documents and with money: all those people knew he was, by the definition of the period and today, a black man. ("Those people" include the federal government; during the Mexican War (1846-1848), he rode dispatch between Santa Fe and St. Louis, alone across 3000 miles of quasi-hostile territory.)

In his autobiography, his narrative voice mentions black and mixed-race people, most often with individual (not racial) contempt. There's a whole chapter appended to the end of his tale, describing his "insights" into "the character of the Indian" thanks to his years of Crow experiences. Having participated briefly in the Seminole Wars (again, working for the federal government), he described his mixed black and Indian adversaries in some detail. And never once does Bonner's version of him look across the battlefield and say, "I'm them, and they're me." It is impossible to tell whether the man himself had a moment like that.

Hiram Young, Businessman
I ran across Hiram Young as a brief aside in an 1897 book of reminiscences; it was just "oh by the way, the most important manufacturer of western-going wagons is a black entrepreneur in Missouri." And I was like, What? Really? Why haven't I heard of him?? Hiram Young bought his freedom in 1847, and set up business some time after that in Independence, doing carpentry. Independence happened to be the town chosen as the chief embarkation point for travel on the Santa Fe trail, mail service westward, and so forth. A lot of business passed through that town: items to be shipped for sale, supplies for the journey, animals for food and transport, people. It was a good place for a carpenter to find business.

Young began to specialize in wagon pieces, almost all of which were made of wood, and broke often enough travellers tried to lay in supplies of extras. He made yokes for the government oxen trains, which -- well, six to eight head of oxen per wagon, as many as 80 or 100 wagons per train. It was good business. By 1860 he employed more than 70 workers, black and white, including some slaves who were leased out by their owners. He was the largest business concern in Independence, and very rich. Wagons from his shop were branded with his name, and sent off across the continent far and wide.

The war disrupted his business, as you might expect, and he spent several years in Leavenworth after Missouri started making secessionist noises. He did re-establish himself, though, and went on to another decade in business. He died in 1882, and was buried in the white section of the Independence city cemetery. A black school -- yes, a segregated school -- was named after him after his death. Although he never learned to read (he relied in his business correspondence on a local lawyer, who was the city's first mayor), he sent his daughter to Oberlin College.

Emily West, the Yellow Rose of Texas
Now, this one is a story that has been researched and found mostly untrue. There was a woman named Emily West (sometimes called Emily Morgan), who was mixed-race black and white, who was in the general area of Houston at the time of the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle that ended Texas's war for independence from Mexico. She did not, however, distract General Santa Anna with her seductive lady parts and cause him to lose the battle. There are plenty of reasons Santa Anna lost the battle (for one thing, he used massively inefficient tactics). Seductive lady parts of any color are not the reason.

You all know that song, right? "The Yellow Rose of Texas"? I grew up hearing the bowdlerized version, where "yellow rose" meant... some woman whose favorite flower was a yellow rose. But that's not the only version. It brings to the fore the whole system of sexual availability and exploitation, by whites, of black women. It exposes the assumption that black slaves are loyal to their white owners (in fact, they regularly fled to Mexico during this era). The rumor mill/mythology engine never picked an Hispanic woman to play the seductress role; that might have been too close to admitting that some Hispanic Texans agitated for independence as much as their white neighbors. To cast a white woman in that role would besmirch her honor. But a black woman -- why, that's fine. That's her role in this country, to lie back and think of Texas.

It's worth noting that the Taos Revolt of 1847 -- a Mexican and Indian allied revolt against the new American occupiers -- was a second attempt at revolt in that city. The first was leaked, and subsequently aborted before starting, in late 1846. The myth, as related in Inman (1897), is that the betrayer was a black wife of one of the conspirators. There is absolutely no source on this except rumor, but I thought it interesting that a second myth hinged on the willingness of a black woman to turn on her compatriots in favor of whites. It felt... mythy. Made-up to suit the needs of the nation-building going on at the time. In reality, nobody knows how the first conspiracy was broken.

But Emily West did exist, and as far as can be proved she did not seduce Santa Anna, or anybody else. If she did end up in Santa Anna's camp, it was certainly not by her own choice. She arrived in New Washington, Texas from New York in 1835, a free woman in her early thirties, under contract (indenture) to her employer as a housekeeper. She went home to New York in 1837.

Britton "Brit" Johnson, the Man who Searched
Brit Johnson was a slave in upper Texas in the 1860s: and by upper Texas I mean the borderlands where people lived in forts in a constant state of Indian warfare; and by slave I mean he had a certain amount of freedom allowed by a frontier situation, in which quick decision-making might count for much, but he was still owned and the last name he bears is the last name of his last owner, Moses Johnson. He was married with children when an Indian raiding party attacked his settlement in 1864, killing about 10 and carrying off several women and children, including a number of whites and Brit Johnson's wife and children. (Versions vary as to whether Brit had four children or three; anyway, one of them was killed in the course of this raid.) Johnson, arriving home afterwards, promptly set out on a borrowed horse to find what had happened to his family.

He traveled alone into territory inhabited by Comanches, and by luck happened on a band that had not gone raiding, but knew those who had. Brit formed a friendship with that band of Comanches, who provided him intelligence and introductions to other bands, and to bands of Kiowas, until after some months Brit had reasonably safe passage throughout the Comanchería region. Over the course of two years, Brit negotiated the purchase of most of the people captured from his old home: first a white woman, then her daughter, then another white woman, finally his wife and two children. (The wife was worth, according to one version, $2.50 worth of goods.) The rest were unavailable for repurchase; they were adopted into families or married, and as far as the record shows spent the rest of their lives in the Indian bands. At no point was violent rekidnapping or Army assault even an option; all of Brit's negotiations were individual and peaceful.

During his travels, the Civil War ended, and Brit was no longer a slave. (By all accounts, word of the Emancipation Proclamation never did make it to central Texas, so he was a slave till Appomattox.) Reunited with his family, he remained in Young County, and set up a teamster business with three other ex-slaves. He was killed later, as the Indian wars became really bloody, shortly before their end. Given the individual nature of Indian alliances, it's impossible to say whether he was killed by people he'd formerly allied with, or killed by people who'd never even heard of him and his ability to make his way peacefully into a fraught situation. In the thick of it, he and his fellow businessmen fought for their lives; but they were outnumbered.

If some of this story sounds vaguely familiar, it should: the novelist Alan LeMay found it in old newspaper archives and rewrote the basic idea of a man searching for his kidnapped kin into a novel (1954), called The Searchers, which was made into a John Wayne movie (1955). Who, ahem, is mighty white for that role, as it played out in history; and the fictional version completely obscures the thread of Brit's peaceful negotiation. In the novel/movie, the protagonist kills Comanches mercilessly.

And that's one reason to go into history: to de-obfuscate the obfuscatory haze of John Wayne!

Henson, Margaret Swett. "West, Emily D." Handbook of Texas Online.

Inman, Henry. The Old Santa Fe Trail: The Story of a Great Highway. (New York: Macmillan) 1897.

The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth ed. by T. D. Bonner. (New York: Arno Press) 1969.

O’Brien, William P. "Hiram Young: Black entrepreneur on the Santa Fe Trail." Best of Wagon Tracks vol. 4 no. 1, November 1989. Available online.

Wilbarger, J.W. Indian Depredations in Texas. 1890. Digitized entries (e.g. of Brit Johnson) are online.

Zesch, Scott. "Brit: Johnson, the Real Searcher." American History Magazine, June 2007, p. 64.
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