Black pioneers on the Western frontier

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Life as a pioneer in the American West was never easy, but it was especially difficult for early settlers who were not fair-skinned and of European descent. At the time, white people wrote the laws and reaped the rewards of controlling the government. Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, South Americans and American blacks were drawn by the excitement of the California Gold Rush, but many ran into legal, cultural and social roadblocks to achieving success.

Human slavery had long been an established institution in the southern United States. Seemingly a sign of progress, the constitutions of new states like California and Nevada prohibited slavery. But, the policy was more for economic protection of the status quo and it didn’t really offer free blacks an equal chance to succeed and excel in a society without universal civil rights.

When Nevada gained statehood in 1864, black people, American Indians and the Chinese were denied the right to vote, hold political office, serve on juries or even join the militia. Black children were denied access to most public schools, while their parents could not testify against whites in civil or criminal court.

Ben Palmer, a Carson Valley pioneer rancher, managed to overcome many of the challenges that faced a man of color in the 19th Century to become one of the wealthiest men in Nevada. When Palmer and his older sister, Charlotte Barber, arrived in the Carson Valley in 1853, they had little they could call their own. Ben could not read or write, but he knew the value of hard work. Upon their arrival in Utah Territory (Nevada), Ben claimed 320 acres of fine grassland about 5 miles south of Genoa along the west side of the valley. Charlotte’s husband, David, who was white, claimed his own 400 acres nearby. The two men grew financially successful by selling grazing rights to emigrants and cutting grass for feed during the winter.

The racist laws of the era did not stop the industrious Ben Palmer, and by 1867 he was one of the largest taxpayers in Douglas County. With an assessed value of real and personal property totaling $17,380, Palmer ranked 10th in the county. He boosted his assets further in 1875 when he drove 1,500 head of cattle from Seattle to Carson Valley to replenish his herd.

After 1870, African-Americans in Nevada were finally given the right to vote, and Ben Palmer regularly showed up to cast his ballot. As evidence of his highly respected status in the local community, in the 1870s, Palmer was named a member of the Douglas County grand jury.

Palmer was one tough hombre. In 1891, when Ben was about 60-years-old, he was behind the reins of his fleet-footed horses when the front wheel broke off of his buggy. The startled team bolted in fear, but Ben never released his grip and was dragged behind them for some distance through the dust and sagebrush. Witnesses reported he showed his true Western grit by eventually bringing the panicked horses to a stop, while suffering only slight bruises. Ben Palmer lived another 17 years and died a rich and influential man in 1908 at the age of 82.

California has a long legacy of black pioneers that arrived long before the Gold Rush. In fact, in 1790, the Spanish census determined that nearly 20 percent of the California population was of African descent at that time. Eleven families with a total of 44 people, of whom 26 were of African ancestry, founded the pueblo of Los Angeles. Of the rest, only two were Caucasian and the others were Indians or Indian-Caucasians.

In Spanish-ruled California, interracial marriage was commonly practiced and sanctified by church and civil authorities. Maria Rita Valdez, whose black grandparents were among the founding members of Los Angeles, owned Rancho Rodeo de Las Aguas, today known as Beverly Hills. Another early black resident, Francisco Reyes, owned the entire San Fernando Valley, which he sold in the 1790s and then became the mayor of Los Angeles.

In the years before the Gold Rush, California’s populace consisted of Native Americans, Mexicans, wealthy Spanish ranchers, as well as a sprinkling of American sailors known as “Bostons” for their seaport of origin. When William Leidsdorff, commander of the 160-ton schooner “Julia Ann” sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1841, there were fewer than 100 white Americans living in California. Although his father was white, Leidsdorff was considered black. Born in the Virgin Islands to a Danish planter and his African wife, the wealthy immigrant had left home to escape a broken heart. After his arrival in Alta California, Leidsdorff designed and built the most elegant house in San Francisco. In 1845, he was appointed United States Vice-Consul to Mexico, making him the first black diplomat in U.S. history.

After the United States won the Mexican-American War, Leidsdorff helped establish the new territorial government. William Tecumseh Sherman, who later became a Union general in the Civil War, had visited San Francisco in 1847. He wrote, “At that time there was not a shod horse in California, not a tavern, hotel, or even a common wagon road.”

The industrious Leidsdorff changed all that. As treasurer for San Francisco’s first city council, he helped organize and build the first public school. A successful businessman, he opened the city’s first hotel. The first steamer to pass through the Golden Gate was owned and captained by William Leidsdorff.

One of California’s most famous stagecoach drivers was George F. Monroe. Son of an early black gold miner, Monroe served for many years delivering mail by horseback between Merced and Mariposa. The 140-mile route, straight through Indian Country, was fraught with danger. One of Monroe’s most famous rides involved carrying a judge’s order to Mariposa so that the sheriff there could hold bank robber Johnny Edmonds for the murder of a bank teller. The ride had to be made quickly before the sheriff would be forced to let Edmonds go. Twenty-five miles from Mariposa, Edmond’s gang ambushed Monroe, but he managed to avoid capture and delivered the judge’s order just in time to hold the killer for trial.

Testament to his stage driving expertise, in 1879, Monroe was chosen to drive President Ulysses S. Grant along the treacherous “S” curves of the Wanona Trail in Yosemite Valley. His fame as a driver let to Monroe Meadows in Yosemite being named after him.

 

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at [email protected] Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com.

 

 

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Mark McLaughlin
Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.