31 July 2005

On Being a Black American in Territorial Fort Benton—Part 1

By Ken Robison

This continues a series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center at the Schwinden Library & Archives in Fort Benton.

York came first. The first recorded black American to travel to the upper Missouri. He came as a slave, the “property” of Captain William Clark, yet he became an active participant as the Corp of Discovery blazed the trail to the west. York became the model for the future—when white Americans came west, so too traveled black Americans.

In successive waves, adventurers, fur traders, gold seekers, boatmen, freighters, laborers, whiskey traders, merchants, tradesmen, soldiers, service personnel, domestics, soiled doves, ranchers, and farmers came to the upper Missouri. Most were white men and women, but always there were blacks. Our histories of the upper Missouri, Chouteau County, and Fort Benton focus on the pathbreaking activities of white pioneers on the frontier. The lives and activities of black residents in this historic area have been little researched and largely ignored. Symptomatic of the neglect of black history is the fact that Fort Benton’s premier journalistic historian, Joel F. Oversholser published almost nothing on early black history despite the emphasis of the River Press on history during his four decades as editor.

By the mid 1870s, the darkness of repression was descending in America on the southern and Border States as the post-Civil War reconstruction “revolution” was replaced by a southern counter-revolution. The birth of the Ku Klux Klan and the wavering of Northern resolve to enforce equal rights in the South in the face of massive Southern resistance left blacks with a disheartening balance of modest economic acceptance with increasingly restricted political and social rights. Some blacks accepted their fate in the South, but many migrated northward or westward.

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