Notable black Montanans: Part one of black history in Montana.

As a Montana historian I think that because Montana is overwhelmingly white and our collective history is overwhelmingly devoted to masculine narratives (boring) our education systems do not talk about the Other nearly enough. The Other means just about everybody who isn’t a straight white man. The thing is, those stories are not only incredibly interesting, but very important. If you can’t picture a Montana that was full of immigrants, queer folks, black people, indigenous people, Latinos, etc. you can’t fathom their realities in the present and future. We’re a state with a history of being full of people from all corners of the earth, with complicated pasts and widely differing value systems, who made efforts to build communities, have families, make a living, and define themselves! And it was NOT just the rugged mountain man, the independent cowboy, or the long suffering homesteading couple in their sod-roof house.

Right now with a big social and societal push for immediate action and justice for black lives, I wanted to write a series of posts about some notable black residents, publications, societies, etc. and also some links to other resources. I was raised in Helena and not once did I have a class where even a fraction of our time was devoted to learning about the black experience in our state, so I am starting from scratch. Join me! (Let’s be clear: I will make mistakes.)

I attached lots of hyperlinks to other great sources because all of this is knowledge I’ve pulled from various archives, newspaper articles, black history resources, etc. and so you can go do your own learning!

This is just part one, by the way, so please be patient. I started out with some notable and interesting Montana residents but I think I need to flesh out more contextual information in the next post for these folks to fit into.


Since white dudes have hogged the “rugged individualist man” trope (le sigh) let’s put some black men in there, because you better bet they were there!

Let’s talk about James Pierson Beckwourth! 

James_Beckwourth_pre-1856

Image via BlackPast

James Pierson Beckwourth (c. 1800- 1866) was apparently known as far as France for his adventures in the American West (oui oui!). He lived for several years with the Crow (Apsáalooke) nation, participating on raids against the Blackfeet, learning the Apsáalooke language, marrying an Apsáalooke woman (or two, depending on your source), and having adventures that make me want to have a beer with the man and just listen.

He was a trained blacksmith born into slavery around 1800 (sources differ on his date of birth). His white father technically owned him (just in case you didn’t know how shitty slavery and the laws surrounding it were), but freed him at some point. Most of Beckwourth’s Montana adventures occurred after the 1820s, while he worked with the Apsáalooke nation. When he wasn’t there he was getting a mountain pass named for him in the Sierra Nevadas, running a store in Denver, being a professional card player in California, or trapping just about anywhere in the West that had fur-bearing critters. He is the only black man who had his adventures in the West published under the grandiose (and glorious) title The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians in 1856. (The link will take you to a Wayback Machine copy of the entire book.)

Beckwourth dictated his life story to a Mr. Thomas Bonner who was working in the California gold fields in the 1850s and one wonders how much Bonner’s hand had in skewing some of Beckwourth’s words (there’s a lot of power you have as the writer of something being dictated to you!) . Beckwourth’s book, while successful, eventually became dismissed as the far-fetched tales of a big-mouthed black man by white readers. Meanwhile, white men could tell the same stories (whether truthful of not) and be taken much more seriously! James spoke at least two or three languages fluently (if you’ve ever seen Apsáalooke written out, it doesn’t seem like a casual language you just pick up), traveled thousands of miles on horseback and on trains, probably got away with his life by the skin of his teeth more often than we can know, but still had a lot of his stories written off as fables.

It’s important that if we’re going to continue to glorify the “intrepid mountain man” trope (as Montanans can never seem to NOT do) that we include such larger-than-life characters as James Pierson Beckwourth. Black men were just as adventurous, determined, creative with their tales, and hard-living; we just don’t have as much testimony about their experiences. This is purposeful: keep in mind that the reason men like Beckwourth aren’t as well known as Jim Bridger and the like is because they were kept out of narratives or telling their own stories by multiple, strategically placed barriers. Today Beckwourth’s book is considered a valuable primary source for information about the US Army, the Apsáalooke people, wildlife, geography, and information about diseases!

Mr. Beckwourth died in 1866 in Montana. He was working for the US Army leading them to an Apsáalooke outpost when he died, and some believe he was poisoned.

Mary Fields 

Mary Fields Photograph via http://montanawomenshistory.org/the-life-and-legend-of-mary-fields/ from the Ursuline Sisters Archive in Great Falls

Mary Fields with the Cascade Baseball Team Photo via http://montanawomenshistory.org/the-life-and-legend-of-mary-fields/ from the Wedsworth Memorial Library in Cascade

Mary Fields (1832-1914) is something of a folk legend if you live anywhere around Great Falls. She came to Montana around 1885 after working for a convent in Ohio. She traveled on the Missouri River and worked at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade, Montana. While she got along great with the nuns, Fields was apparently fired by the bishop because she swore, smoked, and had a strong temperament (this means she probably spoke her mind). Instead, she became the mail deliverer between the Mission and the town of Cascade. If you know anything about Montana winters (they tend to be at least six months long, vengeful, dark, and incredibly cold) the idea of delivering mail for a living in a horse-drawn cart every day sounds as fun as walking on prickly pear cactus without shoes, but she did it, and very successfully, for years. She was likely paid terrible wages and it was hard work. She was one of the few women in the nation given their own mail route, although I doubt that it felt like an honor some days.

This excellent article speaks up about the loneliness and lack of respect that Fields experienced, despite her hard work and kindness towards her fellow Cascadians. She wore men’s clothes frequently,  was tall and not slim, and lived outside of ideas of womanhood. She was the only black resident in Cascade, and as such very visible (while also being somewhat invisible, in that she was probably limited in how she could talk about her experiences or relate to her neighbors). While collective memory has turned her into a hardy folk hero, a determined gun-toting badass who got the mail delivered, loved baseball and a hard drink, she was also a black woman living alone. Fields made a living in a community that was small, insular, and took advantage of her labor and very much held onto stereotypes about her. (She was apparently a caretaker for lots of the children in town, but how much of that was because her white neighbors figured she could do it because she was black vs. because she wanted to is unclear.) We also don’t have any of her own words to reflect on, as if she left any letters . She died in Great Falls in 1914 after moving there in her old age.

P.S. Apparently she babysat a young Gary Cooper. He had such fond memories of her he wrote an article for Ebony magazine in 1959 about her! I can’t find the article online but it is mentioned in many of the sources I used. .

Samuel Lewis 

samuel_lewis_house

Samuel Lewis’ home in Bozeman today. (Via Google Street View)

Samuel Lewis (1835-1896) is perhaps just slightly less famous than his internationally recognized sculptor sister, Edmonia Lewis . (Edmonia’s life story is incredible, and you should definitely read about her sculptures and her life, but alas! I must stay on theme!) Lewis, who was born in Haiti, came to Montana to be a barber after working in Idaho and California mining camps. Upon his arrival he was one of less than 10 black residents in Bozeman, and became incredibly successful in his own right. He passed through Helena for a bit but eventually settled on Bozeman as his home.

Lewis came to Bozeman in 1868, and was the right man in the right place at the right time. The town was about to experience a surge in growth, and his barbershop, located on Main Street, was well-known and respected. His reputation and business grew as a result, and he invested his money into building rental homes and funding his sister’s education (which paid off- she studied in Rome, worked in Paris, and lived in London for much of her life and became famous for her talent with marble). In 1884 Lewis married a local widow, Melissa Bruce. She had six children from her previous marraige and she and Lewis had one son, Samuel E. Lewis. With his successful business ventures, Samuel Lewis proceeded to built a beautiful Queen Anne Eastlake style home very close to downtown Bozeman today.

The Lewis house is still beautiful and standing (and Zillow estimates it’s worth over $1 million dollars!). It’s right near Bogert Park in Bozeman, and Lewis and his wife are buried in the local cemetery. The house fell into disrepair after Lewis’s wife’s death but a couple bought it in 1975 and fixed it up. One of the owners apparently has become an Edmonia Lewis researcher herself! (Check out this neat Bozeman Chronicle article, but don’t get too mad when you read that they bought the Queen Anne mansion for only $40,000…)

When Samuel Lewis died in Bozeman one of the pallbearers at his funeral was the mayor. He made Bozeman is home and was a beloved member of the community. I wanted to talk about Lewis a little because one of the things we as Montanans need to do is also value the stories and lives of people who weren’t larger-than-life or folk heroes. Samuel Lewis was important because he was one of many successful black business owners in Montana! While he was definitely far more successful than most (he died with a fortune of $25,000 to his name) he was not unique.

Note: I could not find any photographs of Lewis. This is frustrating because as a wealthy local business owner he in all likelihood had quite a few photos of himself, his family, his home, etc. and what probably happened is that his son inherited all the family photographs. Unfortunately, this son died without having any children of his own and it doesn’t look like any libraries or archives have any of Lewis’s letters, photos, or other materials ( I will keep looking!).

P.S. I did read in one article about Lewis that he was supposed to be a world class musician but can’t seem to find what instrument he played! 

Rose Gordon and Taylor Emmanuel Gordon

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Rose Gordon with brother Taylor Gordon in White Sulphur Springs. Image via http://montanawomenshistory.org/rose-gordon-daughter-of-a-slave-and-small-town-activist/

This brother and sister duo both wrote memoirs about their lives, which were intense and busy, though only one of them got their memoirs published. Taylor (1893-1971) made a name for himself during the Harlem Renaissance, had a long musical career, and even had airtime alongside Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee. Rose (1883-1968) stayed in White Sulphur Springs, became a vocal local historian, physical therapist, outspoken political candidate, all while holding down at least four jobs at a time, all the time.

The Gordons were part of a large family of six siblings and two parents. They were part of a small black community in White Sulphur Springs, a small but busy mining town. Rose was the valedictorian of her high school class and gave a speech called “The Progress of the Negro Race”, which was inspired by the ethos of Booker T. Washington. Unfortunately, her and Taylor’s father, John Gordon, was killed in a train accident in the 1890s, and it fell on Rose to make money for her family. Rose tried repeatedly throughout her life to pursue medical training, but never became a doctor because her family needed her and she never got the time to go away to college. One wonders what her life would have been like if she had been able to carve a few years to herself, because it’s apparent that she had an incredible work ethic and drive.

For fifteen years or more, she tried to get her memoir, Gone are the Days, published. In between writing, pitching her memoir, taking care of her multiple family members, running a cafe, and working as a seamstress, she found the time to become a Swedish massage therapist and naturopath. Diet and exercise advice in Meagher County? Chat with Rose Gordon! Need some physical therapy after you did something to your back herding cattle? Call up Rose! Need a homeopathic tincture? Rose will make one! She seemed like White Sulphur Springs’ early life coach, physical therapist, and naturopath all in one!

On top of all this (aren’t you tired just reading how much she accomplished?!) she was Meagher County’s best local historian. She had not one but two columns in the Meagher County News paper. She also pissed off locals by running for mayor in 1951, and even though she lost, she refused to stop her campaign despite threats. She remained vocal about her experiences as a black woman up until the year of her death. Perhaps most notably, of all the columns and articles she wrote, the one titled “My Mother Was a Slave”, published 1955, is as Dr. Michael K. Johnson notes, “the only published first person narrative of nineteenth-century African-American migration to Montana”. This article evidently talks about the idea that going West was, for many former slaves, one way to re-invent themselves (a theme that presents itself in many other narratives). Rose’s life ended up being devoted to caring for others, and even though she wanted more for herself, she refused to be silent or complacent.

Her younger brother, Taylor, went East as a young man and sang in New York. His timing for arriving was in sync with the Harlem Renaissance and in the 1920s he was having a successful run working with J. Rosamund Johnson. In an article by Barbara Behan she notes that W.E.B. DuBois said “No one who has heard Johnson and Gordon sing ‘Stand Still Jordan’ can ever forget its spell” after they sang at Carnegie Hall in 1927. Two years later Gordon published Born to Be, his memoir of boyhood in White Sulphur Springs. His sister was back in Montana, her memoir never published. Gordon’s book was relatively successful, but his musical career mostly ended.

Taylor Gordon tried to get a second book published after his musical career waned, but was unsuccessful. He battled with Viking Publishers for a long time, and experienced a mental breakdown in 1947 after spending World War II working in a factory, and spent at least the next twelve years largely hospitalized in New York. He returned later in life to White Sulphur Springs. He played a few live shows there, made occasional appearances on local television, and in one source I read made a living by having an antique store. He outlived his sister by three years, and his papers are today held by the Montana Historical Society (although they are not digitized which is a shame!).

White Sulphur Springs today has less than 1,000 residents. It’s not a destination for most people (although the brewery there is awesome) and while if you drove through today you might wonder why a black family would choose to setttle down there, you have to remember that when the Gordons moved to White Sulphur Springs in the late 1800s it was a small but busy mining town. Small towns get to make their own rules and communities more than large cities, so in pop-up mining towns like Virginia City (hint at a future post!) and WSS, you get a community that may have been more flexible and welcoming to it’s black residents.

….

This is the end of Part One. I only mentioned five notable people! This article took 12 hours of research over two days. Again, this is a learning experience for me too, so let me know what you’d like to see, what I can do better, etc.! Thanks so much.

BTW, while you’re here consider donating to the Montana Racial Equity Project! They’re an amazing racial justice non-profit in Bozeman that do state-wide work.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Behan, Barbara. “Taylor Emmanuel Gordon, 1893-1971” BlackPast, 18 August 2016. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/gordon-taylor-1893-1971/

Ferguson, Mike, “Historian: Though few, African American’s mark on Montana is ‘indelible’ ” 19 August 2016, Billings Gazette. https://billingsgazette.com/news/local/historian-though-few-african-americans-mark-on-montana-is-indelible/article_3c7c9028-243d-5d5b-afc1-dc5ee0005651.html

Hanshew, Annie. “The Life and Legend of Mary Fields”. Women’s History Matters, 8 April 2014. http://montanawomenshistory.org/the-life-and-legend-of-mary-fields/

“James Pierson Beckwourth” http://beckwourth.org/Biography/index.html 

Johnson, Michael K. Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West. Univeristy of Mississippi Press, 2014.

“James Pierson Beckwourth: African American Mountain Man, Fur Trader, Explorer” https://www.coloradovirtuallibrary.org/digital-colorado/coloradohistories/beginnings/james-pierson-beckwourth-african-american-mountain-man-fur-trader-explorer/

Pickett, Mary “Samuel Lewis: Orphan Leaves Mark on Bozeman” originally from Billings Gazette http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti-archive/msg11004.html

Ravage, J.  “James Pierson Beckwourth (c. 1805 – 1866)”. BlackPast,  https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/beckwourth-james-pierson-c-1805-1866/

Walter, Marcella Sherfy, “Rose Gordon: Daughter of a Slave and Small Town Activist”. Women’s History Matters, 18 February 2014. http://montanawomenshistory.org/rose-gordon-daughter-of-a-slave-and-small-town-activist/

Other Resources:

Black Masculinity and the Frontier Myth in American Literature by Michael K. Johnson

Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier by John W. Ravage

Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West by Michael K. Johnson

“Montana’s African-American Heritage Resources” https://mhs.mt.gov/Shpo/AfricanAmericans/ResourcesResearch

Eruteya, Glenda Rose, “Racial legislation in Montana 1864-1955” (1981). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers, University of Montana.  https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=9660&context=etd

Michael K. Johnson has a now-defunct WordPress blog where he posted research into the Gordon family! https://taylorandrosegordonproject.wordpress.com/