African-Americans on the Frontier

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African-Americans on the Frontier

2014-12-19 16:51

The American Frontier has made a considerable contribution to our Nation’s history and literature, from Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” to the quasi-historical novels of James Fennimore Cooper, Walter Edmonds, and Conrad Richter. The frontier experience also aided in creating the American character: one of rugged-individualism and self-reliance.

However, many are unaware of the contribution African-Americans have made to the frontier experience in American history. Numerous examples exist, with the following only a small sampling of individuals who helped to open the American wilderness to Western settlement.

During the French & Indian War in Colonial South Carolina, an African-American slave gained much notoriety as an Indian trader, fighter, and messenger for the dispersed settlements in the Cherokee back-country of western South Carolina. He is generally referred to in primary sources as “Negro Abram” or “Abraham.”  Formerly a slave of a well-known White trader named Samuel Benn (who’d given him his freedom as a reward for his meritorious services on the frontier), Abraham became famous as a skilled woodsman who frequently delivered dispatches or messages between the South Carolina government and its western forts such as Fort Loudoun and Fort Prince-George.

The South Carolina Gazette, printed at Charles-Town {now Charleston}, is filled with references to Negro Abram’s heroic exploits during Cherokee War of 1760-61. While delivering information or supplies he also participated in pursuing deserters in the wilderness from British Royal Highland Regiments.  On one occasion he was “fired at by three Indians, who shot one of Abram’s boots through and his horse under him, and as he fell, threw a tomahawk which struck him on the back…,” though he survived to make it back to safety, carrying the weapon as a trophy.

Once the Kentucky wilderness was opened for settlement, a famous slave who later resided in Hardin County (the same residence of Abraham Lincoln in his youth prior to removing to Indiana) was none other than General Braddock.  He is mentioned in a number of early histories of the state, as formerly being a slave of the Jacob Van Meter family.  Originally from Somerset County, New Jersey, the family, like many other Kentucky settlers, had lived for a while in Western Pennsylvania along Ten Mile Creek.Jacob’s son Abraham Van brought a slave, General Braddock, with him from Virginia who reportedly gained his liberty as a free man by “killing nine Indians.” Appraised at 100 pounds of English currency, he was manumitted on March 19, 1797, and “set free forever. ” He later married and lived on a farm near Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

Regrettably, many black frontiersmen and women who settled the back-country during the late 18th century are known by their exploits, yet their names have not been recorded for posterity.  For example, Lyman Copeland Draper (1815-1891), the famous historian & librarian of the Wisconsin Historical Society, speaks of “a slave woman who blew a conch shell to warn the settlers of a pending Indian attack,” in his collection of frontier manuscripts. The blow was so piercing that it was heard some five miles away at the next closest fort. As the pioneers continued to move westward, individuals such as James Beckwourth (1798-1866) would become known as one of the Mountain Men – a brave group of explorers and Indian fighters renowned for their skills of survival and knowledge of the Native-Americans. He would eventually become known as a War Chief of the Crow Indians, gaining great respect from both friend and foe.

Further south into Texas, such individuals as Bose Ikard (1843-1929) and Britton Johnson (ca.1840-1871) became famous in their dealings with the feared Comanche Indians and early settlement of what is now Parker County, Texas. Both men were born as slaves, the former in Mississippi and the latter in Tennessee.  Coming west they gained their freedom, ran freight, worked as trail-drivers, teamsters, and also fought Indians.

Brit Johnson, whose wife and children were captured during a conflict known as the Elm Creek Raid of October, 1871, were reportedly later rescued by the man. Perhaps his most famous exploit concerned his notorious fight-to-the-death on January 24, 1871, when he and two other Black teamsters along with the wagon-train they were traveling, were attacked by a band of Kiowa Indians.  Legends, newspaper accounts, and early Texas histories, all mention the heroic last stand made by the teamsters, especially Brit Johnson.  His mutilated body was later found behind his dead horse. Rescuers counted over 173 rifle and pistol shells in the area where he was killed, attesting that he had fought valiantly to the last.
The above are simply a few examples of many African-Americans who opened up the frontier to western settlement. These stories and more may be found in the collections of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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