Main Street, Wyoming; 220; Black Experience in Wyoming w/Todd Guenther
Why. This program made possible by a grant from U.S. energy and Crested Butte corporation part of a family of companies in the mining and minerals business providing jobs for Wyoming people since 1966. I am
I am I am. Welcome to Main Street Wyoming. I'm Jeff again. In 1952 Ralph Ellison published a book about a young black man from the south who becomes a factory worker in New York City and eventually ends up living underground in a sewer. He calls his character invisible man because blacks in both the south and north were virtually invisible in society. Even today we think most blacks follow Allison's path from the south to the industrial north. Sometimes back to the south again. Historically we would rarely place blacks in the West. With me today is a historian who has studied the invisible man in the West. Todd Gunter has his bachelor's degree in archaeology and a master's degree in American Studies from the University of Wyoming. He's currently the curator of the South Pass City State Historic Site. Welcome to Main Street.
Thank you. Yeah I think. Most was the starting point is the would be the history books that we read as children in school and when we read about the expansion into the West we rarely saw black faces in the illustrations. Is that a mis representation of things. Yes it is. There were blacks out here from the very with the very first appearance of your all Americans. Some of the Spaniards who led expeditions from Mexico were blacks. And people just don't think about that. They're not part of our mythology. There's a term for this called white washing of history where we just intentionally or otherwise have just left the minorities out of our history books. We could talk a little bit about the way that blacks. Came during the different stages of migration into the West. My you are Americans. We could start with the explorers than we have for trapping your people coming in during that
period in the migration across the west. Where do you put blacks in those pictures. Everywhere they blacks participated in all the major historical and demographic trends that were part of the American settling of the West. For example Lewis and Clark had a black man a slave on their expedition up in this area into the Pacific coast. And this man actually saved their lives several times saved the entire expedition he was crucially important to their exploring and it was not too many years after that when the fur trade era began and blacks participated fully in that as well. In 1900 STEPHEN LONG was exploring along the Front Range in Northern Colorado and he encountered a black trapper a free trapper that the Indians called Wassa By jingo which meant Little Black Bear. And this. This man. Supposedly a ferocious fighter and highly respected by the Indians and
more than able to take care of himself. Ed rose Jim Beck birth were other black trappers. There were also slave slaves who were trappers that were employed in various companies and worked in various trading post Bent's Fort and Fort Laramie and other places and they were everywhere that whites went there were blacks there participating in all of these events. We're seeing a little more I think these days some actual photographs of black cowboys so well these who were there in that period as in the others. Was there any one particular type of work or area of the region that the blacks were drawn to. Not really. Again they were every place that whites were and they participated in all different aspects economic ventures and government and everything else their population percentage was generally low maybe 5 percent plus or minus three
or four in any of the states as they exist today. But the point is blacks were there and they did participate in all of this and occasionally even played important roles just like not all whites were important not all blacks were. And vice versa. Anywhere from a fourth to a third of the cowboys that came up the Texas trail with the herds of Longhorn cattle it has become such a part of our western cowboy myth. We're black cowboys ex slaves after the Civil War and a lot of them came up and then found work on ranches in Wyoming in Montana and the Dakotas and stayed here. And some of them became fairly well-known some of them even had positions of some authority on ranches in the Laramie basin west of Laramie for example and the Oregon Trail is traffic on the Oregon Trail is another place where we we always think of pioneers as being white men. John Wayne standing out in
front of 4 or 5 way and you know come on pilgrims we're burning daylight. And that is just and history's a lot more interesting than that and. There were thousands of blacks that walked across Wyoming on the Oregon Trail in Route 2 to Utah en route to California Oregon Washington. It's interesting that while the Mormon Church post-slavery a lot of the blacks that went to Utah were slaves. Politically they found it inadvisable to to oppose slavery too strenuously and when people from the south converted to the Latter day Saints they were allowed to bring their slaves with them if they could afford it if they wanted to and then the church ultimately tried to buy most of those people and give them their freedom. There were many slaves that that went to California to mine gold in the 1840s and 50s also free blacks. It's also interesting that the West Coast states I believe all three of them passed laws prohibiting blacks from settling there in the 1850s
and consequently many of the blacks that came up there and help settle estates for the Euro-American cars manifest destiny and all that wound up going north into Canada and into British Columbia and around the turn of the century there was a fairly significant black population up there. Yeah. Oh those are those are ultimately identified as as free states but what that means is that slavery as an institution wasn't allowed and it didn't mean that you had a franchise you right. What about in the mining camps in the Rockies in the for instance opacity. Were blacks present there. Yeah south past city specifically was not settled or not founded until eight hundred sixty seven. So this is after the Civil War after the Emancipation Act. After blacks had been had been granted the right to vote I should say black man had been granted the right to vote by the federal government and there were we don't know for sure 40 50 maybe as many as 100 blacks in the area during the original boom in the late 1960s and early 1870s.
It's interesting that especially given while his nickname of the equality that in the first territorial election which was held in Wyoming the polling place was at Noyes Baldwins general store in southwest city. That's a familiar name to people in the lander area with the Baldwin store still in business. And when the black miners went to Baldwin's door to try and cast their ballots which they were legally entitled to do there was a race riot. The door of the polling place was surrounded by drunken miners who shouted all sorts of racial slurs at them and prevented them from voting until the US marshal came up from Cheyenne and escorted him through the loop to the poles so that they could vote. So women could go in and mark the ballot but not at this point I would have not at this point this was still before that this was the election too. Elect representatives to go to Cheyenne and write the Wyoming Constitution and coming out of this kind of climate of racial
animosity at South Pass it's interesting that one of the people elected was a very popular saloon owner in southwest city a native of Virginia who came West to restore his fortunes after the war. William bright and he is the man who wrote introduced and successfully got passed the bill granting women the right to vote to hold office and own property. And that's why I mean that's that's when women start being called you know the first true Republican the first true democracy. And when he got back several years later when he got back south passed several years later some of his constituents asked him why did you do this thing. Men have been ruling the world for thousands of years and we like it that way. And his his reaction was that don't shoot me I'm only a piano player here but he figured that if a nigger could vote then a white woman should be able to vote because white women are inherently superior to two black men.
And so while he's being called the equality state is is a nickname that's built on a foundation of racism you know. That's the kind of message that a lot of people don't want to hear and I think there's some question as to whether historians have sort of left some of this history out. Is there a sense on your part that the historians have slighted the rule of race the activities of blacks in the West and in Wyoming. Yes and No. They'll get me off the hook. OK. T.A. Larson writes about the all of this in his history of Wyoming that the home on definitive work on Wyoming history. And so that's been acknowledged the fact that blacks were here has been acknowledged but not a great deal of research has gone into what they did or or what they accomplished while they were here for several reasons it's almost impossible to find data on. A lot of it simply was not recorded or was not kept through the
years. And a lot of people. Just don't even think about it and I'm guilty of that I didn't. I mean I'm not on any kind of crusade here. I never gave the black presence in the West but I thought until I participated in an archaeological excavation near Casper along negro creek which was originally called nigger Crick and thought that was kind of an unusual name and I started doing some research you know where did this name come from. And found out that family of blacks had homesteaded there in the 1890s and the father was murdered either due to his race or because he was there during the Johnson County War all the tensions between the small and large ranchers on the frontier and his his buildings evidently were burned or destroyed or carted away and his family was driven out of the area. And that piqued my curiosity. And so now I can sit here and self-righteously talk about the black presence on the frontier. When a
lot of people don't even don't even think about it you know. And you ultimately got interested in a particular family the Edwards family. Who homesteaded I guess and lived out near Douglas. Why don't you describe a little bit about what their life was like and really what their history was. OK in 1890 a young man a Spanish American war veteran came to Wyoming from Ohio with his father in response to help wanted ads that have been placed in papers back there asking for coal miners to come out to the Cambridge mine near Newcastle. And these two black men came out on the train and once they got off the train the white miners all first thing they saw evidently were posters around the railroad yard that said things like nigger go home nigger don't let sundown find you here and things like that which were common in several of the Wild mean rail yards into the 1930s and those railroads had a tendency to import labor right maybe of all comers certainly the Chinese
many of the Chinese who came to Wyoming came to work for the railroad right and well just like white people went where there were jobs whether they were white or black or or Asian or whatever they would go where they could find employment. And that's why Edwards came out. He could find employment. Unfortunately when they got off the train local white miners beat him up may have killed his father we don't know what happened to the Elder Edwards. And then they started looking around. Jim stayed in the state and began trying to find employment and his name was James Nathaniel Edwards. We're really come from originally we don't know the exact or specific town but somewhere in Ohio he's born on Valentine's Day February 14th 1874 I believe. So he was fairly young early prime of his life when he got out here. He had served his country in Cuba in combat and thought he had a right to expect some kind of decent living here. And once once he was driven away from the mining district he just started walking
south and with nothing but the clothes he wore. And finally when he got down here last a distance of about 80 miles he was given employment under the running water ranch which was owned by a family named Wilson. And they. Must have been remarkable people because in during this era. There was a real schizo frantic reaction to the black presence of the first coroner in Casper the first elected coroner and Casper was a black man. And yet just a few miles east of town a black homesteader was murdered and a suspect Ray said at least something to do with that. There were several lynchings in Wyoming during the early 1900s. They were not vigilante actions they were not people going up to take care of armed robbers they were these were events where people were dragged kicking and screaming from from jails in Laramie Green River Rock Springs and strung up to lamp posts and shot at while they strangled and grisly grisly scenes.
And it surprises me given all this that the Edwards was able to find employment and not only that within only a few years these people realized what a capable individual he was and he was he became a foreman on their ranch and was placed in a position of authority over why it's over Hispanics are over. Most of the other employees of a deli and they assisted him in locating his own homestead which he then kept and continued working for them. Evidently part time up until about World War 1 when he became more. In business for himself and World War One was a very profitable time for people to be in agriculture in Wyoming. The prices commodity prices skyrocketed land values went up. There was another population boom as people came in to try and capitalize on the situation. And Edwards made quite a bit of money and he married a
young woman from Denver leftfield Dawson was her name her parents had cooked on the Missouri River Mississippi River steamboat and then came out west to Colorado and worked in the mining camp of Telluride. And again there were blacks everyplace there were white and she was raised however after father died she was raised in Denver. Where only a few years later there were I believe 17000 members of the Ku Klux Klan and six thousand blacks. So it's probably a fairly frightening experience and I suspect that played some role in her decision to to marry this guy who lived in the middle literally in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming where in 1914 there was virtually no one else in the honey Hills district. And she came up to his little two room log cabin and I'm sure was appalled. She may have had some college education. She was very cosmopolitan an accomplished musician very well-read extremely literate. And Jim has been described as a classic cowboy. Of
course his skin was black so he doesn't quite fit the classic cowboy myth but he's six feet tall skinny rolled his own Bull Durham cigarettes mustache cowboy hat and the whole works. It was as host of again about half way between Lask and Douglas out in the Harvey hills they call it. She came up there and within about three or four years they had a two storey stone house with hot and cold running water even in the up stairs bathroom. So this house was much finer even than most urban dwellings in Wyoming at that time. He probably had a few envious neighbors I would imagine I would think so I would think so. They also had the first automobile. They had the first radio in the area. They had the first pressure gas stove posts just excuse me so that she could stop cooking on a coal stove. And where was where was his wealth coming from. It was you raising livestock. He was raising livestock. He was hauled into court several times for rescuing
livestock but they were never able to pin anything on him. He was described as having a pretty long rope. He was a he was a poor Roper. But this expression means he went out and got other people's cattle and sheep evidently. How do you know things like the fact that he was a poor Roper. Do you literally I mean very good with a lariat that I talk to a lot of people who knew him when he was there there are still a number of people in the Douglas and Lusk areas who knew him and were very excited to talk about him because they liked the guy. And like many people they were probably envious. But people like him because when they came to Wyoming during the population boom in during World War One. He helped establish a lot of them get them set up on their homesteads and they they felt indebted to him. They felt grateful to him he loaned teams he loaned equipment money probably all with an eye to to future returns that these people would then help him if he needed it.
But he became a very well-to-do sort of the landed gentry in that part of the state. They had a large ranch a fine house that she taught music lessons and help the local children with their schooling. They also had she took extension courses through the university. And they would teach the other ranch wives in the area how to take better care of their poultry and fish and small livestock around the house that they were so often responsible for. And she played piano was of the sort let's use it yes. So she liked very very. She liked everything she she loved the old gospel tunes and she liked the classic European songs. She also liked to 936 country western music. Red River Valley. Your sweet home songs like that she was a typical Wyoming night in that she was interested in a little bit of
everything cosmopolitan in this case of being varied and not so much urban you know but they were they were a very interesting couple and played a significant role in the development of that part of Wyoming. They helped a lot of people get started over there. Any any offspring good but what I mean when arguably became of the family. Well that's about 940 the story stopped being so much a Horatio Alger is kind of rags to riches tale and becomes more of a Shakespearean tragedy in that they did not have children left. Health was poor and she started him Regina. I don't know no one knows exactly what the medical. Problem was but finally a two or three days before Christmas in 1945 she had a terrible nosebleed and there was too much snow on the ground. The phones evidently were not working and she bled to death in Jim's arms. From a nosebleed and after that he
well he was about 80 years old by this time and he was tired. He worked hard all his life and built up a huge ranch mostly through his own labors and started drinking too much and spent a lot of time on the sand bar in Caspar. And within about four years he lost his whole ranch and went on to live in Scottsbluff in brassica where he died in a house fire in 150 One year a year before this Ebony magazine which was already a national publication in the black community by that time published an article about him that called him the greatest negro cattle rancher in all the West. And I'm sure that as he read that he was flattered that anyone would have been. But it unfortunately didn't change the end of the story. You were to the homestead still there is that is there any building there are a handful of buildings left the old bunk house
for the help is still there which it was paneled on the inside it had two rooms and large comfortable beds and a big cook stove in there in their bunk house was fancier than a lot of Homestead cabins that I saw. Scene from the era the house is still there although catalyst got into it and it's in pretty bad shape now and the water tower the heated water tower that they built is still there just uphill of the house that's how they provided a pressurized water system into the house. And there are no hollow ruins remains of most of the other buildings in the corrals as well so you can go out there and still get a feel for what the place looked like although it's on private land and I would not encourage anyone to do that you know. But the man and he and his wife were very remarkable people and they were. Blacks and they came out and made a home for themselves and one of the
neighbors called the white state and were very successful. He was very careful in how he dealt with whites if he was on his horse and rode up to a neighboring homestead and the husband wasn't home he wouldn't even get off his horse and go in the house and say hello to the woman to the woman to the wife because that kind of situation resulted in so much tension down south and in other places in Wyoming. And if the husband was home and they invited him to eat he tended to eat on the back step or in in the kitchen by the door he would sit at the table with the family. They didn't socialize too much with the neighbors because if he went to a dance at the school who was he going to dance with. So he was very cart very very careful in his dealings with his white neighbors. And yet they had. Influential white visitors from Minnesota Iowa Missouri Kansas City. It's not all over. It's kind of that schizophrenia that you mentioned right. It sounds like you're telling a real success story
here but there are these qualifications. Yes they still exist. He had to be careful. You know his life was at risk and he knew it and the people that would come visit him from out of state weren't entertained very genteelly with music and we've got some little cut glass ice cream dishes they would make ice cream and then sit out under the cottonwoods in the summertime and eat ice cream out of these dishes and listen to music or listen to the radio or whatever. But he never could relax fully with his neighbors although he got into fights with white men. For example he was not good about pain is built at some of the local implement stores and when when they would send the owner out to repossess a plow or whatever he several times got in fights with people beat him up and drove him off. But where white women were concerned he was extremely careful. And given those kinds of cautions and some of the more negative things that you're bringing up when you talk about blacks in Wyoming in the West lynchings and such you fall into a category that's developed of what might be called New Historians who are
revising some of the views of what the West was in the 19th century and even later. How do you feel about them the people like Patricia limerick. Kirkpatrick Sale a number of others who've been writing books that say you know it wasn't all that good it was. There was racism there was exploitation. Do you consider yourself one of these new historians sometimes. Yes and I think that you know you know I had the good fortune to take a class from Paddy Limerick a couple years ago and we had a lot of fun she doesn't oftentimes feel that the kind of data we get from archaeological excavations is is important or can add much but especially in the case of minority studies I think it's almost crucial because there's so little information about them other than census exact census manuscripts and things like that. Archaeology has been one of my primary tools in tracking these people down and learning about them.
One other place that we disagree is. Well well the pioneers of motives may have been economic. You know it wasn't just John Wayne enough there for grandeur. I cannot get on my horse and ride down the Oregon Trail near South Pass without being aware of the heroic things that these people did and the fact that they were out here for money to make a living. I don't think the main issue is that we have we have run out of time but I'm going to have to stop that. Thanks so much for being with us. Pleasure. Thank you. History is more alive than we often admit. It can make us feel better or worse about ourselves today by informing us about our past and our ancestors with knowledge of the American West is important to Americans and not just to the people who live here. We look at the grainy old pictures and we find our strength and inspiration in them. The stories like Todd come through are reminding us that there were black faces in those pictures as well as there
- Main Street, Wyoming
- Episode Number
- Producing Organization
- Wyoming PBS
- Contributing Organization
- Wyoming PBS (Riverton, Wyoming)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- This episode features an interview between Geoff O'Gara and Todd Guenther, a historian who studied the "invisible man in the West." The "invisible man" is based on the character from a Ralph Ellison novel in the early 1950s, a black man who leaves the south to work in New York City only to end up living in an underground sewer. At the time, black men and women were considered invisible in American society, including Wyoming, and this absence is discussed at length during the interview.
- Other Description
- "Main Street, Wyoming is a documentary series exploring aspects of Wyoming's local history and culture."
- Created Date
- Asset type
- Main Street, Wyoming is a public affairs presentation of Wyoming Public Television 1992 KCWC-TV
- Media type
- Moving Image
Director: Warrington, David
Executive Producer: Calvert, Ruby
Guest: Geunther, Todd
Host: O'Gara, Geoff
Producer: Warrington, David
Producing Organization: Wyoming PBS
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Wyoming PBS (KCWC)
Identifier: 30-00925 (WYO PBS)
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- Chicago: “Main Street, Wyoming; 220; Black Experience in Wyoming w/Todd Guenther,” 1992-03-19, Wyoming PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 7, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-260-96wwq8s5.
- MLA: “Main Street, Wyoming; 220; Black Experience in Wyoming w/Todd Guenther.” 1992-03-19. Wyoming PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 7, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-260-96wwq8s5>.
- APA: Main Street, Wyoming; 220; Black Experience in Wyoming w/Todd Guenther. Boston, MA: Wyoming PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-260-96wwq8s5
- Supplemental Materials