by Crystal Alegria and Jill Falcon Mackin
The 1860s marked a shift in westward expansion to Montana Territory. What began as a trickle, became a rush and then a torrent as people from all over the United States and the world found cause to migrate. The discovery of gold and the promise of Indian land compelled many to journey west seeking a new start, a hopeful future. Among those arriving in Montana Territory were former African American slaves, recently freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. They traveled here alongside everyone else but did they arrive with the same hopes and dreams, or were they coming west for other reasons?
Telling the story of African American migrants to the West presents new challenges in terms of the language we use. Historians have used categorical terms to describe groups of people within the national narrative. The category people are placed in generally implies motivations and agency. For example, when thinking about African American ex-slaves arriving in the West the word pioneer or settler comes to mind, but the definition of pioneer is “one of the first to settle in a territory.” There were many indigenous people already living in Montana Territory, so pioneer is not the appropriate word nor is pioneer ever the appropriate word for those who migrated west during the 1800s. There are other words that could be used including settler, settler colonist, migrant, immigrant, arrivant, and ambiguous settler but all these words seem lacking nuance appropriate to the story of former slaves.
The word that feels right is refugee. The definition of refugee is, “one that flees; especially: a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.” This word captures the essence of African American people’s flight from captivity. They were not only fleeing a country in turmoil but they were fleeing bondage and a life of physical abuse. They were seeking sanctuary in the territories of the West and hoping desperately to find it.
Most people coming west from the American South were shell-shocked and, as Drew Gilpin Faust argues in her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War many suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The carnage and overwhelming stench of death, literally and figuratively, pervaded everything following the Civil War. Many of those coming to Montana Territory were fleeing a war-torn post-Civil War country, a country in the early stages of reconstruction and were seeking a place of safety and sanctuary. Some were looking to re-create the home they left while others were looking for a new home and a new way of life. The latter is the case for newly freed African American people whose historical trauma was more than PTSD in that they belonged to a group categorically persecuted and were victims of structural and institutional violence for generations.
When first researching the lives of Montana’s historic African American community, it seems the trek to Montana Territory was courageous, took grit and guts. After reflection, it seems there was more desperation and lack of options available making this a move of last resort. The newly “emancipated” may have hoped for freedom and opportunity but this was not their main concern, they were seeking refuge and were trying to escape a wretched and abusive situation.
For black Americans, the South was a place where choices, even after the Civil War, were limited. The agency of slaves was often literally reduced to possessing only their own thoughts and prayers. Although the Civil War changed the legality of slaveholding, the South remained a place of historical trauma and political and social oppression for African American people. Emancipation, agency, and justice did not arrive together.
The question now before historians is to consider what the West represented for those seeking relief from that heavy weight of oppression. Often refugees run in the direction of any society, real or perceived, that is less confining. In the national imagination, Montana and the West may have seemed less organized in its oppression of blacks. In the late 19th century, Montana and more broadly the West, were a place in the process of becoming. Certainly, the residue of confederate ideals prevailed over all the nation and racial violence was being firmly applied to American Indians. Yet, the West was occupied with the work of resource extraction, consolidation of power, Indian removal, building of infrastructure, and breaking ground for farms. In short, settler colonial preoccupation with taking possession of the place may have opened a small window of freedom for African American people. Demand for labor was high in the post-Civil War West, which not only demanded the time and energy of Westerners, but permitted contingency around cultural norms of race even if impermanently, the door may have opened to allow some on the margins of society to more fully participate in society. The term “refugee” may also fit for blacks in the West because of that impermanence. African American lives in the West remained unsettled, there were no promises made to black women and men by Western society.
The West became a place of refuge for African American people running from the South for a time but was it truly a sanctuary? Was it a place of safety? There is ample evidence African Americans who came West were able to purchase property and secure jobs. Their children attended school and received education. Does this represent sanctuary? Were they physically and mentally secure? Did they feel safe when walking down the street? As historians these intangibles are hard to determine but if we look to the obituary of a black man, Samuel Lewis, who lived in Bozeman, MT from 1868 to 1896 we see that though he was well-regarded by his fellow Bozmanites, there was still a separation. The obituary from the Bozeman Times reads, “It would be hard to find in any community a colored man enjoying the same position accorded Mr. Lewis at Bozeman. His color was never taken in consideration, except in social matters. Even there the old citizens have invariably done him the honor of inviting him to their homes, but possessed of a realizing sense of the uniqueness of this… he never attended.”
As historians grapple with terminology, contextualizing the lives of those who lived in the past by the words used describe them, we need to expand our historical vocabulary adding words that more accurately describe the nuanced and complex reasons for westward migration. Assigning the term refugee to African American people coming west helps clarify these historic lives and better understand people’s nuanced motivations for coming west. If African American people came west seeking sanctuary as refugees, that changes the historical narrative and gives us tools to better tell the complex story of western settlement and colonization.
Crystal Alegria is the co-director of the Extreme History Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to bring history to the public in new and engaging ways. She is also Project Coordinator for Project Archaeology, an organization that develops curriculum for k-12 students using archaeology and history. Her focus is public history and archaeology education and she continually works to present a relevant and inclusive history of the West. She received her M.A. in History from Montana State University.
Jill Falcon Mackin (Ojibwe) is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Montana State University where she focuses on indigenous foodways, food security and sovereignty.