Untold tales of the American frontier

Images of the black experience in the West

  • Mary Fields on the streets of Miles City, Montana, circa 1895.

    Black Pioneers by John Ravage, courtesy The University of Utah Press
  • Deputy U.S. marshals who served the district court of the Western District of Arkansas, with jurisdiction in Indian Territory. (Left to right) Amos Maytubby, Zeke Miller, Neely Factor, and Bob L. Fortune.

    Black Pioneers by John Ravage, courtesy The University of Utah Press

Black Pioneers -- Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier
John W. Ravage
251 pages, softcover: $22.95.
University of Utah Press, 2008.

With the second edition of Black Pioneers, historian and media professor John Ravage continues his mission of dispelling the myth that rugged, pioneering, "against-all-odds" Americans were exclusively white. Black pioneers led wagon trains over the plains, founded Western towns, fought in all of the Indian Wars, and explored with Lewis and Clark. They were ranchers, gold miners, lawmen and outlaws. Ravage examines the often-overlooked role of these pioneers, both men and women. This expanded edition adds a chapter on dating historical photographs and another filled with line drawings, lithographs and other nonphotographic images.

Clearly, Ravage has gone to extraordinary lengths to collect these images. It's a shame that these very American images have to be in a specialized book on black pioneers rather than in one on just plain old All-American pioneers. But given that this is the way it is, Black Pioneers is a useful and informative collection. It's powerful and refreshing to see blacks in these roles. One of the more striking things these pictures reveal is how diverse those times seem to have been, in unexpected ways: Over and over, we see blacks and whites working side by side in the outdoors, something rarely encountered today in either outside work or recreation. As inspiring as the images are, however, Ravage's words are less so -- his writing tends to be dry and academic.

One surprising -- and confusing -- aspect of a book intended to celebrate the lives of black frontiersmen is its focus on the harsh treatment and degrading stereotyping that blacks faced in the West. We already knew that blacks were lynched, laughed at, and in general treated unfairly; that is a tragic and often-told story. What is much less known is the deep involvement that many blacks had in the taming of the frontier. The mixing of the two messages -- blacks as active participants in the making of the West, and blacks as helpless victims of racism -- dilutes the main point: that our images of hardy American pioneers can and should be fully multicultural -- in our minds, in our books and on our screens.

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