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Westward Ho!

IN SEARCH OF THE RACIAL FRONTIER: African Americans in the American West.\o7 By Quintard Taylor (W.W. Norton: 396 pp., $29.95)\f7

July 19, 1998|GREGORY H. NOBLES | Gregory H. Nobles is a professor of history at Georgia Institute of Technology and the author of "American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters & Continental Conquest."

In 1851, a black prospector named Peter Brown wrote to his wife back in Missouri about the success he was having in the gold fields near Sacramento. Flush with the satisfaction of being his own boss and bringing in $300 in just a few months, he declared California to be "the best place for black folks on the globe." "All a man has to do," he said, "is to work, and he will make money."

If only it were that simple. As Quintard Taylor demonstrates in his comprehensive and compelling book, "In Search of the Racial Frontier," the West has always been a problematic place for African Americans. It is a promised land of opportunity for many but hardly a safe haven from the racism that has long scarred American society. People of African descent have been prominent players in shaping the history of the West for more than four centuries, but they have never been able to ignore that their identity as African Americans shaped their experience as Western Americans.

In addition to covering a vast amount of time and territory, Taylor confronts two of the most troublesome terms in today's historical profession: "race" and "frontier." He is careful to note that "race" is not reserved for references to African Americans alone. Much of the "striking ambiguity about race in the West," he argues, "stems from the presence of four groups of color--African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans--all of whom interact with Anglos in varied ways over the centuries and throughout the region." Having said that, though, Taylor turns his attention almost exclusively to African Americans; other people of color enter the narrative primarily to the extent that they interact with blacks.

One recurring example of that "striking ambiguity" is the relationship between African Americans and Native Americans. From the early days of Spanish conquest through the colonial period, intermarriage made racial identity almost impossibly imprecise. Spanish colonial officials tried to preserve racial distinctions in complex bureaucratic categories--developing a perplexing panoply of terms to designate the products of various intercultural couplings--but there were precious few people of "pure" African blood, just as there were few"pure" Spaniards. Still, Taylor notes, "the quintessential mark of status was to be considered espan~ol rather than mulatto, mestizo, Indian, or black." Like Native Americans, African Americans could never fully escape the stigma assigned to people of color, no matter whom they married.

By the early part of the 19th century, with the advent of slaveholding settlers, race relations in the West remained far from rigidly defined. Anglo slave owners in antebellum Texas may have been less willing than their Spanish predecessors to intermarry with their black chattel, but they nonetheless shared a common concern (and apparently a common fate) in confronting the native population: "The much-feared Comanche made no distinction between the black and white frontier settlers . . . [and] regarded whites and blacks with antipathy and contempt and killed men and captured women and children with scant regard to color." In fact, some of the staunchest supporters of slavery in the region were Native Americans, especially the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole settlers of the government-defined Indian Territory north of Texas. Forced out of their homelands in the Southeast by the Indian removal treaties of the 1830s, these unwilling immigrants brought black slaves with them and perpetuated the slavery practices they had carried on for more than a century. But even these practices differed considerably from tribe to tribe. Seminole slave owners allowed their black slaves a "wide latitude of action and considerable influence within tribal society," while Cherokee masters tended to be much more stringent. Indeed, when the Civil War threatened to undermine the institution of slavery, the Native American inhabitants of Indian Territory were as divided as their European American counterparts.

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