Remembering Utah's Black Pioneers On July 24th

Jul 23, 2020

James Beckwourth
Credit Library of Western Fur Trade Historical Source Documents

When Robert Burch was a kid, he didn’t idealize the cowboys on TV.

“When I grew up in the sixties, all the cowboys on televisions were killing Native Americans, and there were no Black cowboys and no Mexican cowboys,” said Burch, head of the Utah chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. “And so my idea of a pioneer was not a positive thing.”

When he moved to Utah ten years ago, he started researching more about the state’s history. He realized that maybe the Western pioneers did not look so different from him. 

“Now I can understand Black folks were part of the American pioneering era or Western migration era,” Burch said. “But I just didn’t know that because we just weren’t taught that. I like to talk about James Beckwourth because he was so influential in Utah.”

James Beckwourth was one of the early Black pioneers in the West that we know the most about. He was a mixed race man born into slavery.  When he was freed by his father, who was his slavemaster, he traveled West in the early 1800s and earned a name for himself. He cleared a permanent trail for travelers, now called the Beckwourth pass. He was also a well-known fur trapper, keeping his furs in hunting caches during the winter to sell in the spring. 

“The County was really named after his fur trapping and he worked so long in Cache County it was because of him that the county was named Cache County.” 

There were other Black pioneers crossing paths with Beckwourth. The West was a place in which migrants of every background came to explore. 

“There was such a mix of people, such a mix of ethnicity out West, and so they literally had more freedom of movement,” Burch said. “They dealt with less prejudice because they needed each other and they worked with each other and they understood that that part of the world was different from being out East.”

When Brigham Young’s party came in 1847, the group included free Black people and slaves who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Mormon settlers, however, were just the beginning of a greater migration of Americans to the West.

“That's when you get the movement of people from New York, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia who are bringing out slaves,” Burch said. “And so that freedom for them slowly dies away, and slavery is changing Utah.”

When slavery in Utah was legalized in 1852, more Black pioneers left to settle in other areas across the country where they could be free.

Now Burch knows how important Black migrants were in the American Pioneering Era. But just like the cowboys on TV, that doesn’t mean they were always the heroes. 

“I think that's part of the struggle with African Americans having dealt with slavery for 250 some-odd years,” Burch said. “How do we deal with the narrative of the destruction of the Native American people in the lands because literally 80% of the Native Americans here were wiped out? So how do we deal with that narrative of being oppressed by the native about the Europeans, but also helping the Europeans destroy and oppress people?”

Burch doesn’t really celebrate Pioneer Day or see it as a positive thing. But he doesn’t hate cowboys anymore. Now, from his study of Utah history, he knows that a third of cowboys in the West were Black. They just weren’t on TV.