Forgotten Heritage: African Americans in the Montana Territory

Barbara Carol Behan. The Journal of African American History. Volume 91, Issue 1. Winter 2006.

Historians have made great progress in recent years documenting the stories of “African Americans in the West.” However, Montana is one of few western states lacking a thorough study of its black population. We have J. W. Smurr’s outstanding article on school segregation and other Reconstruction-era issues in territorial Montana, and William L. Lang’s works on Helena’s black community. Several local historians also are doing important research on local black history, and newspapers and amateur historians have documented the lives of certain individuals. But a comprehensive study on the state’s African American population and its historical context remains to be completed.

This essay addresses African Americans in territorial Montana from 1864 to 1889. It is meant as a foundation for a study of Montana’s black history up to the present. The study does not include African American soldiers. Although these men are an important part of the story of nearly every western state, they are omitted here because black soldiers were not posted in Montana until very shortly before statehood in 1889; and, by this time, their presence was strong enough to warrant separate examination.

Primary sources on Montana’s black population are scarce. Contemporary records generated by white westerners generally gave scant, if any, coverage of black communities; also, many public and commercial records do not list ethnicity. The census provides individuals’ names, but many are so common that corroborating them with other sources is difficult. However, such records that do exist yield a remarkable snapshot of Montana’s territorial African American communities and point the way for further research.

There is evidence of a handful of African Americans in what would become the Montana Territory before the Civil War. Most of these were men working on boats associated with the fur trade around Fort Benton, high on the northern reaches of the Missouri River. Since the early 18th century, enslaved African Americans had worked as steamboat laborers and servants in the southern states. An African American man named Henry Mills listed in the Fort Benton census of 1870 was probably the same “negro Henry” listed in the Fort Benton journal of 1854-1856 that recorded activities of the Upper Missouri Outfit (UMO) of the American Fur Company there. Because a portion of Mills’s wages was paid to the UMO chief, Mills may have been enslaved at the time. This pattern of using enslaved workers on riverboats became problematic, however, as those boats plied north into free territories. By the mid-1860s in Montana, many African Americans were working on the boats out of Fort Benton as employees.

African Americans, enslaved or not, were potentially present anywhere in the West, though their relative numbers in the antebellum years were low. Besides Fort Benton, a few enslaved African Americans probably worked in or around the mining camps that spawned the first non-Indian settlements in the early 1860s, including two that eventually served as territorial capitals of Montana-Bannack and Virginia City. An unidentified black man was reportedly one of the three men who discovered gold near Helena in 1862. In addition, a few free fur-trading men of African American descent also very likely worked in the region, including the “mountain man” James P. Beckwourth.

The Montana Territory was formed in 1864, a year after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. The passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 brought “freedom” to 89 percent of the African American population in the United States. Although most freedpeople pinned their hopes on better lives in a “reconstructed South,” some joined the national migration west. In 1860 there were approximately 5,000 African Americans in the western states (excluding Texas and Oklahoma); by 1870 the number had increased fivefold. African Americans came west for the same reasons as other Americans-to start new lives in a place where contemporary mythology promised boundless opportunity. But some African Americans who migrated, especially those previously enslaved, must also have had motives borne out of their unique history. Historian Leon Litwack has written eloquently of the profound decisions facing the freedpeople immediately after emancipation, including whether to stay in the South: “Freedom permitted them to take their labor elsewhere. For many … in fact, this right constituted the very essence of their new status…”

Freedom also brought with it new dangers in the post-war South. Christian McMillen has argued that post-war violence against the freedpeople was so oppressive in the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee that some may have fled west literally to protect their lives. The 1870 Montana territorial census shows 41 percent of African Americans listing Missouri and Kentucky as their birth states-a higher proportion than in the white population. While not proving McMillen’s hypothesis, this raises the question of why so many African Americans in Montana were from those states. Postwar violence is one possible reason, but another practical one was proximity to transportation up the Missouri River. One historian called Fort Benton, Montana Territory, “practically an appendage of the state of Missouri,” from which both European and African Americans migrated after the war; and for many years, Fort Benton had one of the highest concentrations of African American residents in Montana.

The 1870 census also offers clues to the numbers of African Americans in the Montana Territory just after the Civil War. That year, thirteen African American children between infancy and five years were listed as having been born in Montana. This indicates that a handful of black families or individuals settled in the territory between 1865 and 1870. What did they find when they came to the territory? What was the economic and political climate? How did social conditions compare to elsewhere in the United States and its territories?

Issues of Inclusion and Exclusion

The U.S. Congress organized the Montana Territory in the crucible of Civil War politics. Though removed geographically from the center of the ideological debate, territorial residents were heatedly interested in national political issues. In the western territories, the leaders of the two political parties tended to agree on many issues, such as the desire for statehood and coming of the railroad. But Reconstruction was a fence over which Democrats and Republicans could hurl arguments at each other. White westerners disagreed about black suffrage, education, and the need for legal segregation; and the conflict was especially polarized and virulent in Montana and Idaho. Confederate sympathizers in those territories, including many from Missouri, contributed to a significant pro-Confederate element in the late 1860s. In Montana, southern supporters clashed fiercely with Republican territorial officials. Historian Eugene Berwanger has written:

From its earliest days as a territory Montana was a political thorn in the side of Republicanism. The first legislature was so overwhelmingly pro-southern and Democratic that Thomas Dimsdale, editor of the Montana Post, described it as a body of “secessionists, openly proclaiming to be citizens of Dixie.” The territory itself contained such a large number of Democrats from Missouri that even the most optimistic Republicans could only envision defeat at the polls.

But scholars disagree on how much political clout the pro-southern faction actually had. Although noisy, the Confederate sympathizers never came close to holding a majority in Montana’s territorial legislature or even a voting bloc. One of the earliest historians to study African Americans in Montana, J. W. Smurr, concluded that early Montana could be likened to an antebellum border state in which southern sympathy was strong, but not so powerful as to “reproduce a bit of the Old South in the New West.”

In Montana, the first point of the Reconstruction debate was African American suffrage. Since 1800, western territories had routinely disenfranchised black residents under a congressional provision to let territories decide the matter locally. Congress first addressed African American suffrage while it was creating the Montana Territory in 1864. Congressmen argued over striking the word “white” out of the section on voter requirements, and debated whether there even were any African Americans in Montana. Finally, they restricted the vote to U.S. citizens, and African Americans born in the U.S. were granted citizenship in 1866, by passage of the 14th Amendment. Later that year, the first territorial legislature in Bannack wrote a law prohibiting black suffrage. However, nationally the tide was turning toward enfranchisement. In 1867 Congress passed the Territorial Suffrage Act, giving African Americans in territories the vote. Though many whites in the Montana and Dakota territories opposed the bill, black men did vote for the first time in Helena in 1867. There is a report of one man, Sammy Hayes, being killed while attempting to vote in that first election.

Legal segregation was the second Reconstruction issue in Montana. Western territories and states pursued different approaches regarding schooling for African American children: integration, segregation, or complete exclusion from public schools. In 1872 the Montana legislature passed a bill modeled on California’s segregation law allowing school districts to build separate schools wherever there were more than ten African American children. In most of Montana it was not financially practical to have two public schools, and there was considerable controversy over whether and how to educate the few African American children in several towns. In Helena with the highest concentration of African Americans, the South Side School for black children opened in 1875 and operated until at least 1880. There also were short-lived separate schooling arrangements in Virginia City and Deer Lodge. At Fort Benton, a black school was reportedly opened in 1878, but by 1882 it appears this was closed, and a conflict arose over the enrollment of a handful of black children in the public school for whites. Four white families withdrew their children when two girls of partial African American descent were admitted to the school. The Benton River Press reported:

Much ado has been made during the past few days about the alleged action of the School Board in admitting colored children to the public school. … As we understand it, there are but four negro children in the town of school age, and only two of these are applicants for school privileges. The children have five times more Caucasian blood in their veins than African, and we fail to see why they should be excluded from school privileges. The time has certainly come when the old prejudice on account of color should be rooted out.

Many African American parents and some white Republicans loudly protested the Montana school segregation law. Most of the debate centered in Helena. In 1876 over a hundred people, including both African Americans and whites, sent one of many petitions to the Montana legislature to repeal the law. The House Education Committee replied that, however regrettable were the prejudices of the people against mixed schools, the committee was “compelled to recognize it as an existing fact,” and rejected the petition. Finally, in 1882, voters in Helena passed a referendum ending segregated public schools there. The measure likely passed because black voters turned out in large numbers, and many white voters opposed continuing the segregated school because of its cost. The next year, the territorial legislature repealed the segregation law for the entire territory.

Historian Quintard Taylor, Jr., has written that for African Americans in the West, the social climate historically has been characterized by “striking racial ambiguity.” This atmosphere seemed alternately to confirm and disappoint African Americans’ hopes for social advancement. It is seen clearly in the tendency of many white westerners to favor black civil rights in theory, while displaying varying degrees of willingness to protect or recognize them. Almost universally, whites in the Far West and elsewhere drew the line at what they termed “social equality”; for their part, African Americans seemed also to favor this. Anti-black sentiment in Montana appears never to have reached the level of virulent prejudice exhibited toward the Chinese, but a general black-white racial tension is certainly borne out in the historical record. In isolated incidents, as with would-be voter Sammy Hayes, this tension turned violent.

Territorial business and city directories frequently do not include names of African American citizens who were listed in the census, and almost never listed black churches and clubs. Most white newspapers did not report on the activities of black citizens in their communities at all. Most conspicuously, the lack of reports on institutions such as churches and fraternal organizations meant that we may learn of the occasional black individual while missing any sense of the communities that African Americans organized in Montana.

Some newspapers, especially those published for Republican audiences, carried long and eloquent pieces supporting black civil rights as part of the national political debate, especially their importance for reconstructing the South. Occasionally, these papers noted marriages, deaths, and business partnerships of prominent black citizens, more frequently, if white citizens were involved. However, these same publications often expressed difficulty embracing demands for equal rights locally. As noted earlier, the Benton River Press made a plea in 1882 for ending school discrimination, an argument that continued into 1883. But the newspaper also displayed the common tendency to report events involving black citizens with condescension. For example, Deer Lodge’s Republican New Northwest, and the Republican Helena Weekly Herald, reported in early 1874 on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner’s civil rights bill then on the floor of Congress, which became the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The papers praised a speech by Massachusetts Representative Benjamin Butler in favor of passage of the bill, with the New Northwest calling it “a powerful argument against prejudice by one who has conquered his prejudices.” However, the same issue of this newspaper carried a derogatory, and unrelated, anecdote titled “Sambo’s Tax Receipt,” relaying a “humorous” story of a former slave’s confusion over to whom he should pay his property taxes.

These were some of the political and social realities African Americans found in the Montana Territory. Primary sources about African Americans themselves in this period are scarce; even more rare are sources produced by African Americans themselves. The most comprehensive sources are the censuses of 1870 and 1880. Ideally, a study of the territory would also include the 1890 census, taken a year after Montana became a state. However, the manuscript schedules from that year were destroyed and all that exists are total population figures. Historians have documented two waves of postbellum African American migration west: one that began after 1865, and another that began after the failure of Reconstruction in the South in the late 1870s, which eventually constituted a much larger movement. It is helpful to divide Montana’s territorial period into two periods roughly following these waves and corresponding with the dates of the available sources. The first period covers the first fifteen or so years of the territory (1865-1880) and coincides with the first wave of black westward migration. It is covered primarily in the manuscript censuses from 1870 and 1880 and a few government records. The second includes the decade of the 188Os, which is when the second wave of migration reached its peak. This period is covered by the 1890 census summary and primary sources from early statehood.

Demographic and Occupational Patterns

In 1870 there were approximately 180 persons of full or partial African American ancestry in the Montana Territory, and by 1880 the number had approximately doubled to 356. In both the 1870 and 1880 censuses, African Americans were living in every organized county, and concentrated primarily in towns, a trend seen in the western states overall. From the beginning, the highest proportion of African Americans in Montana was in the territorial hub of Helena, where in 1870 the black population was 2.3 percent of the total. Fort Benton and Butte contained the other highest concentrations of African Americans.

In both census years African Americans comprised about one percent of the total population of Montana Territory. This also is fairly consistent with other western territories at the time. However, this figure is notable here because it was the highest proportion ever seen in Montana’s population. By the turn of the century relative numbers of African Americans were beginning to dwindle, and by 1920 the state’s black population had dropped, never again to reach even the one percent mark. In contrast, the basic trend elsewhere in the Far West has been a gradual increase of black populations during the 20th century.

The census data shows that most of the African Americans in the territory were young adults, and most were men, particularly in 1870 when males comprised 62 percent of the black population in Montana. Well over half of these worked as laborers, domestics, or other servants, and cooks, with a small percentage of ranch or farm hands, miners, and one saloonkeeper. Twenty-seven percent were barbers, a trend loosely consistent with other western states and territories. As one of the few professions open to African American men after the Civil War, barbering was a popular field, well respected in the black community, highly mobile, and much needed in western mining, military, and ranching towns.

The occupational profile shown in the census ten years later also mirrors that for the western states. The most accessible jobs for African American men were those supporting communities or individuals involved with the major industries of mining and ranching. In 1880 over half of black male Montanans (57 percent) worked as laborers, cooks, servants, or porters in the territory’s population centers. The remainder included boat workers in Fort Benton, innkeepers and saloonkeepers, farm and ranch hands or teamsters, skilled tradesmen such as a blacksmith, a baker, barbers, and a few paper hangers and whitewashers.

African Americans were still concentrated in the towns of Helena, Butte, and Fort Benton in the 1880 census, following the general population. In Butte and Helena, mining and its associated activities were the main economic draw. At Fort Benton, the 1880 census reported over fifty African American men, women, and children, compared to twenty in 1870. These numbers reflect Benton’s ideal location on the Missouri River. Because steamboats were the cheapest way to travel before the coming of the railroads, many people who came west from Kentucky and Missouri did so by boat. Anna Gordon, mother of the noted Harlem Renaissance musician Taylor Gordon, rode the steamboat Katie to meet her husband in Fort Benton in 1881. Maria and Mary Adams came to the Dakota Territory as servants for General George Custer in 1873. When he died, the sisters lived briefly in Miles City, Montana Territory, and then took the steamer Nellie Peck to Fort Benton. Maria Adams eventually became one of territorial Montana’s bestdocumented African American women.

In addition to being an important mode of transportation, the steamboat industry also offered African Americans various types of employment in Fort Benton, Montana. After the Civil War, some companies favored African Americans who had worked earlier on southern boats as laborers and servants. Black roustabouts were common on the northern Missouri River, and the 1870 census lists several African Americans associated with steam-boating. Husband and wife Charles and Lucy Chapman, for example, were a cook and a domestic worker on the Nellie Peck, the same boat that carried the Adams sisters to Fort Benton, while Horace Gray was a married barber on the Key West. The census also lists several single black “river men” living at a single property-likely a boardinghouse-in Fort Benton that year.

Although most African Americans in the Montana Territory worked in service or laboring capacities in towns, the census shows small numbers of men were employed in mining and ranching, which dominated the territorial economy. According to earlier historians, during the days of the open range when cowboys drove cattle to Montana from Texas and elsewhere, African American and Mexican cowboys were common. African Americans also worked as cowhands and cooks. Although neither territorial census lists any black cowboys, this may be because censuses were taken when cattle workers were on the range. William “Wild Bill” Haywood was one black cowboy who drove cattle into Montana and finally settled in Great Falls.

There were also a few black miners reported in territorial censuses and newspapers. In the 188Os the Yogo gold mining camp sprang up in the Little Belt Mountains in west-central Montana. Millie Ringgold, a former slave who had been living in Fort Benton, settled in Yogo and opened a boardinghouse. Ringgold also worked her own claims, but never found appreciable amounts of gold. James Crump was originally a miner around Marysville and Silver Butte, but moved his family to Helena, where they became leaders in that town’s black community. The Crump house still stands in Helena.

Black miners in Montana mostly worked independently. This was generally, but not exclusively, the case elsewhere in the Far West. The Anaconda Company, which came to dominate Montana’s mining industry until well into the 20th century, did not hire black workers. J. P. Ball, Jr., editor of Montana’s first black newspaper, The Colored Citizen, denounced the company town of Anaconda, referring to it as “the iron claw of corporate infernalism which has always crushed out the black man from every factory and workshop.” Other sources show that from its beginnings in the mid188Os, Anaconda excluded African American workers; and, in Butte, where Irish miners controlled unions, miners of color were kept out. In 1894 The Colored Citizen reported that many black miners had recently left Montana to work for corporate mines in Roslyn, Washington, itself the location of a thriving black community. “So satisfactory have been the results in these cases that a number of corporations have turned their sagacious eyes coloredmen-ward.”

Although documentation is scanty, records indicate a few African Americans engaged in ranching in the Montana Territory. George and Vindia Smith owned a ranch on the Missouri River near the settlement of Flood in the late territorial period. Vindia Smith was born in Tennessee and had come to Fort Benton in the 188Os. Black rancher William Bairpaugh, the son of a Cherokee chief and an African American woman, was born in Indian Territory in 1859. As a youth he came to Montana and eventually acquired enough ranch land around Black Eagle and Great Falls to earn a reputation as one of wealthiest African Americans in the northwestern U.S. Bairpaugh reportedly gave away much of his wealth to the black poor in Great Falls, and he died there in 1928.

A few African Americans also farmed, although agriculture in Montana was limited until the homestead boom in the early 20th century. Others worked on railroad construction in the early 188Os and later as porters and servants for railroads. In short, African American men worked in virtually every industry in the territory. By statehood in 1889, this occupational diversity expanded to include more professions and skilled trades.

Black Women in the Montana Territory

Over the last three decades historians and other researchers have documented a general but deep-seated desire among African American families after emancipation for the women to stay home to raise the children and care for the elderly. But historically, black women, out of economic necessity, have been two to three times more likely than white women to work outside the home. Black women held proportionately more unskilled jobs than white women, mostly as servants, cooks, and laundresses. Glenda Riley has written that in the eyes of many employers, these activities were logical extensions of the roles of enslaved women. The skilled profession most open to African American women historically was teaching in separate black schools.

In 1870 there were twenty-nine African American women listed in the Montana territorial census, about 18 percent of the black population. About half worked outside the home. Seven girls under 18 worked as servants of white families, some in remote places miles away from towns. Slightly over half of the women were listed as “keeping house.” By 1880, there were proportionately more black women and children living in the Montana Territory than ten years earlier. Sixty-three percent of the children were born in Montana, suggesting a certain level of persistence among their families. As it had been ten years earlier, the occupational profile of the seventy-two women listed in 1880 was fairly typical for the region: about 60 percent held outside jobs, mostly as laundresses, servants, or cooks; and two women ran boarding houses. The remaining 40 percent were keeping house, in comparison with 55 percent in 1870.

In both territorial censuses, a handful of women identified as “keeping house” were apparently neither married nor living with domestic partners, making it difficult to identify their means of support. A few may have been prostitutes, but there is relatively little evidence of black prostitution in the western territories. Where it did exist, it was typically in places with highly transient male populations such as ranching or military towns.

These generalities appear consistent with records on prostitution in the Montana Territory. Each census identified many prostitutes, almost all Chinese. There are no African American women listed as prostitutes in either territorial census. However, other sources indicate that there may have been a few at the military fort in Miles City, and at Fort Benton, both with large numbers of transient males. Annie Turner was identified in the 1880 census as keeping house in Miles City, but contemporary newspapers refer to her as a restaurant owner and “madam.” Fannie French, a black woman in Miles City, was reputed to be a madam, but she also owned a livery stable and was said to be an accomplished horsewoman. The Benton Record Weekly illustrated a white ambivalence about prostitution and race in the following item from April 1879:

It is said that one of the leading saloon keepers of Benton is negotiating for an invoice of hurdy-gurdys, to be shipped from Bismarck [North Dakota] via the river. We are not sure that this enterprise will be any detriment to Benton. Dancing damsels of questionable repute may not improve the morals of a community, but they are several shades better than [N]egro prostitutes, and it is thought they will have the effect of driving out the latter.

One notable black Montana woman was Sarah Gammon Bickford of Virginia City. Born in slavery in North Carolina, she came to Montana in 1870 with a Confederate veteran’s family and later married an African American miner who died in 1877. In 1888 Sarah and her second husband, Stephen Bickford, a white miner, bought two-thirds interest in the Virginia City water utility. Sarah Gammon Bickford managed the books for the company and, upon her husband’s death in 1900, ran it herself with a daughter. Bickford bought out the remaining interest in the company, expanded it, and operated it until she died in 1931.

Another African American Montana woman is the source of some of the very few territorial-era primary sources by a black author. These are a series of letters from Anna Gordon, mother of the musician Taylor Gordon. Anna Gordon’s husband’s work as a cook often took him away from his family in White Sulphur Springs. In July 1888 she wrote:

Dear Husband,

I received yours of the 16th. I was glad to hear from you and sorry you are not feeling well. This summer I am tolerably well. The children are all well, the Baby creeps a little now and is fat and Hearty. I guess you get tired of hearing of Bills, but I think I should tell you what 1 do with the money. Up to the 1st of May, Anderson’s Bill was $30 and I give them $30 on the first of June and to Olson’s Bill of $8 dollars I gave him $5 and to the Druggist $5. …

I wish something would turn up for you on this side. They say the Road will be build to Niehart this Fall. Mrs. Meek is over to Barker. She sends her regards to you….

Your Affectionate wife, Anna Gordon.

Anna’s other correspondence similarly records progress of children and family expenses. The life of Taylor Gordon has been relatively well documented, but the entire family’s life and history warrants a more detailed study and analysis. Anna Gordon lived her entire life in Montana with her children, and she died in 1924.

Along with gender and occupational data, the territorial censuses provide information on states of birth and literacy rates among African American Montanans. In both census years the most highly represented region of origin was the border states of Kentucky and Missouri: 41 percent listed one of these as their birthplace in 1870, and 36 percent did so in 1880. In 1870, 14 percent were from the New England states and 9 percent from Virginia. By 1880, a higher proportion listed Montana as their place of birth. In both census years, relatively few African Americans came from the Deep South.

The 1870 census indicates that at least half and possibly as many as 75 percent of the African Americans then in Montana were literate. These are relatively high figures, as the national black literacy rate was 20 percent that year. These numbers support what many historians have written, that African Americans who migrated west were relatively well educated and skilled. Unfortunately, literacy data from the 1880 census is so sketchy as to be unusable.

Community Development

The second period in Montana territorial black history can be linked to the larger wave of migration out of the South after the overthrow of Radical Reconstruction in the late 1870s. Although we do not have detailed census data for 1890, one year after statehood (manuscript data was destroyed in a fire), we know that the African American population was about 1,490-approximately four times the 1880 figure. This constitutes a significant increase in the black population in Montana, and, as in early censuses, represents about 1 percent of the total Montana population. It has been suggested that many of the African Americans who came to Montana after Reconstruction were family members of those already in the territory. It appears that this second wave of migration into Montana spurred development of thriving and cohesive black communities, which were well documented later, around the turn of the century. Elsewhere in the Far West, increased African American settlement often translated into viable communities during this period.

In addition to the 1890 census, the main records for this late territorial period are two primary sources dating to 1894. Although these were produced five years into statehood, they document communities that were flourishing in the early 189Os. These sources are especially valuable because they are among the earliest sources actually produced by African Americans. One is the newspaper The Colored Citizen, which ran briefly before the state-capital contest in 1894, and the other is the minutes of a regional conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church held in Helena the same year.

Quintard Taylor, Jr., has developed a model of black community growth in the 19th century West that, together with material from other historians, informs the birth of Montana’s territorial black communities. The model is characterized by urbanization, organization, and adaptation. Taylor has argued that although the greatest numbers of African Americans went to large cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle, “often the most vibrant African American communities thrived in smaller cities and towns,” citing Helena, Montana as one example.

African Americans overwhelmingly migrated to western towns because they offered better job opportunities than rural locations and solidarity with other African Americans. The church was usually the first institution organized collectively within these communities, oftentimes African Methodist Episcopal (AME) or Baptist, and served as the community center and provided accommodations and support for other groups. On the surface these groups mirrored social, cultural, and benevolent organizations in the larger society, but most also addressed the unique needs of their population. For example, African American women tended to be less concerned with suffrage and union issues than white women, and they addressed more immediate matters such as organizing day care centers or nurseries for working women. Black-owned newspapers were frequently established next as a means of consolidating local communities and linking them to national African American networks.

By 1890 there were thriving enclaves of African Americans in Helena, Great Falls, and Butte, and smaller populations in Miles City, Fort Benton, Virginia City, and a few other towns in Montana. In 1894 there were enough AME churches in the state that the Colorado Conference of the AME denomination held its regional conference in Helena. There were also numerous African American social, civic, and benevolent societies by the early 20th century. One of the earliest was the Pioneer Social Club organized in Virginia City in 1867.

The Colored Citizen was the earliest of three newspapers published for African Americans citizens in Montana before World War I. It was published for less than a year during the bitter struggle over mining baron Marcus Daly’s unsuccessful attempt to have the state capital moved from Helena to Anaconda. As an historical document, The Colored Citizen is invaluable for its depiction of the distinct black community in Helena, which, as noted above, was growing during the late territorial period. Financing a black newspaper to generate political support was a common strategy of white Republicans in the western states. While white Republicans at least partially financed The Colored Citizen to encourage black voters to support Helena as the permanent capital, the paper was far from being merely a Republican mouthpiece. Editor J. P. Ball, Jr. was the son of a former abolitionist and acclaimed daguerreotypist, James Presley Ball; the younger Ball took full advantage of the opportunity the newspaper afforded Montana’s black population. Acknowledging its origins in the debate over the capital, he nevertheless asserted that “There are no strings on us. We are running a paper devoted to the interests and welfare of our people.”

At times, the newspaper proved a flashpoint for racial animosities. We have no record of how many letters like the following were received, but did not get published:

A lot of us Democrats have ordered your paper stopped. You are on too high a plane. Why don’t you come down and give us some Jim Crow? Be sure to scratch my name off. Oh, you have already done so…. Bourbon Democrat.

In one sense, black communities in the western states were closely integrated with the non-black populations through the local and regional economies. The concentration of African Americans in towns meant they often worked in businesses supporting major industries such as ranching and mining; however, as the Montana census data shows, relatively few worked directly in these fields. As black communities developed, they usually saw the emergence of a black elite, which included clergy, perhaps a doctor or lawyer, newspaper editors, business or real estate entrepreneurs, barbers, and servants of wealthy white families. This trend was typical in the Far West and stemmed from a more highly developed system of social stratification existing in the older parts of the country. In Montana, the black elite included individuals whose lives have been relatively well documented such as Samuel Lewis in Bozeman, and John Lambert “Duke” and Maria (Adams) Dutriueille of Helena, successful entrepreneurs. Less well-known are individuals such as policeman W. C. Irwin in Helena; John D. Poston, a lawyer from Libby; and certainly many others whose stories, beyond the tantalizing facts offered in the census, remain obscure.

For the most part, western towns were not separated into identifiable black and white neighborhoods. The towns grew quickly, and their relative smallness did not require people living in close proximity to maintain contact with each other. Still, many Montana towns had small districts containing businesses run and patronized mostly by African Americans. In these ways Montana’s black communities appear consistent with Taylor’s model of how African American communities developed in the Far West in general. secondary sources on black postbellum culture also help us understand the Montana experience. The pages of The Colored Citizen and the 1894 minutes of the AME’s Colorado Conference depict a strong value on the church and traditional family structures, which was typical in the national African American population. Yet, while many African Americans invoked Christianity and the national values embedded in documents such as the Declaration of Independence, social and religious institutions had unique relevance for African Americans which was often not apparent or understandable to whites. Black churches, clubs, and fraternal organizations mirrored those in the dominant society in form but served distinct purposes for a black population whose “core value” was self-determination within American society. This was true in Montana as well as elsewhere in the Far West.

In the Montana Territory, there was also evidence of values specific to African Americans’ shared history of enslavement and discrimination, including the importance of kinship ties and the commitment to education, respectability, and social justice. In addition, we find evidence that women’s contributions to the community were appreciated and respected beyond their roles as spouses and mothers. The Colored Citizen encouraged young women to go into business for themselves and advocated political rights for women (Montana women gained suffrage in 1912). Records on Montana’s black communities also show a strong tendency among individuals who acquired any level of wealth-whether through entrepreneurship, strict saving, or even illegal enterprises-to share it with those less advantaged in their communities.

The best-established black communities in Montana were ordered by a social stratification largely unnoticed in white society. In most of urban America, black society was layered with complex rules; whites, however, tended to view African Americans as a homogeneous mass. In Montana, as elsewhere, black leaders sometimes discouraged social intercourse with whites-and with African Americans of questionable repute. At the same time, they actively sought out political and economic equality in the larger society. J. P. Ball, Jr. addressed the white reading audience in 1894: “We do not ask access to your social circles. We have our own, and it, too, is banned against those who are not acceptable from our standpoint. Our plea is for fair and impartial treatment in places of public accommodation.” Ball’s eloquent writings in the short-lived newspaper he edited are a valuable source in the search to document Montana’s African American communities.


Though the primary materials are scarce, several important conclusions can be drawn from this initial study of African Americans in the Montana Territory. First, African Americans came to Montana in numbers that were as high as they ever would be, planting viable communities that peaked in strength and cohesiveness in the early 20th century. second, they did so within a larger society that was at best ambivalent, and at times hostile and discriminatory. Third, these conditions, and the way African Americans forged communities, followed patterns that were generally typical in the western states.

A study of this nature by definition casts a wide net. It also raises as many questions as it answers. Left out of such a collective history are the many individuals whose lives do not fit the generalities and trends. There are also other topics concerning groups left to investigate, such as transnational activities of African Americans moving into Canada and Afro-Canadians into Montana, and the “non-typical” black Catholics in Miles City, Montana.

Future studies need to consider the complex intersection of the racial identities of Native Americans, African Americans, and European Americans in the American West. The Blackfeet Indians of the northern Plains, upon first encountering African Americans associated with the fur trade, created a word for them that literally translates as “black white man.” Rose Taylor, sister of the musician Taylor Gordon, wrote in an autobiographical sketch that she was the first “white” child born in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. However, in other writings Gordon indicated a clear identification with and pride in her African American heritage; in this context, the comment suggests she meant she was the first non-Indian born in those parts. And the territorial anti-miscegenation law applied only to white-black marriages, not to unions between whites or African Americans and Indians. How did the ways people defined themselves and others influence individual lives and community development?

The next step is to bring this forgotten black heritage into the era of statehood. After the state’s black communities peaked in the 1910s, African Americans eventually began leaving the state, never again constituting even one percent of the population as they had during territorial days. Montana may be the only western state for which this was true, and the next phase of research should explain how and why this occurred.