STEAMFUNK ADVENTURERS & EXPLORERS: Black Pathfinders in the Age of Steam!
This month, I feature the Adventurers / Explorers.
As always, your feedback is welcomed and encouraged.
William Sheppard is a man who fended off crocodile attacks and shot hippos to feed starving villagers; negotiated his way into the forbidden kingdom of the aristocratic Kuba people; and documented the aftermath of a village massacre instigated by the Belgian colonial regime to punish native Congolese who refused to harvest rubber.
Sheppard – a black man, born at the end of the Civil War – somehow managed to leapfrog over the racial barriers of the American South to explore a place all but closed to the rest of the world…Africa.
As a child in Waynesboro, Virginia, William Sheppard heard about Africa and declared: “When I grow up I shall go there.”
In 1889, his big break came. Sheppard shipped out in the company of Samuel Lapsley, a white man in his early twenties who was comfortable with blacks after years of preaching to ex-slaves who filed into the church on his family’s 400-acre farm in Alabama.
Upon reaching the Congo, Lapsley and Sheppard set off on an arduous trailblazing journey to establish a Christian mission among the Kuba tribe.
Sheppard was impressed by most of the native Congolese they met. He, in turn, quickly won their admiration and trust for his courage, good humor, and genuine interest in their lives.
After cleverly finding his way into the secret kingdom of the Kuba – a tribe whose culture he documented extensively – Sheppard so charmed the king and his advisers that they abandoned the idea of executing him for his intrusion and instead declared him “Bope Mekabe,” a royal ancestor who has risen from the dead and returned as a spirit.
Less than two years after arriving in the Congo, Samuel Lapsley died of blackwater fever.
After Lapsley’s death, Sheppard summoned his wife from America to join him in his crusading efforts. She arrived in the company of other U.S. missionaries, and together they built a thriving mission at Luebo staffed by all Blacks.
In 1899 the terror sanctioned by the Belgian-controlled government of the Congo Free State edged closer to the mission station at Luebo. A feared tribe known as the Zappo-Zaps, who practiced slave trading and were armed with European rifles, were sent to punish people in the Pianga region for failing to cooperate with the state-sponsored rubber companies.
Sheppard knew Kuba people in Pianga, so he traveled to the region to compile a report.
The scene that lay before him was grisly. Zappo-Zap warriors had herded the villagers into a stockade and demanded extortionist levels of rubber, slaves, and food—a payment the Kuba could not meet. Sheppard arrived to find corpses crumpled in the yard, the bodies dismembered and putrid in the steamy heat.
His notebooks painstakingly document the gory details, including the pile of 81 severed black hands, which Sheppard counted one by one, used as proof to colonial officials that the brutal and bloody deed had been done.
On the lecture circuit back in the United States Sheppard’s report of the aforementioned atrocities began circulating. The international press picked up the story, catapulting Sheppard into the spotlight as a human rights crusader.
In an attempt to escape the demands of fame, Sheppard retired, enjoying a quiet life with his wife, raising their family and eventually ministering to Black people in the slums of Louisville, Kentucky.
Nat (pronounced ‘Nate’) Love
The most famous black cowboy of all, Nat Love – also known as Deadwood Dick (1854–1921) – was born a slave on the plantation of Robert Love in Davidson County, Tennessee, in June, 1854. Despite slavery era statutes that outlawed black literacy, he learned to read and write as a child with the help of his father, Sampson Love.
Sampson died shortly after the end of slavery forcing young Nat to work two jobs on a local farm to help make ends meet.
After a few years of working odd jobs, Love won a horse in a raffle. He sold the horse for one hundred dollars and gave half to his mother, and he used the other half to leave town. He went west to Dodge City, Kansas, to find work as a cowboy.
In Dodge City, he met the cowboys from the Duval Ranch in Texas. After sharing breakfast with the crew, Love asked the trail boss for a job. The boss agreed to employ Love if he could break a horse named Good Eye, the wildest beast on the ranch. After receiving a few pointers from Bronco Jim, another black cowboy, Love successfully broke and rode Good Eye. The cowboys gave Love the nickname “Red River Dick” because of his excellent horse riding skills.
Nat Love had many adventures fighting against cattle rustlers and inclement weather. His many years of experience made him an expert marksman and cowboy.
After a few years, Love left the Texas Panhandle, and rode into Arizona, where he got a job working for a ranch on the Gila River. While in Arizona working with Mexican vaqueros, he learned to speak Spanish like a native and he became very good at reading brands.
In the spring of 1876, Love received orders to deliver three thousand steer to Deadwood City in the Dakota Territory. He arrived on the 3rd of July.
Deadwood City was preparing for their 4th of July celebration. The mining men and gamblers had gotten together and organized a rodeo with a $200 prize. Love entered the rodeo, winning the rope, throw, tie, bridle, saddle and bronco riding contests. Displaying incredible skill and athleticism, Love roped, threw, tied bridles, saddled, and mounted his mustang in exactly nine minutes. The next closest competitor took twelve minutes and thirty seconds. In the rifle and Colt events, shooting at 100 and 250 yards with 14 shots, Love placed all of his shots in the bulls-eye and 10 of the 12 pistol shots in the bulls-eye.
It was at this rodeo that fans gave him the nickname “Deadwood Dick.”
In October, 1877, while rounding up stray cattle, he was captured by a band of Akimel O’odham (Pima) near the Gila River. Love reported that his life was spared because the Native Americans respected his fighting ability. A short while after his capture, Love stole a pony and managed to escape into West Texas.
Love spent the latter part of his life working as a Pullman porter on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. He died in Los Angeles at age 67 in 1921.
Also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary Fields, Fields was the first African-American woman employed as a mail carrier in the United States – driving her mail route by stagecoach from Cascade, Montana to St. Peter’s Mission, Montana – and she was the second American woman to work for the United States Postal Service.
This six foot tall; heavily built; tough; short-tempered; two-fisted; powerful Black woman, who packed a pair of six-shooters and an eight or ten-gauge shotgun, quickly became renown in the American Wild West.
In 1884, Fields, in search of improved sustenance and adventure, made her way to Cascade County in west central Montana.
She took a job with the Ursuline Nuns at the St. Peter Mission. The nuns’ simple frontier facility was relatively well funded and they had a thriving business, converting “heathen savages”, and other “disgusting” customers, to the true path of salvation.
Fields was hired to do the heavy work and to haul freight and supplies to keep the nuns’ operation functional and well fed. She chopped wood, did stone work and rough carpentry, dug certain necessary holes, and when reserves were low she did one of her customary supply runs to the train stop, or even to the distant cities of Great Falls, or Helena when special needs arose.
On one such night run, Fields’ wagon was attacked by wolves. The horses, terrified by the lupine assault, bolted uncontrollably and overturned the wagon, dumping Fields and all her supplies onto the harsh prairie earth. Fields kept the wolves at bay for the entire night with her revolvers and rifle. When dawn broke, she delivered the freight.
Of course, the nuns, displaying great kindness and appreciation, did not hesitate to dock Mary’s pay for the molasses that leaked from a keg that was cracked on a rock when her wagon overturned.
Since Fields did not pay particular attention to her fashion and failed to look and act the part of a proper Victorian woman, many ruffian men attempted to trample on her rights and hard won privileges. Woe to all of them.
According to the Great Falls Examiner, the only newspaper available in Cascade at the time, Fields broke more noses than any other person in central Montana.
Once, a hired hand at the mission confronted Fields, complaining that, at nine dollars a month, she was earning $2 a month more than he was, calling Fields an “uppity colored woman”. To make matters worse, the man, who was known as Yu Lum Duck, made this same in public at one of the local saloons where Mary was a regular customer and to Bishop Filbus N.E. Berwanger of the St. Peter Mission.
This was more than enough to boil Fields’ blood and the two of them were soon engaged in a shoot-out behind the nunnery, next to the sheep shed. Bullets flew in every direction until Fields’ and Duck’s six-guns were empty, and a bullet, shot by Fields had bounced off the stone wall of the nunnery and hit Duck in the left buttock. The other bullets Fields fired passed through the laundry of Bishop Berwanger, generously ventilating his drawers and the two white shirts he had shipped from Boston only the week before (what his laundry was doing at the nunnery is left to your imagination).
Bishop Berwanger fired Fields and gave the injured Duck a raise.
Out of work and needing money, Fields opened a restaurant business in Cascade.
Unfortunately, her cooking was not all that delicious, so nobody would eat it and the restaurant closed in short order.
In 1895, Fields landed a job carrying the United States Mail. Since she had always been independent and determined, this work was perfect for her and she quickly developed a reputation for delivering letters and parcels no matter what the weather, nor how rugged the terrain.
Fields and her mule, Moses, plunged through bitter, raw blizzards and wilting heat to reach remote miners’ cabins and other outposts with important mail.
Fields’ dedication helped accommodate the land claim process, as well as other matters needing expeditious communication and greatly advanced the development of central Montana, a contribution for which she is given little credit.
Fields, known by then as Stagecoach Mary for her ability to deliver mail on a regular schedule, continued in this capacity until she reached well into her sixties. She retired from the mail delivery business, and at the age of seventy, she opened a laundry service, also in Cascade.
Figuring that by now she deserved to relax just a bit, she didn’t do a lot of laundry, but rather spent a considerable portion of her time in the local saloon, drinking whiskey and smoking her foul cigars with the sundry assortment of dusty men who were attracted to the place.
One such lout failed to pay his laundry bill to her, however and, hearing him out in the street, she left the saloon and knocked him flat with one blow. She was 72 years old at the time. Fields told her drinking companions that the satisfaction she got from that act was worth more than the bill owed, so the score was settled.
In 1914 Fields died of a liver failure. Neighbors buried her in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade, marking the spot with a simple wooden cross which still exists today.
Reeves was born a slave in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, and was given the surname of his owner, George Reeves, a farmer and politician. During the American Civil War, Bass parted company with George Reeves after beating him up following a dispute in a card game. Reeves fled north into the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and lived with the Seminole and Creek Nations.
Reeves later moved to Arkansas and homesteaded near Van Buren, where he married Nellie Jennie from Texas. They had ten children – five boys and five girls.
Reeves and his family farmed until 1875, when the legendary Isaac Parker was appointed federal judge for the Indian Territory. Judge Parker appointed James F. Fagan as U.S. Marshal, and directed him to hire 200 deputy U.S. Marshals. Fagan heard about Bass Reeves, who knew the Indian Territory and could speak several Native languages, and recruited him as a deputy U.S. Marshal.
Reeves worked a total of thirty-two years as a Federal peace officer in the Indian Territory. He was one of Judge Parker’s most valued deputies, arresting some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, even arresting his own son for murder.
Reeves was an expert with a rifle and a pistol and during his long career, he developed superior detective skills. When he retired from Federal service in 1907, Reeves had arrested over 3,000 felons and admitted having to shoot and kill fourteen outlaws in defending his life while making arrests.
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Reeves, then 68, became an officer of the Muskogee, Oklahoma police department.
Reeves’ health failed in 1910, and he died of Bright’s disease on 12 January.
James Pierson Beckwourth
James Beckwourth was an African-American, born in Frederick County, Virginia in 1798, who played a major role in the early exploration and settlement of the American West. Beckwourth was the only African-American who recorded his life story, and his adventures took him from the everglades of Florida to the Pacific Ocean and from southern Canada to northern Mexico.
Filled with a powerful wanderlust, in the summer of 1824, Beckwourth signed on with General William Ashley for a trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains, taking part in a series of trapping expeditions with the American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company for several years, where he learned the frontiersman skills he would use for the rest of his life.
Beckwourth also met and worked with such well-known mountain men as Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Jim Clyman and Edward Rose. He participated in the first Mountain Man Rendezvous at Henry’s Fork on the Green River in 1825, the best-known social and business institution of the American mountain men.
Beckwourth played a leading role in virtually every recorded event in the Rocky Mountains in the late 1820’s and it was always Beckwourth’s skill and bravery that saved the day.
In 1828, while on a trapping expedition with Jim Bridger, Beckwourth was captured by a party of Crow warriors. He was mistaken for the long lost son of Big Bowl, one of the tribal chieftans, and adopted into the tribe. Beckwourth spent the next eight years with the Crow, and gained considerable influence with them, rising within their ranks to the level of War Chief, and was named head Chief of the Crow Nation upon the death of Chief Arapooish, also known as Chief “Rotten Belly”.
Beckwourth had as many as ten Crow wives at one time, but was smitten by the young warrior woman, Pine Leaf.
According to Beckwourth, Pine Leaf was captured from the Gros Ventre (Big Belly) tribe when she was about ten years old and raised as a Crow. She had a twin brother who was killed by the Blackfeet, and she swore that she would take no man as her husband until she killed one hundred enemy warriors with her own hands. Beckwourth admired her greatly and wooed her relentlessly. His perseverance finally paid off, and when Beckwourth returned to the Crow after a misadventure in which they thought him killed, Pine Leaf renounced the War Path and agreed to marry him.
But Beckwourth was becoming restless. He wasn’t rich and famous enough, saying “I have encountered savage beasts and wild men…and what have I to show for so much wasted energy, and such a catalogue of ruthless deeds?”
In July of 1836, still hoping to renew his contract with the American Fur Company, Beckwourth left the Crow and retured to St. Louis He felt lost and out of place and St. Louis was no longer the wild and primitive place Beckwourth had known growing up.
In the spring of 1837, still hoping to renew his contract with the American Fur Company, Beckwourth made one last visit to the Crow, and in so doing laid himself open to a malicious charge – he was accused of deliberately bringing smallpox to the plains Indians.
Beckwourth made many friends among the mountain men, but he made his share of enemies, as well, and once this accusation came to light, those enemies quickly picked it up and made it part of the Beckwourth legend. In fact, there is nothing to support the story except the testimony of a few writers with a long history of maligning Beckwourth’s character.
The story just doesn’t fit what is known about Beckwourth, who had a tremendous respect for all the plains tribes – even those he considered his enemies. Beckwourth would not think twice about bashing in an enemy’s skull in hand-to-hand combat, which he considered an honorable death, but he would have considered the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children by disease as dastardly, cowardly and evil.
Most writers of the time attributed the plague of 1837 to other sources.
In 1838, The American Fur Company had successfully won a major share of the fur trade on the upper Missouri. Businessmen Andrew Sublette and Louis Vasquez were trying their luck with the Native Americans of the Southwest and they had need of men such as James Beckwourth.
Vasquez was an old friend of Beckwourth’s and was glad to have his services. Here at last was the chance for “excitement,” for Beckwourth would be dealing with Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux – all traditional enemies of the Crow.
Beckwourth was named “agent-in-charge” and he immediately set out to establish himself among the Cheyenne. Through a Crow interpreter, he put on a display of braggadocio for the astonished Cheyenne, playing on their pride and respect for the brave deeds of enemy warriors and to the surprise of all except Beckwourth, he developed a friendship with the powerful Cheyenne.
Thanks to Beckwourth’s skill, Sublette and Vasquez had a successful fall and winter trade, and made enough to pay off their debts and outfit the next season’s trade.
Beckwourth’s friendship with the Cheyenne was cemented and would last for many years. But he soon began to tire of the monotony of his life, and set out with a companion over the rugged passes and down into Taos, New Mexico, where he formed a partnership with a friend and set out once again to trade with the Cheyenne, this time on his own account.
Beckwourth’s venture was successful enough that he and his partner were able to return to Taos and set up as merchants, settling in for a bit to enjoy the fruits of their labor. At that time, Beckwourth married Luisa Sandoval.
In October, 1842, Beckwourth took his wife north to what is now Colorado, where he built a trading post. They were soon joined by twenty or thirty settler families, and a thriving community was born. They happily named their little settlement “Pueblo”.
I hope you enjoyed the latest in the League of Extraordinary Black People Series. Be sure to join us next month when we examine Dandies / Femme Fatales!