Blacks in North Dakota History
Monday, January 19, 2004
Today is Martin Luther King Day, and we’re talking about the role of African Americans in North Dakota’s history.
There’s never been a significantly large population of blacks in North Dakota; most who currently live here are affiliated with air bases and colleges. But there have been blacks in the state as long as there have been whites. Early records indicate that the earliest blacks came as slaves of explorers and traders. In fact, the first non-Native child born here was black.
Many also came of their own accord to follow the American dream. One of our most famous North Dakotans was Era Bell Thompson, who became the international editor of Ebony Magazine. She was the daughter of a homesteader near Driscoll who moved to Bismarck in 1919 to run a secondhand store.
Ironically, blacks had a major advantage over European immigrants — they spoke English. Many had fought in the Civil War, and most had seen enough of the world to know they had a choice of whether to stay here or not; European settlers, on the other hand, were not as aware of their alternatives.
Many African Americans who came to the state were associated with the steamboat trade from St. Louis. Others were in the army. After the Civil War, many regiments were being relocated out west to provide protection for the railroads, homesteaders and gold-seekers. Many thought that the black soldiers wouldn’t be able to withstand the harsh Dakota winters, but General William Sherman, military commander of the West, insisted that troupes sent here be of both races.
In July 1891, two companies of blacks from the 25th Infantry Regiment arrived at Fort Buford on the upper Missouri, quickly followed by a third. The next summer, two companies from the 10th Cavalry joined them, and by 1893, Fort Buford was made up entirely of black enlisted men; the only whites at the fort were commissioned officers. Native Americans called these blacks buffalo soldiers because their hair reminded them of curly buffalo hair.
There were also blacks working as cowboys. Twenty-two year old James Williams worked cattle in the Medora area in 1886, and it’s told that he was such a good roper that he once lassoed a goose right out of midair. Another well-known black cowboy was John Tyler, a friend to Teddy Roosevelt.
Of those blacks who came to homestead, William Montgomery is noted for his 1000-acre bonanza farm south of Fargo. In the Mouse River area, Frank Taylor was a highly respected horse dealer; he had a ranch near Towner where he specialized in raising and trading Percherons and Belgians.
And in sports, North Dakota had integrated baseball teams already in the 1930s. Long before Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, baseball teams all across North Dakota lured, from the Negro Leagues, some of the best players in the world, including legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige.
In short, blacks may not have settled here in large numbers… but their contributions have certainly been noteworthy.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm