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African-Americans in the American West

Grade level: 7-12

The role of African Americans in the movement towards westward expansion has been largely overlooked in American history books. This lesson attempts to focus students' attention on the lives and contributions of these often forgotten pioneers. Students will examine documents and statistics to compare treatment by the government of the United States and other westward migrants of Blacks and Indians.

The lesson is divided into four parts, the first calling attention to early contributors to that past, such as William Clark's slave, known only as "York", and to James Beckwourth, who had a long and adventurous career as trader, trapper, scout and interpreter.

The second part of the lesson emphasizes the period just before the Civil War, when abolitionists, escaped slaves and free blacks moved into the border states and the disputed territories of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

The final two sections of this lesson concentrate on the lives of the Exodusters and other African Americans who sought opportunities as westward pioneers, and on the Buffalo Soldiers. These African American soldiers, so named by Indians who thought the blacks' hair resembled buffalo fur, were Civil War veterans, joined by later enlistees. These troops provided little-known service to the American military establishment in the conquest and pacification of the last frontier lands. That they suffered discrimination and the resentment of the overwhelmingly white settlers and entrepreneurs they defended, while fighting the remnants of the similarly oppressed, harassed and reviled native Americans seems particularly ironic and poignant in our own time.

Estimated Time
Necessary Materials
Teaching Procedure
Assessment Recommendations
Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Recommended Resources
Relevant National Standards


Students will:

  • become familiar with the experiences of African Americans who participated in the westward movement,
  • learn how the selection of evidence by historians influences perceptions of later generations, and
  • compare and contrast treatment of African Americans and Native Americans as territorial expansion became intertwined with official government policies.

Estimated Time
Depending upon time allotted for research, between 3 and 6 50-minute class periods.

Necessary Materials

  • Computers with Internet Access
  • A printer
  • A copy of the PBS Video The West, Episodes: 1, 2, 4 and 7.
  • Selection of books and Web sites as listed in Recommended Resources below.
  • Student notebooks
  • Desk maps of the US
  • Poster board, and other art materials for maps and posters
  • Optional: a scanner

Teaching Procedure

  1. Ask students to brainstorm all that they know about African Americans' participation in the Westward movement. List and order information on the chalkboard and have students attempt to assign a chronology to the events they produce. Are there any individual names or biographies that stand out? Have students discuss reasons for their findings, whatever they may be. Have them hypothesize and make inferences about their results, and speculate about where they might find evidence of an African American footprint on the West.

  2. Have students view "Corps of Discovery" in Episode 1, "The People" (this segment begins at 103:08 with Lewis and Clark); students should take notes as they watch. Also have them view the Introduction to Episode 2, "Empire Upon The Trails (roughly, the first 11 minutes).

    They should also view the first two segments of Episode 4, "Death Runs Riot": the "Introduction and "Free Soil." These sections address the nation's vision of orderly westward expansion, the U.S. government's loss of control of the West during the Civil War, and the settlement of Kansas.

    Finally, have students watch Episode 7, "The Geography of Hope, beginning at approximately 1:19 and ending at 1:24, with the song "Shine, Shine, Shine."

  3. After students have finished viewing and examining their notes, have them discuss how the idea of the West as "the Promised Land" and what this idea might have meant to African Americans. They should also compare and contrast legal discrimination and white prejudice against blacks and Indians during the same time periods. They should be reminded to keep on making these comparisons as they research their topics in the smaller group activities that follow.

  4. Divide students into 4 cooperative learning groups. Each of the four groups will be responsible for researching a different aspect of African Americans' contributions to westward expansion.

    • Group 1
      This group will investigate African Americans of the early western frontier, including the slave known as York (who traveled with Lewis and Clark) and especially Jim Beckwourth. Students should closely document Beckwourth's travels and his many-faceted career by making a large map and on it tracing his known routes starting with his birthplace in Virginia, and ending with his death among the Crow Indians. They should calculate the approximate number of miles he traveled as he made his way back and forth across the Rockies and the Great Plains.

      Students may begin their research with the following:

    • Group 2
      The second group will investigate the African American migrations and their consequences around the time of the Abolition movement leading up to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott Decision. Students should locate primary sources of the legislation as well as speeches and documents produced by abolitionists and their sympathizers in Congress and elsewhere. One student may be designated as the group's legal expert, concentrating on the laws that encouraged African Americans to cross into the new territories and on subsequent laws that increasingly restricted their opportunities. Another student could be asked to become familiar with provisions of Indian treaties and their abrogation.

      Students should also keep track of how population estimates for Native Americans change during the same time frames. Population figures are available from the U.S. Census Bureau and are included in many of the published sources suggested in the accompanying bibliography.

      (For extra credit some students may choose to map and date the relocation of Indian tribes from these same contested areas.)

      Students may begin their research with the following:

    • Group 3
      A third group should research the Exoduster movement. They should identify and locate black towns, learn details about the lives of African American homesteaders, and the occupations of the enterprising black men and women who ventured to the Far West.

      Students should ask:

      • Did these pioneers engage in encounters and conflicts with the Indians?
      • Are there parallels in how both groups were regarded by whites?
      • Where were Blacks likely to find the greatest opportunities in the west?

      Here too, teams should designate legal experts to document discriminatory laws against African Americans that were passed in once welcoming states of the Pacific Northwest and to become familiar with those laws that set further limits on the freedom of the Indians.

      Students may begin their research with the following:

    • Group 4
      This group will research the Buffalo Soldiers. They should focus in their research on: the missions these soldiers were given; the treatment of the enlisted black troops by officers and government officials; and, the settlers they protected and the Indians they were sent to subdue. What were the missions in the west for which these soldiers were rewarded for valor? Students may begin their research with the following:

    Each groups should organize its own research, and members should be assigned to specific topics, taking notes as they go in their individual notebooks. When students have completed their own assignments, they should gather for small group exchanges of information.

  5. When student groups have completed their research, each group should create the following "documents":
    • A poster, broadside, or newspaper front page of the period of the student's research concentration, highlighting important events affecting African Americans of that time.
    • A letter from an African American to a family member east of the Mississippi, explaining what he or she has witnessed and giving the subject's feelings about the event or events.
    • A speech by a plains-dwelling native American about the presence of blacks in their lands.

    (Younger students might prepare only one of the above.)

    Also provide each pair of students with a desk-size relief map of the US, upon which the team is to show areas of the West with appropriate boundaries indicated for their time period and significant places for their topic.

    The above documents should be displayed and shared by the entire class and discussed from the point of view of historic evidence. If they were indeed artifacts of eyewitness history, what credibility would they have? How objective are eyewitness reports? Could their documents be used as propaganda for or against a cause? Have students analyze their own accounts for their omissions.

  6. Finally each group should graph the population figures for blacks, Native Americans and whites west of the Mississippi River for the time period of its research. These should be displayed so that the class may compare them. What trends can students detect? What causes would they assign to changes they observe? What outcomes might they predict for these same groups of people in contemporary census figures?

Assessment Recommendations
Students may be assessed on the following:

  1. the documents they produce (do they reflect both their research and their understanding of the limitations of perspective of the denizens of the particular place and time?),
  2. their understanding of geographical and population pressures on historical events, and
  3. their contributions to large and small group discussion (e.g., have they demonstrated and understanding of legal and other factors affecting African Americans and Native Americans during westward expansion?).

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

  1. Each of the four student groups might prepare and present a dramatization based on what students have learned about their topic. This could be an imagined vignette from an episode in Jim Beckwourth's colorful life; a debate in Congress between pro-slavery and free soil or abolitionist members; an African American family's discussion about the pros and cons of trying to homestead or to head for one of the black towns in Kansas; or, a confrontation between black enlisted men and townspeople in a settlement threatened by hostile Indians.

  2. Older students might prepare a series of mock Congressional debates. Debate points might include: allowing free African Americans the right to vote in new States, granting federal homestead lands to black settlers, and the suitability of African American soldiers to serve in Western regiments (a group "legal advisers" can serve as consultants and experts).

  3. Engage the class in a discussion on the nature of historical evidence and historical truth. What have they learned about the writing of history from the work they have done? What have they learned about the selection of primary and secondary sources? What have they learned about the contributions of African Americans to the story of the American West?

Recommended Resources

  • Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem and Steinberg, Alan. Black Profiles in Courage. New York: William Morrow, 1996.
  • Blumberg, Rhoda. The Incredible Journey of Lewis and Clark. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1987.
  • Cox, Clinton. The Forgotten Heroes: The Story of the Buffalo Soldiers. New York: Scholastic, 1993.
  • Dudley, William, ed. Native Americans: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998.
  • Franklin, John Hope and Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Knopf, 2000.
  • Kelley, Robin D.G. and Lewis, Earl, eds. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. New York: Oxford, 2000.
  • Katz, William Loren. The Black West. New York: Touchstone, 1996.
  • Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodus to Kansas After Reconstruction. New York, Norton, 1976.
  • Schubert, Frank. Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor. Wilmington: SR Books, 1997.
  • Stalcup, Brenda, ed. Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.
  • Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier. New York: Norton, 1998.

Relevant National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national curriculum standards established by the National Center for History in the Schools.

  • Standards in Historical Thinking
    • Standard 2, E: The student thinks chronologically and can read historical narratives imaginatively, taking into account what the narrative reveals of the humanity of the individuals and groups involved.
    • Standard 2, F: Appreciates historical perspectives
    • Standard 3, A: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation and can compare and contrast differing sets on ideas, values, …by identifying likenesses and differences.
    • Standard 3, F: >Compares competing historical narratives

  • United States History Standards for Grades 5-12
    • Era 4, Standard 2: How the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions.
    • Era 5, Standard 3: How various reconstruction plans succeeded or failed.

    About the Author
    Sari Grossman has taught at the Village Community School in New York City since its founding in 1970. Prior to that she taught at the Bank Street School for Children, where she received her professional training in education, and served as a social studies consultant to Follow Through and Head Start programs in Boulder, Philadelphia, Cambridge, and Brooklyn, among other locations. She has co-authored an innovative fraction workbook called, "Show Me one Half," and with Joan, an anthology on immigrant experiences published by NTC. Over the years, she's also offered numerous workshops in math, literature, and social studies at teachers' conferences in various states. She is currently finding the Internet a new stimulus for creating curriculum.

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