Gold Rush brought black Americans to Idaho, as it did everyone else

York of the Lewis and Clark expedition, depicted in a painting by C.M. Russsell, was the first black man that American Indians ever saw.
York of the Lewis and Clark expedition, depicted in a painting by C.M. Russsell, was the first black man that American Indians ever saw. Provided by Arthur Hart

Since February is being celebrated across the nation as Black History Month, let’s take a look at Idaho’s black history from materials I have been collecting for the past 40 years.

To trace the history of black people in Idaho we naturally begin with York, the black man who in 1804-05 accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition as Clark’s slave, across what would become Idaho. Other black free men came west as fur trappers in the decades that followed.

The gold rush to Boise Basin in the 1860s brought black Americans to Idaho, as well as people from all over the world. George Owens’ 1864 directory records some of them and what they did for a living. In Placerville, “W. Fields, colored, miner” was one of the very few blacks with that occupation. George Harris, Joseph R. Johnson and N. Susand were all proprietors of hair dressing and bathing rooms, often called “bathing saloons.” In Pioneer City, J.F. Skanks ran the Pioneer hair dressing saloon and Peter Lee operated one in Centerville.

In Idaho City, metropolis of the Basin, we find the first listing of a black woman. Mrs. Mariah Green worked in the Magnolia Restaurant on Montgomery Street. J.B. Finley, A.D. McAlfrey, Louis Noisett and Andrew Johnston ran hair dressing and bathing rooms. J. Jenes is listed as “steward.” P. Byas is the only black man listed for Buena Vista Bar, but his occupation is not given.

Showing that there were many more African Americans in Idaho County than those mentioned above, we have this item from the Boise News of Idaho City, published on Oct. 8, 1864: “Colored Funeral — Some 33 or 34 colored persons followed the remains of the barber Prim, who was killed by Ullman, to the West Hill Cemetery.”

This clearly suggests to me that black citizens, whatever their occupations, formed a community bonded together against white discrimination and racial bias. As we shall see, as the story unfolds, they would form their own churches and social clubs and make lifelong friends and allies in the white community.

The federal census of 1870 gives us the first biographical and factual data on Idaho Territory’s black population at that time. The pages of the Idaho Statesman and other early newspapers record life and events that the census could not.

Black entertainers have been popular throughout our history, and many of them visited Idaho in the 19th century. On Feb. 24, 1870, the Statesman reported, “Negro Magician. Professor Wilkinson, magician, will spread his tricks at Hart’s Hall on Saturday night. He was here with Dr. Stanley’s troupe two years ago and will be remembered by many as a very pleasing negro performer, and he comes among us now in a new role. His rope trick and African ball trick are spoken of by the papers as being unsurpassed. It is safe to say he will give a good performance.”

There were 14 black people in Boise City in 1870, with an interesting variety of backgrounds. Joseph P. Allen, 37, was born in England. He had a wife, Susan, 27, born in Massachusetts, two small children and a black housekeeper named Sarah Moody, 36, born in the District of Columbia. Her relation, if any, to Robert S. Moody, 29, a barber born in Jamaica, is unknown. He died of a pistol shot in 1870. James Nall, 36, a cook, was born in Maryland.

John West, 35, common laborer, who was born in Pennsylvania, would become the city’s best-known black for a generation. When he died in October 1903, the Statesman called him “the dean of colored pioneers in Idaho” and said that his death was “almost the equivalent to the removal of an old landmark in Boise,” and that he had “always retained the respect of those who knew him.” Well-known Boiseans who were his friends and supporters included Dr. George Collister, Edgar Wilson and Frank R. Coffin.

Next week we’ll continue the history of Idaho’s black pioneers.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.