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Black Americans In The Westward Movement: The Key Figures Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 16th, 2018


The era prior to the 19th Century portrayed the use of black Americans as slaves. The slave owners termed them as their property and great expansion of slavery was seen during this period. The Civil War that took place in the 19th Century brought with it a need and a demand to ban slavery in the American territories (Hauswald, 1998).

This marked the beginning of the Westward movement, a historical turning point of the Native Americans, with the authorization to construct the transcontinental railroad. This created great tension between the Southerners and Northerners who were both vying for routes to the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, this led to the Native Americans being displaced when the so called ‘Civilized tribes’ began to incorporate the white people’s culture towards the end of the Civil War in 1812.


Though the Native Americans practiced some form of slavery, theirs was not a harsh practice as was the case with the Europeans in the later case. According to Quintard (1990), they did not exploit their slaves neither did they trade them in the pre-colonial era. This practice of slavery by the Native Americans changed drastically on the arrival of the colonial Europeans in North America. They introduced a new era of slavery by capturing the Native Americans and forced them to work for them in their farms. (Barstow 1923).

Though this slave trade lasted till around1730, it however led to devastating tribal wars. The Indian wars in particular in the early 18th century, and with the increasingly numbers of Africans being imported as slaves categorically ended the Native American slave trade. The civilized Native American tribes began adopting the white culture by owning the African slaves.

They began trading the slaves and selling them to the whites. The Africans were actually abdicated from their homes and forcibly brought to work as slaves from their homes in Africa. It has been estimated that more than one million slaves were imported and sold in North America (Katz, 2005).

The Period Of The Westward Movement

During their time as slave workers, some black slaves attempted to defy the slavery system. They did this by destroying the property of their owner or pretending to be sick in order to avoid work. Others were bold enough to join slave revolts and turn against their masters. There were those bold enough who managed to escape but most chose to work in the farms for their masters for fear of facing the tough consequences that could include death.

The whites kept telling the black slaves of an ‘Underground Railroad’ that was a lee way to their freedom. It should be understood that it was this talk of the railroad that led to the slaves becoming suspicious. The volunteers helped the slaves to travel north to Canada. It was a risky process and the volunteers hid the slaves during the day at certain stops along the routes and proceeded at the dark fall. The volunteers comprised of both the whites and the blacks, the blacks facing a stricter punishment of death if caught trying to aid the slaves.

The Westward movement in the United States is therefore the events and conditions that lead to the exploration and the vast settlement at the United State frontier. This process began in the 17th century, even before the civil war and ended sometime in 1890s when the Great Plains were settled between Rocky Mountains and the River of Mississippi. The black Americans westward movement marked the last frontier and it was termed as a solid and the most persevering movement.

The Key Figures Involved In The Westward Movement

The key figures attempted to end the racial segregation of the slaves together with the discriminations they were facing. Their main agenda was to achieve an immediate liberation of the black Americans who had been taken up as slaves. We will discuss some key figures and their key involvement during the Westward movement.

The Buffalo Soldiers comprised of black soldiers who compared their stamina, fearlessness and strength to that of the buffalo. It was estimated that more than twenty five thousand Black Americans served in all black regiments and cavalry. Edward Hatch and Benjamin Grierson were the first commanders in chief for the negro soldiers. They historically became an integral part during the movement helping in the expansion of the nation.

Their major role during this period was to construct roads and built buildings. They also served as escorts to the settlers and further mapped the territory. They also ensured that the water supplies, the supply of forts and the telegraph lines were well defended across the West. In addition to conducting certain missions such as scouting, their main key role was to confiscate the tribes that had been designated to reservations and enter into conflict with the martial Native Americans.

The Buffalo soldiers however did not succeed without encountering challenges. Their main obstacle was characterized mainly by the intense racial tension that cultivated into attacks. They were cornered and given sound beatings and were occasionally harassed. They hardly received any recognition for their efforts and ended up being used as laborers even after the new revolution of the century.

Sojourner Truth on the other hand was a key figure who vehemently fought for the rights of women. This period saw most women being raped, ignored and discriminated against. Sojourner, a former slave fought for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women to be heard and she even attempted to aid former slaves making her a historical hero in American history.

The major challenge faced by Sojourner was getting permission to speak up in public to raise the plight of women and it wasn’t until 1851 that she first delivered a powerful speech titled ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ at a Women’s Rights Convention. Her speech was trying to emphasize that a woman should be given equal rights as their male counterparts. Sojourner Truth was also a religious character and she not only moved the crowd with her powerful speeches but also in her preaching.

During this movement, black Americans began taking part in developing the country and more of the black Americans came out portraying their ideas with a well self expressed speech. In 1772, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable led the blacks in constructing cabins and other structures on the north bank.

This was a bold step by a black American making him the first settler of that area and the father founder of north bank, later named Chicago. He further came up with the idea of trading fur in that area and soon after, it turned into a busy trading centre with a growing population. He faced challenges in that he was discriminated against and the black Americans still suffered from inferiority complex.

Another key figure worth noting is Esteban. He was an African slave and came later to be called the Runaway slave. He was transported to Cuba in the years 1791-1804 in the company of his parents to work as slaves to an increase in demand for labor. Esteban Montejo ran away and lived in a forest for the better part of his life until he got word that slavery had been abolished.

He played a key role during the movement by educating the slaves as they still believed that the whites were still the owners of humanity. He criticized the education being given to the black Americans terming them illiterate. Esteban faced major challenges such as fear of abduction and the numerous attempts to kill him during this period.

Rights, Issues and Legal Standing Of The Blacks During The Movement

The blacks had no rights during prior to this period. They were flogged mercilessly, sometimes resulting to death. They were referred to as the property of the owners and had no legal redress whatsoever. Graaf (1980) argues that women were brutally raped and abused and could never be allowed to speak in public.

It was not until after the movement that education was accessed to the blacks and for the first time they had power to even vote without fear. They were allowed to take up important positions in the country and could access justice. They were also able to resettle.


The westward movement will be remembered as a historical moment when the black Americans got their freedom. And for the first time in history, America has voted a Barrack Obama, as the president of the United States and who himself is a black American.


Barstow, C (1923). The Westward Movement. United States: Century Co.

Graaf de, L (1980). Race, Sex and Religion: Black Women in the American West, 1850-1920. U.S.A: American Historical Association.

Hauswald, C (1998). Westward Movement: Expanding America’s Boundaries, 1800-1900. United States: Zephyr Press.

Katz, W (2005). The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States. New York: Harlem moon/Broadway Books.

Quintard, T (1998). In Search of the Racial Frontier: Africans Americans in the West, 1528-1990. New York: Norton.

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IvyPanda. 2018. "Black Americans In The Westward Movement: The Key Figures." July 16, 2018. https://ivypanda.com/essays/black-americans-in-the-westward-movement-the-key-figures/.


IvyPanda. (2018) 'Black Americans In The Westward Movement: The Key Figures'. 16 July.

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