by Tony Gleaton
Being An Illustrated History Of Lesser Known Facts And Occurrences Utilizing Text and Landscapes Chronicling The African Diaspora In The Territories West of the Ninety-Sixth Meridian In The Sovereign Lands of Mexico, The United States, and the Dominion of Canada From The Years 1528 To 1918.
Manifesting Destiny, a photographic work in progress, seeks to balance aesthetic considerations with pedagogical concerns in its historical examination of African-descended people in the greater Trans-Mississippi West. This project is an effort to seek historical redress against the notion that Africans in North America, both enslaved and free, owed their historical beginnings and foothold on this continent solely to the settlements along the eastern seaboard of an area that would, in later years, become the thirteen British colonies.
In fact, elements of the African diaspora can also be found in areas throughout the realm of the Spanish conquest. In 1598, the presence of free women of color in the San Juan Pueblo of Northern New Spain (near present day Santa Fe) predated by nineteen years the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Jamestown, an English settlement on the Atlantic coast. These women were not a statistical aberration but a documented presence of African-descended people in northern New Spain.
The first part of this narrative tells of the years after the conquest of Tenochtitlan (1521). Spaniards widened their expansionist gaze and extended their dominion over the new continent. They first voyaged north, along each of the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. Then they journeyed overland, north out of the valley of Mexico, first through Sinaloa, the Gran Chichimeca, Sonora, and Nuevo Mexico, into lands that would eventually be called the American South, the Southwest, Texas, the Great Plains, Western Canada, Alaska, and the “island” of California. These foreign invaders with their retinues of indigenous allies, priests, Mestizos, and some Africans (most of whom were enslaved) held partial dominion over vast tracks of land as well as some of its people.
The second part of this story begins three hundred years later. By the 1800s, the descendants of the Spanish conquest, Mestizos, Mulattos, Negros, and Españoles, including Indian allies as well as the descendants of the indigenous people who had traditionally inhabited those invaded lands, experienced a second wave of conquest. These new invaders spoke different languages and had different customs and objectives than those who had come before; some spoke English and others spoke French. They were voyagers, trappers, merchants, and explorers of European, African, and indigenous extraction who had pushed westward in an expansion from the eastern seaboard.
Through my photographs, I’ve sought to tell the stories of the African diaspora within this tale of twin conquests. It is within this larger story of conquest, settlement, and eventual dominion that I have sought to chronicle interactions, failures, accomplishments, and misdeeds of people who were part of the African diaspora in the greater Trans-Mississippi West. My method of visual documentation and accompanying narrative text identifies the locations of particular events and tries to explain what transpired there. The photographs here are selected from the broader, ongoing Manifesting Destiny project to tell some of those stories from California’s past.
Julian, San Diego County. America Newton was a free woman, likely a former slave, who traveled west after the Civil War. She settled in Julian, California, in 1872. Gold had been discovered there by another free person, and Newton made her living washing the clothes of the gold miners. She received a homestead in 1891 and remained in Julian the rest of her life. Today, Julian commemorates Newton with a local gift shop named after her.
Mission San Miguel Arcangel, San Miguel. James Beckwourth was a free man who worked as a fur trapper and trader in the 1820s and 1830s before carrying the mail during the Mexican-American War. In December 1848, he stopped at Mission San Miguel, a resting point on the journey of more than 160 miles between Monterey and Nipomo. There, Beckwourth discovered the bodies of ten murdered men and women, the residents of the mission. The victims included William Reed, the owner of the mission, and his family, as well as their black cook and a Native American shepherd. Beckwourth rode on, delivering the news of the murders to Monterey. In part due to Beckwourth’s news, the perpetrators were caught. Beckwourth went on to write the story in his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians.
Charley’s Butte, Inyo County. Charley Tyler was a black cowboy who rode across the Southern California landscape in the 1860s. While he was working for the McGee family, a group of Paiute, resisting white encroachment, attacked. Tyler made a stand that allowed the McGees to flee, but he was likely killed in the engagement in Inyo County, near the so-called Charley’s Butte, named after Tyler. A small marker by the roadside now commemorates Tyler’s death.
Brown’s Valley, northern gold fields. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Edward Duplex worked as a barber until he followed the call of the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Once in California, he helped discover a gold mine in Brown’s Valley and, along with several other free black men, owned and operated it. In the 1870s, he moved to Wheatland and was elected mayor of that community. He was one of the first black mayors in the West.
Point St. George, Crescent City. In 1865, the ship Brother Jonathan hit a reef ten miles off of Port St. George and sunk. Hundreds of people died. A more successful mission took place ten years earlier, when the vessel was named the Commodore. Back then, after the California legislature refused to accept the testimony of black people in judicial proceedings, hundreds of black men left the gold fields of California to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Many sailed aboard the Commodore to Canada, where they felt they would fare better in Frazier River gold mines in British Columbia.