African American women made enormous contributions to the advancement and culture of the West. They built towns, established charities, created schools, developed churches, and did dangerous jobs such as delivering the mail. They were real estate magnates, writers, celebrated chefs, investors, and trailblazers.
Below are the stories of 10 women and the exciting and inspiring lives they led when they went West:
Bridget “Biddy” Mason
(1818 – 1891)
She started life as a slave, but after winning her freedom in court in 1856, she moved to Los Angeles and became a nurse and midwife. Ten years later, she bought her own land for $250, making her one of the first black women to own land in Los Angeles. She was a savvy businesswoman and sold part of the land for $1500. She built a rental space on the remaining section. She eventually had over $300,000 to her name, but she donated to charities and made it her mission to help out the poor and needy. She established the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872, which continued to help people even after she died.
Susie Sumner Revels Cayton
(1870 – 1943)
Born in 1870 in Mississippi, Susie Sumner Revels was the daughter of Reverend Hiram Revels, the first elected African American to the United States Senate. In 1896, after graduating from college, Revels married newspaper owner Horace Cayton and moved west to join him in Seattle. Horace Cayton had founded the Seattle Republican newspaper in 1894 and Susie regularly contributed content and served as Associate Editor. The paper appealed to both White and Black readers and eventually grew to be the second largest circulated paper in the city. Susie was also immensely involved in civic life, she founded the Dorcus Charity Club and successfully organized boycotts for business that discriminated against African Americans.
Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary
(c. 1832 – 1914)
Would-be mail thieves didn’t stand a chance against Stagecoach Mary, who sported men’s clothing, a bad attitude and two guns. Mary Fields was the first African American woman, and the second woman in the U.S., to carry mail, and she was known for hard-drinking and quick-shooting. She was born into slavery and freed after the Civil War, which is when she started working as a groundskeeper at the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart in Toledo, Ohio. But she got in an argument and was kicked out. In 1895, she got a contract from the postal service to become a star route carrier. Her job was to protect mail on her route from thieves and bandits and to deliver mail.
Elizabeth Thorn Scott Flood
(1828 – 1867)
Elizabeth Thorn was born free in 1828 in New York state and she was educated in Massachusetts. She married Joseph Scott in 1852 and they moved to northern California later that year. After Joseph died, Elizabeth and their son Oliver moved to Sacramento. At the time, Sacramento had a sizable African American community, but because all non-white children were barred from public school, they were unable to receive an education. After her son was denied enrollment, Elizabeth used her own home to open a school for minority children in 1854. Initially Elizabeth’s school was only open to African American children, but shortly after it opened she started accepting Asian American and Native American students as well. Elizabeth continued to teach and became the first African American public school instructor in California.
(1831 – ?)
Born enslaved in South Carolina to an African American mother and a White farmer, Abby grew up and eventually worked as a cook in the kitchen. She married Alexander Fisher around 1859 and together they had eleven children. After moving to San Francisco in 1877, she opened her own immensely successful catering business, called Mrs. Abby Fisher & Co, and won awards for her cooking. Abby’s Southern cooking was the toast of San Francisco society, and she became only the second African American female cookbook author in America in 1881 when she published What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves.
Mary Ellen Pleasant
(1814 – 1904)
Mary Ellen Pleasant was raised in Nantucket as worked a domestic servant for a White abolitionist family. Through this family, Mary Ellen became involved in the abolitionist movement and worked with the Underground Railroad. She married another abolitionist, James Smith, and gained a substantial inheritance after he died four years later. In 1849, she remarried and moved to San Francisco. Pleasant started a restaurant that catered to wealthy businessmen in the city, and she would often eavesdrop on these men to pick up investment tips and financial gossip. These bits of information came in handy – Pleasant was able to use them to make a fortune in investments. She used her money and influence to assist African Americans who made it to San Francisco through the Underground Railroad, and later she successfully fought against racial segregation in California through a series of lawsuits.
(1842 – 1893)
She was the first African-American woman to enlist in the army and did so by disguising herself as a man. Though she was hospitalized five times, no one ever discovered her secret. She called herself William Cathay and was deemed fit for duty. After the war, she moved to Colorado and got married, but then her husband stole her money and a team of horses. Williams had him arrested. There are rumors that she owned a boarding house during her time in the west as well.
Clara Brown was an ex-slave who became a philanthropist, entrepreneur, and humanitarian in Denver and Central City. She is said to be the first African American woman to have traveled West during the Colorado Gold Rush. While in Central City, she established Gilpin County’s first laundry as well as Colorado’s first Protestant church. She opened her home to freed slaves and hosted church services, which earned her the nickname “Aunt” Clara. Brown was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989. In 2012 a hill in Gilpin County formerly named “Negro Hill” was renamed “Clara Brown Hill” in honor of Brown’s contributions to the county’s history.
Henrietta “Aunt Rittie” Williams Foster
Rittie was born in Mississippi — the year unknown — and had five sisters, all sold into slavery. She was brought to Texas and purchased by Isaac Newton Mitchell to work on his ranch. She picked cotton, cleaned, cooked and did laundry for the women. Eventually Rittie began working cattle and built a reputation of being “tough as any man.” She would ride her horse astride in long skirts, and could handle the cattle, throw calves and perform all the same work the men did. An exact date of death can’t be found, but she was buried in Refugio, and now has a place in the legends of South Texas ranch life.
(c. 1857-c. 1946)
Johanna July, a black Seminole, was born around 1857 in Nacimiento de Los Negros, the settlement established in northern Mexico following the emigration of Indian and black Seminoles from the Indian Territory in 1849. The July family settled in or near Eagle Pass, Texas, in 1871 when the U.S. Army employed the black Seminoles as translators and scouts because they were familiar with the border country. There, Johanna learned to tame horses and herd the family’s goats and cattle. With the death of her father, she worked the stock and continued to tame wild horses for the U.S. Army and area ranchers. She developed her own method of taming horses. She would lead a horse into the Rio Grande, swim up, grab the mane, and gently ease astride. As the horse tired from swimming, he lost the strength to buck.