Hardy, brave, patriotic: these are the qualities many Americans associate with the pioneers who forged west during the early years of the United States. But there is another characteristic these men and women seemed to have in common – they were all white.
Not so, as this extraordinary collection of photographs showing early black pioneers shows. They depict some of the thousands of freed black slaves who made the journey from the south and east towards the perilous western frontier to form new settlements on land seized from Native Americans.
Their story has been told in a new book, The Bone and Sinew of the Land, in which historian Anna-Lisa Cox examines black settlements established in the Northwest Territory, the area that would become the modern states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
It tells the story of settlers like Keziah and Charles Grier, who started clearing their frontier land in 1818. At the time the Griers merely wanted a new home, but their role as black settlers meant they would soon play a key role in the fight against racial inequality.
Within a few years, the Griers would become early Underground Railroad conductors, joining with fellow pioneers and other allies to confront racial discrimination.
Though forgotten today, in their own time the successes of these pioneers made them the targets of racist backlash. Political and even armed battles soon ensued, tearing apart families and communities long before the Civil War.
Cox used census records, deeds and other archival documents to find the locations of as many settlements as possible that contained at least one African American-owned farm between 1800 and 1860. Eventually she found 338.