By Cory Peterman
Black Pioneers of Sierra County – Part 3
During the time of the Civil War and for a long period thereafter, Sierra County was home to a generally pro-Union populace. Historian Bill Copren writes “Sierra County went for the Union Party candidates by majorities of two to one or larger during these years. Thirty out of thirty-six precincts gave Lincoln and Johnson a majority in 1864… It was also during these years and those immediately following, that the town of Smith’s Neck changed its name to Loyalton and the streets in Sierraville were renamed Lincoln, Grant and Meade.”
Rather ironically, despite the anti-slavery, pro-Union Republican sentiment that dominated the county, it was reported in The Mountain Messenger of October 28, 1865 the following: “Negro Suffrage. — The fact has just come to light that John Black, a colored barber at Howland Flat, was elected at the last general election to the responsible position of Constable on the Democratic ticket. The Board of Supervisors have issued his certification. The Union party ran no candidate for the position.” This news also reached other newspapers, including the Gold Hill Daily News in Nevada, and other California newspapers including the San Francisco Call, the Petaluma Weekly Argus, the Napa Valley Register, the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, and Stockton’s Daily Evening Herald, which reported “We think the Democrats there have rather got their foot in it in running a negro as a candidate, particularly since he was elected. The Messenger says the new constable paid its sanctum a visit, and he both reads and writes; and it likes John Black’s appearance, who he says ‘is in grave doubt as to whether his reputation will suffer or not in accepting office at the hand of the Democratic party.’ We think the Democracy of Howland’s Flat had better bag its head, after this effort.”
Unfortunately, I have no additional information about John Black (or Block, as his surname is spelled in other sources) other than that he had a barbershop in the Sierra County town of St. Louis that was destroyed in the Great Fire of July 1862.
In the book Like a Leaf Upon a Current Cast (which I have quoted many times in this series), author Katie Willmarth Green relates that for a newspaper operating in the 1800s, The Mountain Messenger hinted “of a nascent ground-swell of humanitarian feeling and awareness.
For instance, the Mountain Messenger in 1859 quotes from the Hydraulic Press about ‘some very bad actions which lately disgraced [North] San Juan.’ These consisted of ‘four or five white men, who would feel insulted were their respectability called in question, [who] went under cover of darkness to a cabin tenanted by three Negroes, drove them over two miles out of town in the direction of Freeman’s Crossing, tied them and whipped them on the bare back with a raw hide…It would make us sick to record such horrible cruelty, did not a just indignation take the place of every weaker feeling. It makes one ashamed of human nature — or rather of creatures who thus debase it by their brutality.’
And in April of 1866, shortly after the Civil War ended, The Messenger reprinted an editorial in favor of extending civil rights to blacks so that they might own and inherit property. The editorial stance was more doubtful about intermarriage, and miscegenation debates were followed closely.”
A Black California pioneer who can be credited with assisting in the settlement of the Sierra Valley in Sierra County is no other than James Pierson Beckwourth (c. 1798 – c. 1866), a man who was born into slavery in Virginia to a Black slave mother and her white owner, Sir Jennings Beckwourth. After moving the family to Missouri, Jennings eventually freed his son, who would become a prominent mountain man, trapper, and explorer. However, he is probably most notably known for his living and interaction with the Crow tribe, and for his personal embellishments. Many aspects of his life are the source of controversy.
James P. Beckwourth is credited with the 1850 discovery of the pass that bears his name, the lowest mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada, and the 1851 improvement of a Native American trail that became the Beckwourth trail. This trail ran from Truckee Meadows in Nevada, through Sierra Valley, along the ridge between the forks of the Feather River, through the northern California gold camps, and on to Marysville. Thousands of settlers followed this trail to central California, and many permanently settled to pursue ranching in Sierra Valley, thus increasing the population of Sierra County and its agricultural worth.
I would like to thank Katie Willmarth Green for providing me pages from her book regarding the Black pioneers of Sierra County (I have limited sources for my articles since I live in Italy), and I hope my readers enjoyed this series on an underrepresented group of California history.