Role of African Americans in the Exploration of the West

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There were many changes taking place in the US around the year 1800. The frontier land was constantly being pushed back by new settlements and would contribute to the history of slavery and African Americans. Louisana was purchased in 1803 and freedom-loving young settlers as well as successful cotton plantation masters moved west to try and exploit the unsettled land. This conflict was complicated by the Industrial revolution and development of the cotton gin which only promoted the use of slavery. The freedom-loving young settlers I mentioned were only one brand of explorers to the West. The other type of settler was the freedom-loving “exploit whoever I can along the way” type of settler who took many slaves with them and used the West to expand cotton production.

African Americans played a large role in the exploration of the West. When Lewis and Clark set out in 1803 to explore the Louisiana Territory, Clark took his trusted slave York along. York distracted the Indians and provided food for Lewis and Clark through his skilled hunting and fishing. After the expedition was over, York was given his freedom and it is said that he returned to the West and became an Indian chief. The fur trade allowed many blacks to take a leading role in establishing the West. Africans bridged the gap between Indians and Europeans and became key to the success of the fur trade in these developing states.

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The exploration of the West was slowed by the political stress of this time period. The War of 1812 offered African-Americans yet another chance to serve their country. While blacks weren’t recruited as such to fight in the war, many blacks took up arms. New York, however, in 1814 passed an act that would raise two regiments of men of color. Each regiment would have about 1000 blacks that would be paid equal to that of whites. General Andrew Jackson, needing more soldiers, recruited many blacks to his company in the fall of 1814. Many of these free blacks fought in the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson commended these soldiers and promised that the president would be informed of their conduct and that the nation would join in praising them.

The War of 1812 allowed the cotton kingdom to grow unrestricted with plenty of new lands to develop. By 1840, in the Alabama-Missippi region, almost half a million blacks were present and most were slaves. Cotton-production was prominent, of course, in the Southern states but was becoming more present in the South Central states as well. Wealthy citizens were practically fleeing the Northern trade states to go make a fortune in the cotton kingdom that had developed. The West was considered a chance to make possible the development of a great ‘empire of liberty’ in the New World. However, these ideas of “freedom to all” were dependant on the successful use of slaves on the cotton fields. Expansion by the white Southerners was not to promote Democracy but to promote slavery and have it become so entreanched in the economy of the country that it would never be taken away from them.

The domestic slave trade became much more profitable once the African trade was closed in 1808. Settlers in the new frontier realizing the potential for wealth were hungry for slaves. The South, not being able to keep up with the new frontier states, was forced into slave breeding to promote their economy. Slaves were mated strictly for the purpose of selling them to the cotton kingdom in the West. Slave traders were considered inhumane but forcing black women to have children at 13 and 14…or to have 5 children by the age of twenty was considered much more respectable at the time. Inherent in this practice, the majority of these families were broken up to fetch higher prices than if they were to be sold as a family. To avoid the label of a slave seller, masters would hire out their slaves indefinitely to the West through hiring agents who would regularly collect the money and prepare the papers. Slave hirers were very highly esteemed and no stigma was attached to being a slave-hiring agent.

Although domestic slavery was very profitable, there was still regular, illegal African trade taking place. American ships were bringing an estimated 15000 Africans annually to Texas in the mid 1830’s……this is of course 30 years after the law that importing slaves was deemed illegal. By the 1850’s the African slave trade was, for all practical purposes, legal once again. African slave traders were given the opportunity to post bond when they were caught which was rare because most looked the other way during the 1850’s. The South Central states were the only states that were opposed to the reopening of the African trade because their domestic trade through slave breeding had become so profitable. The flourishing cotton kingdom in the West would of course override any ideas to end the African trade; and the African trade would continue until the Civil War.

African-Americans were the driving factor in the exploration of the West. Whether it be York who helped Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the Louisiana Territory, free blacks that fought for their country in 1812 or slaves who turned the wilderness of the West into successful cotton and sugarcane plantations

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Role of African Americans in the Exploration of the West. (2018, Aug 18). Retrieved from

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