Celebrating the Contributions of Oregon’s African American Pioneers

Liberty & Center in Salem, OR

1853: Rev. Obed Dickinson  is fondly remembered as opening the membership of the First Congregational Church on Marion St. Salem, Oregon, to people of color during the time when the territory itself was inhospitable to them.


Oregon Black Pioneers History Briefs

George Fletcher was a bronco rider of singular talent. He rose to fame along with the Pendleton Roundup and was heralded as one of the greatest rodeo stars in history. He had a reputation as “the people’s champion” and roped and reined until his death in 1973. Born in 1890 in St. Marys Kansas, his family came to Oregon at the turn of the century and settled in Pendleton, Oregon. George built friendships with Indians from the Umatilla Indian Reservation and was adopted as one of their own. He learned the Umatilla customs, language and horsemanship.

At 12-years-old, learned to ride broncos by practicing on a barrel and in 1910 entered his first rodeo at the 4th of July event which became the Pendleton Roundup, where he placed second. In 1911 George made the Saddle Bronco finals, which became known as “the controversial finals,” the first time Jackson Sundown, a Native American, John Spain, a European American, and George Fletcher, an African American, competed for a world title in rodeo. At the “controversial finals” Fletcher made an outstanding ride and brought the cheering crowd to their feet, but was placed 2nd to John Spain, so Sheriff Til Taylor took up a collection from the assembled crowd and awarded it to Fletcher, proclaiming him “The People’s Champion.”

Fletcher served in World War I where he was wounded, which ended his career in rodeo. He was a ranch cowboy in the Pendleton area until his death in 1973 and was inducted with the first group in the Pendleton Roundup Hall of Fame in 1969, and later was a 2006 Inductee into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma.

Read about the Bogle Family

Historical Brief - Did you know that by 1844, Oregon had declared both slaver and the residence of African-Americans within the territory to be illegal?

Historical Brief - On August 20, 1851, a Black man named Jacob Vanderpool, who owned a saloon, restaurant and boarding house, became the first and only Black person of record to be expelled from Oregon because of his race.

Louis A. Southworth (1830-1917)

Born a slave in Tennessee traveled the Oregon Trail and later played the fiddle at gold camps to earn money for his freedom. He survived a wound in the Rogue River Wars and became a respected homesteader and later donated land for a schoolhouse, learned to read and write and became a blacksmith.  More on Louis A. Southworth

William (John) Livingstone was born in Missouri and was a childhood friend of Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain). He was later sold to Judge Ringo, who freed him during the Civil War in 1863. The following year, Livingstone came to Oregon with Ringo's son. The Judge himself came west in 1865. Livingston continued to work for the Ringos in Oregon and was eventually given 40 acres of land by the Judge and a team of horses by the younger Ringo in recognition of his long service.

As an early settler in Oregon he worked at many different jobs through the years, and maintained a friendship with the Ringo family and the respect of the communities in which he lived and worked until he'd saved enough money to start his own business.

He married Alice Irene Cooper in 1876, and the couple had a son, Charles, the following year. When Livingstone died in 1912, he owned 180 acres of land in eastern Oregon and his estate was valued at over $15,000. Hundreds of friends and family members attended his funeral. OBITUARY

William (John) Livingstone

Historical Brief - Among those who arrived in Oregon Territory in 1844 via the Oregon Trail was a Black man named George Washington Bush whose son William Owen Bush was elected to the first Washington legislature in 1899, and also credited with spearheading legislation which resulted in the found of Washington State University

Historical Brief - The 1860 census shows 128 Blacks living in Oregon, with the highest number in Jackson County.

Historical Brief - Salem's "Colored School" opened in 1867, and was called "Little Central" located behind the regular Central School on the corner of High and Marion Streets. 

Historical Brief - There are 43 Black pioneers buried in Salem's Pioneer Cemetery dating from the 1800's.  2009 Black Pioneer Dedication

Courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting  

Honoring African American Loggers' Oregon Roots

Oregon Live News 6-28-2009

Historical Brief - In 1844, James Clyman wrote a mock epitaph for his friend Moses Harris, a wagon train guide on the Oregon Trail in the 1830's:

Here lies the bones of old Black Harris
who often traveled beyond the far west
and for the freedom of Equal rights
he crossed the snowy mountain heights. He was a free and easy kind of soul especially with a Belly full.

Moses Harris is said to have been born around 1800 and believed to have first come west in 1823 to help build forts and participate in fur trading he was a friend and companion to Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and Jim Beckwourth. Harris spent years exploring and fur trapping in the Rocky Mountains and Oregon Territory, and in 1836 helped guide the Whitman-Spalding Party to Oregon. In 1844 he piloted one of the largest immigrant wagon trains to Oregon and is credited with helping build Fort Laramie. In 1845 he rescued the Stephen Meek party after they became lost in the high desert, and led them to The Dalles.

Harris was considered an expert in winter travel who helped with the exploration of the Applegate Trail, and later rescued a party stranded on the Applegate Trail in southern Oregon. He explored Cascade Mountains to find a better route than the Barlow Trail. Harris returned to Independence Missouri where he is believed to have died of cholera in 1849. There is long-standing controversy about Harris’s race, though artist Alfred Jacob Miller, who new Harris well, once wrote: “He was of wiry form... with a face apparently composed of tan leather and ship cord, finished off with a peculiar blue-black tint, as if gunpowder had been burnt into his face.”

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