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The Frontier ClubPopular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880-1924$

Christine Bold

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199731794

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199731794.001.0001

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Jim Crow and the Western

Jim Crow and the Western

(p.131) 4 Jim Crow and the Western
The Frontier Club

Christine Bold

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter Four explores the processes by which Black Westerners were displaced by, and even on occasion transformed into, white heroes in frontier clubmen’s writings. The first case concerns Wister’s private encounter with a Black cook and ranch-hand, named Homer, who, the chapter argues, is the model for his fictional character Scipio. The second concerns Roosevelt’s much more public suppression of African American military contributions to the Spanish-American War, especially through the propagation of the white Rough Rider. The third focuses on Remington’s attention to Black soldiers, which produced a particularly conflicted representation of the Cuban campaign. The chapter also documents African American resistance to this erasure, through the creation of a distinctively Black popular culture and forms of cultural memory-making. Publications by Black servicemen, F. Grant Gilmore, Sutton E. Griggs, James Ephraim McGirt, and the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company all foregrounded Black rough riders as figures of racial pride.

Keywords:   African American West, Spanish-American War, Rough Riders, Black popular culture, Wister, Roosevelt, Remington, Sutton E. Griggs, James Ephraim McGirt, Colored Co-operative Publishing Company

“I find now upon sober examination that I distinctly left my heart with San Antonio, not with anyone unless perhaps Jim Crow.”

—Owen Wister, Journal February–March 1893

The frontier clubmen did not always agree—indeed, sometimes quarreled among themselves—about the politics of post-Reconstruction America. They had experienced different degrees of intimacy with African Americans—Roosevelt, Wister, Grinnell, and Chanler were brought up by black servants; Wister lived for a time in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood, and campaigned (unsuccessfully) to represent it on the Select Council. The clubmen held different visions of black political rights: as leading Republicans, Roosevelt and Lodge “were staunch defenders of Lincoln’s legacy toward black Americans,” but Lodge is seen by some scholars as more consistent in his “hardline policy” against southern slavery and disfranchisement (Zimmermann 177; Seelye 3). Wister, on the other hand, disagreed with Roosevelt’s presidential gestures towards black advancement, criticizing him to his face for inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House and for appointing Dr. William Crum as the first black collector of the port of Charleston.1 At one end of the frontier club spectrum stood Madison Grant, one of the prominent “hucksters of anti-Negro mythology,” at the other his good friend George Bird Grinnell, the most racially progressive of the group (Dyer 92).

When it came to mythologizing the West, however, to a man they produced segregationist stories—not so much arguing the case against African Americans as pushing them to the margins of the western scene or out of the picture altogether. The only Boone and Crockett hunting tales to acknowledge black presences are those set outside the United States—and then only in subordinated positions such as the Swahili gun-bearer on William Chanler’s East African hunting trip and the Natives who bodily transport William Lord Smith and his companion hunter through the waves to the shores of Africa.2 Even Grinnell (p.132) drew a clear color line around the hunting and ranching West in his fiction. In his first boys’ book, Jack, the Young Ranchman (1899), the boy’s departure from Manhattan is marked by a fond farewell by his black “Mammy,” then he is solicitously helped off the train by the black Pullman porter, at which point he steps into a West overwhelmingly dominated by Anglo-Saxons, briefly touched by some transient American Indians.

Yet the West in which these clubmen spent time was not by any means empty of African American presence. After the Civil War, many formerly enslaved men and women went west to work in a wide range of occupations, including ranch hands, trail hands, and soldiers. According to John Ravage, there were “tens of thousands of African American men, women, and children in the West during the ‘cattle kingdom’ years from 1860 to1910.”3 Depending on which Far West State is most clearly in focus and whose scholarly figures you trust, as many as one in four cowboys and one in five soldiers in the West may have been African American.4 In any case, if we gather together the statistics on ranchhands who were Mexican, Mexican-American, Indigenous, Jewish, East European, as well as African American, it seems clear that the Anglo-American cowboy heroized by the frontier club was in the minority.5

The process by which black Westerners were displaced by, and even on occasion transformed into, white heroes is largely undocumented—almost by definition, given the impulses towards Anglo-Saxon dominance and the suppression of racial difference motivating these western myth-makers.6 There are, however, two partially archived stories of racial prestidigitation that left a deep mark on frontier clubmen’s careers and their western mythologies: one concerns a private encounter of Wister’s, the other a very public display by Roosevelt. Together, these two processes of suppression, transformation, and exclusion suggest how deeply the western formula was motivated and shaped by the blackness it denied. And there was a kicker to this story, when Frederic Remington, from the edges of the frontier club, insisted on making visible—partially, tentatively, but centrally visible—what the others refused to see.

Frontier clubmen’s reduction of black figures was not, of course, the end of the story. Wister’s intimate encounter with blackness in the ranching West occurred in the private domain, and concerned a figure who seems unrecoverable in the official record (although other black ranchhands of the period did make their voices heard in print, from Nat Love in his 1907 autobiography to the several thousand black cowboys and ex-cowboys interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s).7 Roosevelt and Remington engaged with black military presences on the public stage, and ultimately these black soldiers refused to disappear. Tracing the subsequent emergence of those we might dub “the black Rough Riders,” representationally and actually, exposes a world of popular culture very different from both frontier club productions and the cheap publishing (p.133) industry. The celebration of black military valor was part of an extended effort to mount a black popular press in these years. The figure popularized by this press represented a black masculinity which, then and more recently, elbowed its way back into the western formula.

Wister: “white for a hundred years”8

About halfway through The Virginian appears the character who would haunt Wister for the rest of his career. He introduces himself to the Virginian with a flourish worthy of the best popular heroes: “Scipio le Moyne’s my name. Yes, you’re lookin’ for my brass ear-rings. But there ain’t no ear-rings on me. I’ve been white for a hundred years” (162). To the tenderfoot narrator, he confides: “The eldest of us always gets called Scipio. It’s French. But us folks have been white for a hundred years” (158).

Although the eastern narrator is the newcomer who works hardest to become intimate with the Virginian, Scipio is the one who most immediately shares his code.9 From the first meaningful glance, Scipio and the Virginian instinctively understand each other. Scipio explains the tactics of the Virginian’s tall tale to the narrator—“this is the show-down. He’s played for a show-down here”—and embraces the teller at its climax: “‘Rise up, liars, and salute your king!’ yelled Scipio. ‘Oh, I’m in love with you!’ And he threw his arms round the Virginian” (188, 200). The speed with which Scipio enters the cowboy fraternity makes the narrator—who has already expressed his own attraction to the Virginian several times—jealous. “I became dignified. Scipio had evidently been told things by the Virginian”; “I didn’t pretend to understand the Virginian; after several years’ knowledge of him he remained utterly beyond me. Scipio’s experience was not yet three weeks long” (238, 208).

Unlike the other cowboys, however—and unlike Wister’s whitewashed western scene generally—Scipio le Moyne carries the marks of African American identity. “Scipio” was a traditional slave name (well known in many quarters, it makes a literary appearance attached to enslaved figures in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, House of the Seven Gables, and Walden). “Lemoyne” was one of the most common Creole surnames of the Mississippi Valley.10 Hence the character’s need to insist on the Anglo-Saxon whiteness that Wister and other popularizers of the period promoted as the normative condition in and beyond the United States.11 How did Wister come to create such a paradoxical figure and what does he suggest about the modern western at its formative moment?

From 1885, when Wister began traveling west, his practice was to surround himself with eastern clubmates of his own, aristocratic class, who had come west as ranchers or hunters. The published version of Wister’s western journals and (p.134) some well-circulated photographs of him—such as on horseback in a deserted Wyoming scene, sporting whiskers, bandana, vest, and cowboy boots—suggest that he was a man alone among the elements on the western plains and in the mountains. In fact, the unpublished journals suggest that he was more often surrounded by eastern company—as in a photograph of the young Wister in the midst of a group of Cheyenne Clubmen (Fig. 4.1), lying unlabeled and misfiled in the Library of Congress archives. Among other effects, this Anglo-American enclave shielded Wister from seeing blacks in the West, even when they clearly provided the labor supporting white privilege and even when, as in this photograph, he stood virtually cheek-by-jowl with an African American man (presumably one of the club’s servants). His unpublished journals contain the briefest acknowledgments of a “black porter” here, a “darkey soldier” there on his western travels, but he never develops cross-racial contact into recognition of others’ individuality.12 When Wister moved from private to public writing, his stories at first fleetingly notice some black presence: the ambiguously named “little black Hank” in “Hank’s Woman,” the black cook (“an old plantation mammy”) and black soldiers (“our coal-black escort”) in “Pilgrim on the Gila” (242, 259), glimpses of black infantrymen in the Shoshone Agency church in “Lin McLean.” His famous novel clears the scene of any such presence, the acknowledgment of

                     Figure 4.1. Owen Wister at the Cheyenne Club. A young Owen Wister is dead center in the group of clubmen, next to the African American figure—presumably a club servant.

Figure 4.1. Owen Wister at the Cheyenne Club. A young Owen Wister is dead center in the group of clubmen, next to the African American figure—presumably a club servant.

(p.135) blackness in the West further reduced to the racist ditties, including one about a figure “By de name of Jim Crow,” sung by the hero (215).

In February 1893, just after the Boone and Crockett dinner at the Metropolitan Club, however, Wister traveled to the ranching West for the first time by a southern route—from Philadelphia, through Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana to Texas. At once, the black presence enters his diary: in Mississippi, “We are in the full warm blaze of the south this morning. The air, the trees, the cotton fields, & the loafing darkeys all prove it.”13 He remained alert to the black presence throughout this trip, including in cowboy country. What remains unmentioned in his diary—although he later comments on the event in the preface to Red Men and White—is the massive spectacle lynching of the African American Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, two weeks before his trip began.

Wister’s destination was the horse ranch of his Harvard and Philadelphia clubmate, Fitzhugh Savage, Seven Springs Ranch near Brownwood. Much of the account concerns the usual enclave of easterners, as former schoolmates and clubmates of Wister’s converge on Savage’s ranch. The men hunt, practice target shooting, play polo (during which Wister gets the serious sulks), drink whisky, sing cowpuncher ditties, and generally engage in boyish high jinks. Their conversation ranges from smutty stories to nostalgic reminiscences of their schoolboy magazine: “We talked over St. Paul’s school and the days of the Horae Scholasticae…and kept the bottle going.” One evening they recreate a Harvard dinner: “for a company of people of 30 and upwards, we conducted ourselves like the finest species of undergraduates, and it was most beautiful to see.”

Unusually, however, Wister paid attention to Savage’s cook and ranchhand, “a negroe weighing 280 pounds, named Homer” (Fig. 4.2), the first and only black figure to be individualized and humanized in Wister’s western journals. Wister tells a lengthy story of Homer playing a Mexican card game Cun-can with his “hapless Mexican assistant” in the kitchen while the gentlemen play baccarat in the parlor. The Mexican tries to cheat by branding the deck with spots of wax and sticking cards together at significant discards:

Homer was instantly aware of it, but said nothing; he simply got the Mexican very drunk and used the wax himself. So on Friday morning when he came with the water for our baths, Groome [another Philadelphia clubmate] & I noticed he looked particularly beaming. We inquired when he had gone to bed, and he said not at all. But that he had no assistant this morning. We were surprised, and Homer told us how the Mexican had become useless through whiskey this morning, and he had chased him off the premises— (p.136)

                     Figure 4.2. Homer (as photographed by Owen Wister in 1893)

Figure 4.2. Homer (as photographed by Owen Wister in 1893)

“how did the game come out, Homer?”

“I beat him, sir.”

“How much?”

“Took all he had.”

“What time did you quit?”

“Thirteen minutes of eight, sir. Just in time to get ready to cook breakfast.” And Homer went roaring out of the room, leaving Groome and me roaring in our beds.

The tale is classic Wister and, notably, Homer speaks without the “darkey” dialect commonly used in the period to depersonalize black figures. Clearly, Wister was entranced, returning to mull over the tale: “I think this picture of Homer and his Mexican assistant…is on the whole a cameo of a pure & clean cut grain.” Wister interviewed Homer to make sure that he had the details of Cun-can down. The interview ends with true cowboy laconicism: “Homer says that the Mexican had 188 dollars coming to him and was coming down here this week to play some more—‘but he ain’t turned up,’ said Homer.”

Homer continues to figure in the diary, accompanying the group as they travel from ranch to ranch. At one point, Wister photographed him during the round-up, in a set of images that further prove the author’s close encounters with (p.137) cowboys of color, including what appear to be several Mexican-American and African American figures.14 The final glimpse comes as they ride back, via the town of Brady, to Savage’s ranch:

Homer, rich with wages, and extra pay, and tips, and Mexican spoils, came through Brady town and stopped at the saloon. He came away it is true, overtaking and passing us near home at a thundering speed with a vast grin and roars of hilarity, and for the rest of that day was in no condition of servitude whatever.

Homer here sounds most like a Frederic Remington cowboy, as in his famous “Coming through the Rye” sculpture, uproariously galloping along, pistols aloft, after a night out on the town.

If this trip brought Wister, at least temporarily, alive to the presence of the black Westerner, it also took him to the epicenter of segregation. His route took him through New Orleans where, eight months earlier, Homer Plessy, a light skinned Creole man, had challenged Louisiana Jim Crow laws by sitting in the white section of an intra-state train and whose fight was currently going through the Louisiana courts. The debate about the legalization of Jim Crow was raging; the Plessy case would end up, in 1896, at the Supreme Court (as Plessy v. Ferguson), whose majority decision legalized the “separate but equal” fiction. The issue was also very much alive in Texas, where railroad segregation had been legalized, challenged, then reinstated. At Fort Worth, Wister noted: “The railroads present a new feature: each car is marked either ‘For Whites’ or ‘For Negroes.’”

As he returned east through Texas, Wister stopped overnight in San Antonio where he selected from a row of hack drivers “an ancient darkey…he told me his name was Jim Crow.” Wister hired him for the day, to show him the city sights. The tour made a profound impact on Wister. His 1893 diary ends: “I find now upon sober examination that I distinctly left my heart with San Antonio, not with anyone unless perhaps Jim Crow.”

In these places and encounters, I speculate, lie the makings of Scipio le Moyne, the character who becomes sidekick to the eponymous hero in The Virginian. The connection can only be speculative because, contrary to Wister’s usual practice, there is no record of this character’s name or origins in his extant diaries or authorial notes. But the similarities are striking. Both Scipio and Homer bear traditionally black American names, both are cooks as well as ranch hands, and both are tricksters. The tale of Homer duping the Mexican carries the same logic and wit as Scipio turning the tables on innumerable low-lifers and scoundrels: the shell-game shyster whom Scipio robs of his illicit takings in “Extra Dry” (1909); or the hobo in “The Vicious Circle” (1902) who, having robbed Scipio, is tricked into riding back into his arms: “Pie like mother made,” Scipio confronts (p.138) him smilingly.15 Although Scipio says that he comes from Gallipolice, Ohio, his Creole surname, le Moyne, points to New Orleans where, in Spring 1893, Wister noted, “I walked about Canal Street and noticed the names…and today saw the French type of face everywhere.”

That Texas trip was the source of several stories—many “spinnings from the same raw material” as Wister put it—that he relocated to Wyoming and later gathered into The Virginian.16 In Texas, he heard of the hen who became Em’ly in the story he wrote up immediately on his return.17 During one of the elaborate clubmen’s dinners, he also heard “‘My Looloo,’ a cowpuncher’s ditty, whose tune was very taking, but the words of which will scarcely bear transcribing” and which the Virginian sings at the opening of “The Bear Creek Barbecue” as first written in May 1893. At another dinner, he heard of the baby-swapping trick that became a key scene in the same story. A further connection between this story and the Texas trip comes when Ben Swinton, the rancher hosting the barbecue, compares his efforts to those in the region that Wister had just visited: “Down in San Saba County, Texas, where we were raised, they did a Barbecue right.”

A cluster of details within and beyond “The Bear Creek Barbecue” connects Wister’s Texas sojourn with gestures to black cowboys and the introduction of the name Scipio. Miss Wood, who first appears in “Bear Creek,” was a product of the Texas trip. Wister later explained that he “found a wife” for the Virginian “in Texas—not any actual school marm; but the type who taught in these schools was apt to be a cut above the mothers of the children she instructed. I decided that when the time came, my Southerner should wed a New England school marm.”18 When Miss Wood first spies the Virginian, she asks her dancing partner, Mr. Taylor, about him, in an exchange that survives in truncated form in the novel. In the first version of the short story, Miss Wood says that she has noticed

“a man I’m not acquainted with—that black one.”

“He aint black!” exclaimed the literal Mr. Taylor in mirth. “He’d not thank anybody much fer calling him black, I guess. He was raised in Virginia.”

This story also contains a character Scip Neil, who never reappears, and whose name could be a conflation of Scipio and Jim Neil, who told Wister the baby-swapping story. The full-blown character Scipio first appears in the short story “The Game and the Nation,” dated March 1899. He introduces himself to the eastern narrator in the Black Hills stagecoach on the way to Medora, Dakota (Roosevelt country) with the boast Wister repeats in the novel, that he has been “white for a hundred years.” The germ of “The Game and the Nation”—the restaurant rivalry that Wister built into the Virginian’s “frog ranch” tall tale in the novel—again was a story he heard on the 1893 Texas trip. (p.139) Another link between Scipio and the Texas trip lies in Wister’s essay about his experience with polo ponies on Savage’s ranch, which he wrote up for Caspar Whitney’s magazine Outing (published in 1900). In this piece appears the caption “Between the Acts,” which is also the title of the chapter in The Virginian in which Scipio is introduced. Finally, when he revised “Hank’s Woman” in 1900, he had the Virginian connect blackness and Texas once more, saying to the narrator, “Do yu’ remember little black Hank? From Texas he claims he is.”19 Cumulatively, these pieces of evidence suggest that the Texas trip on which Wister met Homer gave birth to Scipio.

Even accepting this argument—that Wister whitens a charismatic black man in order to smuggle him into an early story and, ultimately, his bestselling novel, thus in a coded way both drawing on and suppressing western blackness—why draw attention to this maneuver by making Scipio address his racial composition in such loud and insistent terms? One answer derives from the popularity of passing narratives in the period. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just as Jim Crow was hardening, stories of those who fooled the color line and undermined its authority proliferated—Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), Charles Chesnutt’s House Behind the Cedars (1900), Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces (1900) among them. The phenomenon of passing had breached the very defenses of the clubmen’s world: in 1897, Vassar College discovered that it had unknowingly graduated a “colored girl,” and the tale was broadcast by the New York Times, among other newspapers. The tale was further, and most gleefully, popularized by the breakthrough black musical In Dahomey, which hit Broadway in 1902, the same year as The Virginian was published. In Dahomey’s unruly cast of pan-African characters take back white appropriations of their blackness—co-producer Bert Williams, for example, blacked up his black skin in ridicule of white minstrelsy—and the character Rosetta Lightfoot, played by Ada Overton Walker, celebrated the triumphs of “the Vassar girl.”20 In 1903, when The Virginian was dramatized, both plays were on the circuit. A comparison of two scenes from each performance evokes some of their competing vision (Fig. 4.3 and 4.4). The contrast lies not only in the stage presence of all-black and all-white casts but in the way that black figures take over the space of the upper-class drawing room as well as the more demotic street, challenging assumptions of white privilege on several levels. That In Dahomey enjoyed considerably more transatlantic popularity than the theatrical version of The Virginian is another indication of the power, and threat, of African American cultural production.

Scipio’s story speaks back to those unruly narratives of passing, reinstating the reliability and authority of visible whiteness. His name may suggest blackness, but his visible whiteness is authentic—he’s been white for a hundred years. The Virginian authorizes Scipio’s claim the first time they meet, assuring him: “you’re certainly white” (162). Sustaining the western enclave of whiteness (p.140)

                     Figure 4.3. Scenes from In Dahomey, Shaftesbury Theatre, in The Sketch (May 1903)

Figure 4.3. Scenes from In Dahomey, Shaftesbury Theatre, in The Sketch (May 1903)

                     Figure 4.4. Scenes from the Stage Version of The Virginian with Dustin Farnum, in Souvenir Leaflet (c. 1903)

Figure 4.4. Scenes from the Stage Version of The Virginian with Dustin Farnum, in Souvenir Leaflet (c. 1903)

(p.141) involved not only expunging other racial claims but elbowing out competing popular forms. It is a small but telling moment in the making of the modern western, in the racialized struggle to control the new tools of mass culture, and in the broader, hegemonic establishment of normative whiteness in and beyond the United States.

For the rest of his writing life, Wister was haunted by Scipio-slash-Homer, an absent presence that remained central to his vision of the western. After the success of The Virginian, both Wister and George Brett, his editor at Macmillan, turned to Scipio as their next bestselling western hero. Wister planned two novels around him. The first was to be titled Members of the Family—in Brett’s words “a novel of the type and character of ‘The Virginian’”—and the second, in Wister’s description, “the sequel—to be probably entitled The Marriages of Scipio—will present the roving man of 1878–1895, surviving into the new state of Western things, and not able to adjust himself to them. I grieve to tell you it will be very tragic.”21 Author and editor excitedly puffed Scipio to each other: Brett called him “a personage in whom the public will, I think, delight”; Wister claimed that “I have ‘established’ Scipio as a popular favorite, &…the whole novel I have planned about him is likely to meet a success if I can write it as I see it.”22

In the event, and despite constant encouragement and at times daily reminders from Brett, Wister could not write it as he saw it. The attempt turned into a struggle lasting a dozen or more years, as Wister fretted at the challenge through the distractions of competing projects and the periods of pain and depression, including an entire year in which he was bed-ridden with what Brett assumed was neurasthenia, or “nervous troubles,” which he himself suffered from and which was, of course, the very condition that had sent Wister west in the first place.23 Ultimately, author and editor cobbled together some old and new stories featuring Scipio as protagonist or narrator, issued under the title Members of the Family and Wister renewed his promises to create, in The Marriages of Scipio, a magnum opus, a new, blockbuster western for a new age. As late as 1919, Wister still had Scipio on his mind—hoping for a motion picture of him—but the novel never came to fruition. If you accept my claims about Scipio’s racial roots, then the big book touched the biggest racial taboo—miscegenation. Wister couldn’t do it, and he never wrote about the West again.

Finally, this is a story of multiple suppressions. When Wister’s daughter published his western journals in 1958, she reduced Homer from a character to a single phrase and she expunged most of the brief mentions of African Americans in the West. Meanwhile, Wister’s 1893 photographs of Homer lay hidden and undeveloped in his desk. Their survival in that form offers both an apt trope and a true indication of what was valued, and what was acknowledged, in Wister’s oeuvre. Until their recent discovery and processing, they existed as nitrate negatives preserving a reversed image—a white Scipio indeed, white for over a hundred years.

(p.142) Roosevelt’s Rough Riders

During the years in which Wister struggled with a private and deeply buried act of whiteface, Roosevelt was engaged in a very public displacement of blackness, on a much larger—indeed, national and international—scale. His staging ground was the Spanish-American War, a key moment in the development of U.S. imperialism and the popular western.24 The war’s iconic figure was Roosevelt’s Rough Rider—the Anglo-Saxon gentleman cowboy par excellence—who yoked frontier heroism to overseas militarism, in the process justifying American extra-continental expansionism and extending the ideological reach of the western.25 The African American military presence in Cuba—and, subsequently, Puerto Rico and the Philippines—threatened that figure by challenging white superiority on the western frontier and the imperial battlefield. By tracing how Roosevelt expunged black soldiers en masse from a central myth of American heroism, we can appreciate, again, how deeply the engagement with blackness was driven into the western’s creative fabric.

The Black Rough Riders

African Americans joined the U.S. military in sizeable numbers during the Civil War. In 1866, Congress created six segregated regiments that were subsequently reorganized into four units—the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries—constituting around 10 percent of the U.S. army.26 The “black regiments” were assigned almost exclusively to the West. Despite the harshness of frontier conditions, military service was often the best option for previously enslaved men, offering a level of sustenance and dignity not available elsewhere in American society. The black units acquitted themselves with distinction, winning the title “Buffalo Soldiers” from Cheyenne warriors as testament to their distinctive physical features and their tremendous strength and endurance.

When America declared war on Spain, the four black regiments were among the first sent to Cuba.27 The War Department subsequently authorized additional black volunteer units—known as the “immune regiments” for their supposed resistance to tropical diseases—that saw limited action.28 The 9th and 10th Cavalries (Fig. 4.5) fought in General Joseph Wheeler’s (dismounted, as it turned out) cavalry division, alongside several regular white cavalry regiments and the First United States Volunteer Cavalry—the regiment effectively assembled, led, and publicized by Theodore Roosevelt, by now a rising political star, and popularly known as Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Recent decades have seen steadily increasing interest in and scholarship on the Buffalo Soldiers in the American West; that work makes it possible, now, to consider the impact of their overseas service on the shaping of U.S. popular print culture at this crucial juncture.29 (p.143)

                     Figure 4.5. 9th Regt. U.S. Cavalry, Camp Wikoff, Montauk Point, Long Island, N.Y., September 1898 (on return from fighting in Cuba)

Figure 4.5. 9th Regt. U.S. Cavalry, Camp Wikoff, Montauk Point, Long Island, N.Y., September 1898 (on return from fighting in Cuba)

Black opinion about military involvement varied greatly. Pro-war advocates argued that blacks’ participation would reverse increasingly oppressive segregation and white terrorism in the South. The 1880s and 1890s saw an explosion of lynching; in the same year as the Spanish-American War, African American civil rights crusader Ida B. Wells accused the United States of being “a nation of lynchers” (quoted in Gleijeses 186). Some black spokespeople argued that visible demonstrations of black loyalty and national service could only improve their status at home and their opportunities abroad.

Black anti-imperialists argued that “a Jim Crow War” would result in “a Jim Crow empire,” rendering populations of color in and beyond the United States more oppressed than ever. They pointed to the war department’s continued refusal to commission black officers and, as black troops were transported from the West to the South for embarkation to Cuba, the violent displays of racism by whites unnerved by the presence of armed black men. Far from nurturing cross-racial solidarity, this war brought white Northerners and Southerners into new alignment, healing their Civil War wounds. Black opposition to the war became more widespread in 1899, when America refused independence to the Filipinos who had worked with them to drive the Spanish out of the Philippines. Many blacks sympathized with the Filipino nationalists, especially as they witnessed white American soldiers subjecting the Indigenous people to the extreme violence and racist epithets so familiar at home. At least twenty American soldiers, of various races, defected to the Insurrectos, the (p.144) most famous being the African American “General” David Fagan who deserted the 24th Infantry in the face of white officers’ racism.

Given the violent oppression of black people in post-Reconstruction America and the tense public debates about black involvement in a white man’s war, a great deal was riding on the performance of black soldiers in Cuba. The black press, unable to fund professional war correspondents, solicited eyewitness accounts by soldiers on the front. The richer white press also paid attention to black soldiers, mainly because they fought alongside Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the campaign’s most famous regiment, which was heralded as carrying America’s frontier spirit onto the world stage. It brought together members of the eastern establishment with cowboys, hunters and a segregated troop of American Indians; Roosevelt said, “there are a number of Knickerbocker and Somerset club”—he could have added, and the Boone and Crockett Club—“as well as Harvard and Yale men going as troopers, to be exactly on a level with the cowboys.”30 Some accounts suggested that the African American troops spent considerable time saving these gentlemen volunteers from their own foolhardiness. All agreed that regulars and volunteers, across racial divides, intermingled in battle; there was no chance of sustaining “anything like distinct regimental segregation.”31

Initially, Roosevelt seized this cross-racial action as the ground of his own political and ideological image-making in the war’s aftermath. At “a mass meeting favorable to his candidacy for governor of New York,” in New York City, October 14, 1898, he described the assault on San Juan Heights, the climactic action in Cuba, thus:

We [Rough Riders] struck the Ninth Cavalry and in the first charge, on what we called Kettle Hill, they and we went up absolutely intermingled, so that no one could tell whether it was the Rough Riders or the men of the Ninth who came forward with the greater courage to offer their lives in the service of their country…. That night we took spades and worked at the trenches shoulder to shoulder, white and colored men together…I don’t think that any Rough Rider will ever forget the tie that binds us to the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry…. It wasn’t because the colored troopers were colored that we admired them…it was because they were brave men, worthy of respect.

And now, in civil life, it should be the same. (Quoted in Washington, Wood, and Williams 51–52)

Black cavalrymen echoed this cross-racial intermingling of identities, declaring: “It’s all in the family. We class ourselves The Colored Rough Riders!” (quoted in Philips 59).

(p.145) Six months later, Roosevelt executed a volte-face in the middle-class Scribner’s Magazine which serialized his military memoirs of Cuba. In the April 1899 installment, he reflected on black soldiers: “they are, of course, peculiarly dependent upon their white officers” (“Cavalry” 435). His account of San Juan Hill changed notably:

None of the white regulars or Rough Riders showed the slightest sign of weakening; but under the strain the colored infantrymen (who had none of their officers) began to get a little uneasy and to drift to the rear…. This I could not allow, as it was depleting my line, so I jumped up, and, walking a few yards to the rear, drew my revolver, halted the retreating soldiers, and called out to them that I appreciated the gallantry with which they had fought and would be sorry to hurt them, but that I should shoot the first man who, on any pretense whatever, went to the rear…. This ended the trouble. (436)

Roosevelt had realized the perils of welcoming black Americans into what Richard Slotkin calls the “mythic space” of the frontier (“Wild West” 34). His first account of battle not only acknowledged black manhood; it had the potential to reverse the post-Reconstruction caste system by proving that blacks could take leadership and equal white valor. By early 1899, Filipino nationalists were playing precisely on this potential. They distributed posters to “The Colored American Soldier,” inciting him to join forces with rebel leader Aguinaldo, assert his black manhood, and avenge the blood of Sam Hose, lynched in Georgia. It was crucial that Roosevelt re-segregate black soldiers, relegating them to servile dependency on white authority. He increasingly whitened the Rough Rider image to that end.

Black anger at Roosevelt’s reversal simmered for many years. Willard Gatewood characterizes the depth of black hostility to Roosevelt “principally because of his ‘slur’ upon the performance of Negro troops in Cuba” during the presidential campaign of 1900; “The mere mention of Roosevelt’s name brought forth loud protests and hisses at several major gatherings of Negroes in 1900” (Gatewood, “Black” 562). Although black commentators continued to insist on the undying fame of black cavalrymen overseas, those who classed themselves “The Colored Rough Riders”—I here name them the black Rough Riders—faded from mainstream view. Where did they go?

Whitening the Rough Rider

One answer to that question is: deep into the breeding ground of white myth-making. The Spanish-American War was accompanied by—indeed, (p.146) Kristin Hoganson has argued it was provoked by—an intensified gendering of political culture that benefited white elite men.32 Frontier clubmen made a central contribution to that larger discourse with war rhetoric that drew on the same myths of manhood—the same tropes of hunting, sport, whiteness, and youthfulness—as their other writings.

Several members of the frontier club made their voices heard in support of the Spanish-American War; even Grinnell, the least bellicose of the frontier clubmen, briefly proposed to head up a regiment of American Indians to fight in Cuba.33 Henry Cabot Lodge, chief architect of “the Large Policy” of U.S. expansionism, and generally acknowledged as one of “the fathers of modern American imperialism,” extolled his Harvard classmates for their victories on the playing-field that proved the well-spring of “the English-speaking race” as “world-conquerors.”34 He closely followed the press coverage of Roosevelt’s adventures in Cuba, clipping the daily newspaper stories.35 Winthrop Chanler took a small band of irregulars to Cuba—a mixture of patricians and ex-cavalrymen who had been performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. He sustained a steady correspondence with Lodge and Roosevelt throughout the war and wrote with boyish enthusiasm from the jumping-off point in Tampa to his long-suffering wife in Rome, “We shall have a bully time with flies & bugs & rain & the war will soon be over,” and, once embarked, “Altogether it is lots of fun” (quoted in L. Thomas 252, 254). Caspar Whitney, reporting from the battlefield for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, marshaled his stalking and sporting tropes, marginalizing the black troops in his account and heroizing the Rough Riders “in which the man who had hunted big game, who was fond of out-of-door sport, the college athlete, the cow-puncher, and the miner predominated” (“Santiago” 818). There were many clubmen in Cuba fashioning myths of Anglo-Saxon superiority on the battlefield: Richard Harding Davis was Roosevelt’s virtual publicist, Stephen Bonsal initially teamed up with Remington to write for the eastern press, and of course the upper-class members of the Rough Rider unit gave their own stories in private correspondence and public interviews. In print as in battle, Roosevelt led the charge. The war was, for him, an extension of his hunting trips: he declared that he was off to hunt “the most dangerous game,” man (quoted in E. Thomas 300). On his return, he hung his sword and hat from Cuba over the elk antlers in Sagamore Hill’s trophy room.36 And he most systematically and tenaciously converted the cross-racial scene of combat into an exclusive enclave of white heroism.

Amy Kaplan has explored how Roosevelt’s account of storming San Juan Hill implicitly engaged with “black counternarratives” that disputed his version of that action, specifically, and his vision of African American manhood more generally (231). If we tilt Kaplan’s analytical lens, to identify stories of black military action as original narratives and war stories circulated by the mainstream press as “white counternarratives,” two gains result. First, black rhetorical strategies are (p.147) given fuller play than if we read them only as rebuttals. Second, we can see how African Americans functioned as the motivating absence in white myth-making, the presence that white counternarratives attempted to appropriate and to expunge from the scene. This operation is part of the larger Africanism identified by Toni Morrison: an “Africanism, deployed as rawness and savagery, that provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity” (44). Of particular interest here is how such Africanism motivated and shaped the popular western just as the genre was welding national to imperial rhetoric through the figure of war.

If we amalgamate black press accounts, the highlights of the narrative go something as follows. As the American forces advanced towards Santiago, the 10th Cavalry first reversed a Rough Rider retreat, then saved the inexperienced regiment from ambush at Las Guásimas. At El Caney—dubbed Hell Caney for its fierce fighting—black infantrymen led the assault on the Spanish blockhouse, Private Butler of the 25th Infantry seizing the Spanish flag. A black sergeant shouted the decisive charge on San Juan Heights, where 24th Infantrymen and 9th and 10th Cavalrymen took the van, the last two units intermingling with Rough Riders. Sergeant George Berry of the 10th Cavalry planted the colors of his own regiment and the 3rd Cavalry on San Juan Hill. The black press lavished attention on several individuals: six blacks who won the medal of honor; and both Private Horace Bivens (who survived) and Corporal Brown (who did not) for their handling of Hotchkiss guns.37 Commentators credited black soldiers’ frontier experience for teaching them to counter Spanish and, later, Filipino guerillas in challenging terrain. For anyone in search of an American hero combining western and military heroism, here was an obvious candidate.

This was the narrative that Roosevelt had to counter. In 1899, Scribner’s published The Rough Riders in book form, lightly revised from the Scribner’s Magazine serial. Critics have analyzed the book’s cultural work as a campaign document promoting Roosevelt’s political ambitions and as “a microcosm of the progressive order” (Slotkin, Gunfighter 102). A related challenge was racial. In converting the Cuban battlefield into a space of new imperialism, Roosevelt had both to deny and to draw on African American power. In his writing, he practiced the systematic, rhetorical exclusion that runs through all frontier club productions, from their Boone and Crockett hunting tales, to Wister’s fictions of gentlemen cowboys, to the anti-immigration bills promoted by Lodge in Congress.

In The Rough Riders, Roosevelt excludes blacks first from the American West, then from the heroic action in Cuba. The frontier from which his Rough Riders draw their virile heroism has only two types, the dominant Anglos and the vanishing Indians, as in the illustration of two horseback riders, under the caption “East and West”: “Captain Woodbury Kane, Promoted for Gallantry in the Fight of July 1st” set against “William Pollock, Pawnee Indian.” There are no black (p.148) cowboys, soldiers, settlers, or even badmen, an astonishing omission, given the visibility of black westerners suggested by the statistics cited at the opening of this chapter and even by Wister’s photographs of Texas ranching. Roosevelt’s account of Cuba acknowledges the four black regiments, but the most visible African American soldiers are those who behave poorly—as, for example, his story of the cowardly black soldiers, repeated from magazine to book version in the face of participants’ protests. The entire power of the 9th Cavalry is diminished in one subordinate, “my colored body-servant, Marshall, the most faithful and loyal of men, himself an old soldier of the Ninth Cavalry” (60); soon, “Faithful Marshall…was so sick as to be nearly helpless” (219).

The pressure of that black absence—and of the alternative narratives that Roosevelt cannot admit—makes itself felt on his narration of specific battles. The fight at Las Guásimas was one of the most publicly disputed, with the black press showcasing 10th Cavalrymen’s accounts of saving Roosevelt’s Rough Riders from a Spanish ambush, into which their inexperience and foolhardiness had led them. Some accounts claimed that the volunteer cavalrymen shot each other by mistake. To seize control of this war narrative, Roosevelt begins it in his most comfortable location: one of the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. He introduces Brigadier-General Young, the commander at Las Guásimas, as an old acquaintance, first encountered when Roosevelt was president of the Boone and Crockett Club, the linchpin of the frontier club network: “while he was in Washington, he had lunched with me at the Metropolitan Club” (73). This opening enables him to give the battle over entirely to the officer (which is to say the white) class. The engagement becomes “General Young’s fight,” and the only named participants are commissioned officers and his own non-commissioned Rough Riders (73). It was particularly important to erase black gunners, who, conjoining military heroism and modernity, threatened Anglo-Saxon stereotypes of savage Africanism. The effort to avoid acknowledging who manned the Hotchkiss mountain guns gives rise to awkward circumlocutions: “Young began the fight with his Hotchkiss guns” which, unlike the Spanish armament, shoot themselves: “No sooner had the Hotchkiss one-pounders opened than the Spaniards opened fire in return” (83). More avoidance of black agency accounts for the passive construction with which Roosevelt reports the action at Kettle Hill: “The light battery of Hotchkiss one-pounders, under Lieutenant J. B. Hughes, of the Tenth Cavalry, was handled with conspicuous gallantry” (143).

Roosevelt’s key narrative strategy draws on the youthful, naïve perspective so familiar from his and his clubmates’ hunting tales. It allows him to represent his men’s behavior (which some called foolhardy) as boyish courage and to be so new to battle that he does not know (and therefore does not need to acknowledge) who else is involved. He describes the engagement as exclusively fought by his Rough Riders, with shadowy unraced presences coming and going at the edge of (p.149) the action. At one point, he says, “I was still very much in the dark as to where the main body of the Spanish forces were, or exactly what lines the battle was following, and was very uncertain what I ought to do; but I knew it could not be wrong to go forward …” (94); and later, “It is astonishing what a limited area of vision and experience one has in the hurly-burly of a battle” (139). When he finally acknowledges that some newspaper correspondents had reported “with minute inaccuracy, how we had run into an ambush, etc.,” that final abbreviation is as close as he can come to naming the possibility that Rough Riders had been saved by black soldiers (108). Boyishness became a very familiar trope of frontier adventure and of America’s move into extra-continental expansion, distinguishing American youthful imperialism from Old World, corrupt imperialism. Here the boyish stance, joined with frontier club exclusions, also serves a clear racial purpose.

Rough Rider iconography increasingly attached to whiteness, particularly to Roosevelt in the political sphere. Cartoonists regularly portrayed him in Rough Rider costume, attacking political foes and enemies of the nation. The Verdict lampooned his reformist zeal as governor of New York State, for example, with a cartoon of him as wild-eyed Rough Rider, holding the reins of his bucking bronco between his teeth while emptying his six-guns at straw figures labeled “Anarchy” and “Treason” (“Teddy to the Rescue of Republicanism!” October 30, 1899). The next year, when Roosevelt was being courted as William McKinley’s running mate, Puck showed Rough Rider “Teddy” coyly resisting being drawn into “Vice-Presidential Waters” by four lily-white maidens who represent the four quarters of the nation (“The Struggle for Life,” May 16, 1900; Fig. 4.6). When he entered the vice-presidential and presidential races, his campaign paraphernalia—bandanas, pins, leaflets—flaunted his Rough Rider image. The dependence of white political capital on black culture again emerges: his theme tune, “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” was a minstrel song heavily associated with the 10th Cavalry in Cuba—yet another debt that remained unacknowledged.38

Once Roosevelt entered the White House, the dime publishers Street & Smith took up the Rough Rider image, capitalizing on its central quality of youthfulness and suggesting, again, how closely intertwined were the so-called “quality” and cheap publishing industries. In 1904, as Roosevelt began his second presidential term, they launched a juvenile nickel series titled Young Rough Riders Weekly (later, Rough Rider Weekly) to compete in the growing market for children’s westerns. Ann Laura Stoler has incisively argued “that matters of the intimate are critical sites for the consolidation of colonial power, that management of those domains provides a strong pulse on how relations of empire are exercised” (4). As popular literature marketed to children, Young Rough Riders Weekly carried Roosevelt’s logic and vision into the intimate spaces of youthful education and desire.39 (p.150)

                     Figure 4.6. Louis Dalrymple, “The Struggle for Life,” Puck (May 16, 1900)

Figure 4.6. Louis Dalrymple, “The Struggle for Life,” Puck (May 16, 1900)

The first number, Ted Strong’s Rough Riders; or, The Boys of Black Mountain, introduced the hero, Ted Strong, with distinct echoes of Teddy Roosevelt’s career. Ted is returning from military action in Cuba and the Philippines to his Dakota ranch where he gathers around him a gang of upright youth, some from the eastern upper classes, some cowboys of lowly origin, each costumed in “a neatly-fitting khaki uniform such as those worn by the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War” (N. Taylor, Young 1). As well as foregrounding the Rough Rider’s youthfulness, the adventure stories develop Roosevelt’s appropriation of blackness into a whitened American West with a literalness that exceeds his. In all the cowboys, ranchers, rustlers, and townspeople the boys meet, they encounter one black person: yet another cook, with another Roman name, Pompey. When King of the Wild West’s Haunt; or, Stella’s Escape from Sacrifice (1906; Fig. 4.7) foregrounds a gang of evil blacks, they have been brought from the Caribbean by the dastardly Mexican Don Del Riza. In the West, they are whitened by a mysterious potion: “white negroes” who, in Ted’s words, “have lost their only mark of being what God intended them to be—honest negroes”; they are “like white men as to skin, yet savages at heart” (21, 22). The setting (p.151)

                     Figure 4.7. Rough Rider Weekly (March 31, 1906)

Figure 4.7. Rough Rider Weekly (March 31, 1906)

closes the ideological circle, by taking the young Rough Riders back to the frontier West from which they sprang, a West, like Roosevelt’s, at once dependent on, threatened by, and devoid of black men.

The suppression of blackness leaks out through what Toni Morrison dubs “Black surrogacy” (13)—the Black Hills setting; Ted’s black mustang, Black Bess; the comic German Rough Rider, Carl Schwartz; and innumerable villains named Black this-and-that. Most insistently, young Rough Rider victories are celebrated with renditions of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” and Ted enters the series as a sergeant—anomalously enough, given that Roosevelt was lieutenant colonel, then colonel. The rank of sergeant had particular meaning for black soldiers, for whom it was the highest rank available in the regular army and from which position several won fame. James Robert Payne argues that “the motif of the heroic Black sergeant at San Juan Hill” functioned as “an Afro-American supplement and corrective to the mainstream American (p.152) myth of the Rough Riders” (29). In the world of Rough Rider Weekly, that final opportunity for elevation is blocked by Ted’s white heroism.

Remington: With the Eye of the Mind

The spoiler in this process of suppressing blackness to the point of invisibility—yet again, the one who wasn’t quite part of the club—was Frederic Remington. Remington’s personal correspondence—which is peppered with racial slurs about a range of non-Anglo peoples—shows him to be as casually and brutally racist as any of the frontier club cohort. Yet he saw and reproduced black figures in terms that the others did not, coming close to positioning them at the heart of western myth-making.

In terms of racial dynamics, Remington’s introduction to the West was almost the mirror image of Wister’s. Although he had enjoyed a brief vacation in Montana in 1881 then a decidedly mixed experience as a Kansas sheep rancher in 1883, his decisive experience of the heroic West happened in 1886, when he traveled to the Southwest to provide illustrations of the army pursuing Geronimo for Harper’s. The commission was a triumph for Remington—“an illustrator’s plum…his springboard to fame”—and he reported his experience of the army in glowing terms (Samuels, Frederic 67). Throughout his career, Remington would continue to structure his landscapes into disciplined formations: the lines and columns in, for example, “The March of Roger’s Rangers” on snowshoes through ranks of trees and “The Charge” of cavalrymen in a long line on the empty plain (both 1897) and the defensive circles of “A Cavalrymen’s Breakfast on the Plains” (1890) and “The Fight for the Water Hole” (c. 1903). The lifelong patterns suggest that his first artistic encounter with the West trained him to see with a paramilitary eye.

This trip also established a lasting relationship with the 10th Cavalry. He was most intimate with the white Lieutenant Clarke, but he paid significant social and artistic attention to the black troopers, describing them as “charming men with whom to serve” and documenting evidence of their bravery, almost in anticipation of Roosevelt’s slurs a decade later: “These little episodes prove the sometimes doubted self-reliance of the negro” (“Scout” 902). He got the idea for his early illustration, “The Rescue of Corporal Scott”—which shows Lieutenant Clarke rescuing one black soldier with the aid of another—from a drinking conversation with the troop’s black sergeant. In 1889, he literally sketched himself into the company: in “Marching in the Desert,” he positions himself between the white lieutenant and the black sergeant in a long column of black cavalrymen. His private writings also individualize black soldiers: his journal describes Corporal Scott, for example, as “a fine tall negro soldier” (quoted in Samuels, (p.153) Frederic 73). There were both condescension in and limitations to Remington’s appreciation of African American contributions—although fascinated with vaqueros, for example, he rarely acknowledged African American cowboys—but his remains, racially, a quite different picture of the West than Wister’s or Roosevelt’s.40

In the frenzied war-mongering against Spain, Remington was as jingoistic as any of the frontier club. From 1896 onwards, in his personal and professional correspondence, he agitated for the war that would test him as war correspondent and expand his nation’s reach. He hooked up with the yellow press, commissioned first by Hearst of the New York Journal to illustrate Richard Harding Davis’s reports on the Cuban revolutionaries in 1897. It was this association that gave rise to the famous telegram: when Remington complained of a lack of action in Cuba, Hearst telegrammed back, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Apocryphal or not, when Remington subsequently invented an image of a Cuban woman being strip-searched by male Spanish officers, he was well on his way to keeping his part of that bargain.

Once the Spanish-American War was declared, Remington went into action with commissions from the Harpers, Hearst’s Journal and the Chicago Tribune. His experience in Cuba was one of the most disillusioning of his life. The mud, disease, and confusion countered all his visions of imperial confrontation. However hard Roosevelt and his retinue worked to promote the “cowboy soldier” image, Remington could see that the unhorsed, sweating, fever-ridden cavalrymen were not the inheritors of the chivalric lineage he had sketched for Wister’s “Evolution of the Cowpuncher” three years earlier. The new technologies of war—the shrapnel, the Mauser rifles, the Spaniards’ smokeless powder, the dynamite-gun—produced not mano a mano virtuosity but men cowering in the mud. And yet again, Remington was reminded that he didn’t fit in: in a quarrel over a mosquito net, Bonsal spurned him as “a self-made man…with parvenu arrogance” (quoted in Samuels, Frederic 273). Subsequently, Remington reported being “ostracized by my fellow-correspondents” (clubmen all) and left, literally, out in the mud, without shelter or support, shaking with fever, trailing behind the main action and missing the decisive engagements (“With” 966). He returned home a deflated and defeated man.

Remington had little interest in contributing to the myth-making that rapidly elevated Roosevelt to the war’s most popular hero, easing his route to the governorship of New York State. His war writings and illustrations serve to deflate clubmen’s claims to glory. Turning the tables on the superior class, he reached for a condescending tone: “I have been amused over Colonel Roosevelt’s claims for the worth and efficiency of his Rough Riders. It is such an old soldier trick” (“Colonel” 848). He wrote up the taking of San Juan Hill as a “most glorious feat of arms…considering every condition” but in terms that credit everyone except (p.154) the volunteer Rough Riders: “San Juan was taken by infantry and dismounted cavalry of the United States regular army” (974). He watched members of his beloved 10th Cavalry cut down at least partly because of the naïve bravado of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and he mourned the decimation of the 24th Infantry: “A young officer of the Twenty-fourth, who was very much excited, threw his arms about me, and pointing to twenty-five big negro infantrymen sitting near, said, ‘That’s all—that is all that is left of the Twenty-fourth Infantry,’ and the tears ran off his mustache” (974).

However much Remington disapproved of Roosevelt exploiting the war for self-aggrandizement, the rising politician would not be deflected. The Rough Riders seized Remington’s imagery in order to cement the connection between frontier and overseas heroism. When they were mustered out at Montauk Point, they presented Roosevelt with Remington’s first sculpture, “The Bronco Buster,” “the most popular and, not incidentally, probably the most profitable small American bronze sculpture of the nineteenth century” (Shapiro 186). Roosevelt drove home the symbolism, announcing to the assembled troops, “The foundation of the regiment was the ‘Bronco Buster,’ and we have him here in bronze.”41

But Roosevelt wanted a more direct endorsement from the best-known artist of the West. When Scribner’s commissioned him to write up the war, he leaned heavily on Remington to supply an illustration of him in battle. Remington acceded to an extent; as he had not seen this action, he worked—as he titled a later, very different canvas—“with the eye of the mind.”42 He put Roosevelt on horseback with his men rushing valiantly behind him under the caption “Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill,” full knowing that they had attacked Kettle Hill on foot (Fig. 4.8). But Remington’s reluctance and revenge are also manifest. His trademark paramilitary order is absent in this scene of disordered rush. Roosevelt is a tiny, indistinct figure well back in the picture’s plane, and several of his men are in the process of collapsing under fire. The effect is quite different from Remington’s western canvases up to that time, which portray fighting men—often mounted, dashing, and confidently brandishing weapons—well forward in the picture.

Even more mythologically unsettling is the figure in the center of the composition, at dead center of this group of white Rough Riders in their distinctive uniforms: a single black soldier. Alexander Nemerov points out that the “triangular mass” of white soldiers “tapers perfectly to an apex at the black man’s head” (90). Yet, in both the oil painting and the black-and-white reproduction that illustrates Roosevelt’s account, there is a near trompe l’oeil effect. At a distance, the black head in the painted canvas disappears, less strongly contrasted against its background of dark green, almost blue-black trees than the white-skinned figures against the light green grass. Up close, and once you look for the black head, the entire composition seems to revolve around it. The black (p.155)

                     Figure 4.8. Frederic Remington, “Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill”

Figure 4.8. Frederic Remington, “Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill”

man is visible and startling to those who want to see him, invisible once more to those who do not.43

Black Rough Riders Redux

If we move beyond the frame of the frontier club, the black Rough Rider comes much more fully—indeed, insistently—into view. He was claimed and celebrated in the black popular press, which emerged in this period. African American individuals and communities across the country worked to forge a black popular culture that would take advantage of the newly increased reading audience and the reduced costs of publication while contesting the racist stereotypes promulgated by mainstream presses, both “quality” and cheap. Those representations were part of a long-term legacy that kept black soldiers alive as sources of black pride and of an alternative stream of popular westerns.

Tearing a Piece off the Flag

“we are coming up unrepresented”

—First Sergeant M. W. Sadler, 25th Infantry44

One of the many disputed engagements in Cuba occurred at El Caney, when Private Butler of the 25th Infantry led the final rush on the blockhouse and seized the Spanish flag. An officer of the 12th Infantry immediately ordered Butler to surrender the flag to his white superior. Reluctantly obeying, Butler tore a piece (p.156) off the flag as evidence of his claim in his report to his colonel. The moment is nicely paradigmatic of how immediately blacks were forced into counter-narrative positions that rendered them dependent on the discourse of the dominant class (the flag, the colonel) in staking their own claims. The moment also points to a second answer to the question of where the black Rough Riders went: deep into the arms of black myth-makers.

Although the storming of San Juan Heights is now conventionally associated with white American frontier mythology and Teddy Roosevelt, at the time a barrage of black representations seized this and other battles in Cuba as signs of black heroism. Rayford Logan, dean of African American scholars, remembers: “Many Negro homes had prints of the famous charge of the colored troops up San Juan Hill” (335). The print might have been a color lithograph by the Maryland Lithography Company titled “How the Day Was Won,” depicting the charge of the 10th Cavalry up San Juan Hill (Fig. 4.9). Or it could have been the more provocatively captioned lithograph by Kurz & Allison, titled “Charge of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry and Rescue of Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, July 2nd, 1898.” A painting by Fletcher C. Ransom also depicted Troop C, 9th Cavalry charging San Juan Hill. The book illustration from Edward Johnson’s

                     Figure 4.9. “‘How the Day Was Won’: Charge of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment U.S.A. San Juan Hill; Cuba, July 1st 1898,” Maryland Litho. Co.

Figure 4.9. “‘How the Day Was Won’: Charge of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment U.S.A. San Juan Hill; Cuba, July 1st 1898,” Maryland Litho. Co.

(p.157) black history of the Spanish-American War (Fig. 4.10), for all its aesthetic limitations, was in some ways the most politically explosive, because it represented a black soldier in the forbidden epaulettes of an officer.

There was also a barrage of published writings documenting black valor on the battlefield. Bonnie Miller has traced the contribution of the Indianapolis Freeman, the first “national illustrated colored newspaper.” Between February and April 1899, it ran a series of front-page articles titled “Special War Notes,” “featuring portraits of distinguished black servicemen alongside engravings of black regiments in heroic combat in Cuba. This was a rare moment when an African American newspaper, claiming to serve over eighty thousand subscribers, was able to create a visual space in which African American military participation in the war could be recognized and truly celebrated” (150). From eyewitness accounts, Herschel V. Cashin assembled one book, Under Fire with the Tenth U.S. Cavalry (1899), and Theophilas Steward, 25th Infantry chaplain, wrote another, The Colored Regulars in the United States Army (1904). In his contribution to A New Negro for a New Century (1900), Booker T. Washington

                     Figure 4.10. Illustration in Edward A. Johnson, A School History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1890 Combined with The History of the Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War, Also a Short Sketch of Liberia (rev. ed., 1911)

Figure 4.10. Illustration in Edward A. Johnson, A School History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1890 Combined with The History of the Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War, Also a Short Sketch of Liberia (rev. ed., 1911)

(p.158) exposed the contradictions in the received account of Cuba when he juxtaposed Roosevelt’s earlier and later accounts of San Juan Hill, along with black soldiers’ refutations. Many poems and prose chronicles lauded the heroism of black soldiers and excoriated their subsequent neglect by the white establishment. Chroniclers of black heroism in Cuba—from the writings of soldier-poet Charles Frederick White in 1898 to Gail Buckley’s history in 2001—position Cuban action within a long catalogue of black military action, beginning with Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre of 1770. One 1915 novella nicely turns the tables on Roosevelt. F. Grant Gilmore wrote the famous colonel into “The Problem”: A Military Novel as the thinly disguised Roswell (which was the name of Roosevelt’s grandparents’ southern estate).45 Roosevelt-Roswell’s function is to attest to the preeminence of the novel’s hero, Sergeant Henderson of the 9th Cavalry, whose prowess in Cuba derives from his service in the American West, where he has won medals for marksmanship. Henderson defeats the Spanish enemy and the Anglo-Saxon officer who attempts to steal his sweetheart. The black hero conjoins the West, military, manhood, and modernity with considerably more success than any white Rough Rider.

As a campaign to change the mainstream image of the black Rough Riders, however, these attempts were contained by their demonstrations of patriotism, which served to shore up the status quo. Cashin’s volume, for example, is framed by a foreword by General Wheeler, who recommends Thomas Nelson Page’s vision of the “loyal darky” as the model to which African Americans should aspire (xv). Sergeant Presley Holliday of the 10th Cavalry made the futility of this effort clear. Holliday was on San Juan Hill, and he refuted Roosevelt’s Scribner’s article a month later, in the New York Age. He ended, however, with resignation: “I could give many other incidents of our men’s devotion to duty, of their determination to stay until the death, but what’s the use? Colonel Roosevelt has said they shirked, and the reading public will take the Colonel at his word and go on thinking they shirked” (quoted in Washington, Wood, and Williams 60).

The most powerful, potentially radical treatment of the black Rough Riders came at the hands of those who understood the need to change that reading public if they were to change “the imaginary world of what is possible” for African Americans (Kelley 9). In this period, several African American groups and individuals across the country set about creating the apparatus for a distinctively black popular literature by taking ownership of the means of production and distribution. Key figures included Sutton E. Griggs, James Ephraim McGirt, and the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company, founded by Walter Wallace, Jessie Watkins, Harper S. Fortune, and Walter Alexander Johnson, and later joined by Pauline Hopkins.46 Running through all their efforts as a central source of cultural power and political motivation is the figure of the black soldier in the Spanish-American War.

(p.159) Sutton Griggs created the Orion Publishing Company in Nashville, Tennessee in 1901 (and, later, the National Public Welfare League in Memphis). Winning a black audience involved the wholesale cooperation of the black community, including endorsements from cultural leaders, attention from the black press, financial contributions, amateur sales agents, and door-to-door canvassing by the author.47 Meanwhile, his work remained “virtually unknown to white Americans of his time” (Gloster ii). His novels are powerful melodramas of black life, largely set in the post-Reconstruction South, demonstrating the violence of the Anglo-Saxon regime in America. In three of his five novels—Imperium in Imperio (1899), Unfettered (1902), and The Hindered Hand (1905)—the war in Cuba and the Philippines becomes the basis of heroic black solidarity.

In his first novel, a secret black government—the Imperium—follows the liberation struggle in Cuba “with keenest interest, as the Cubans were in a large measure negroes” (201). As well as forging bonds across national divides, black leaders work to erase distinctions of color within their race. On the same morning that the U.S. Congress meets to debate war resolutions against Spain, the Congress of the Imperium meets to consider its president’s resolution of war against the United States: “These two congresses on this same day had under consideration questions of vital import to civilization. The proceedings of the Anglo-Saxons have been told to the world in minute detail, but the secret deliberations of the Imperium are herein disclosed for the first time” (203). Bernard Belgrave, the mulatto president, understands black subordination: “They have apparently chosen our race as an empire, and each Anglo-Saxon regards himself as a petty king, and some gang or community of negroes as his subjects” (218).

The Hindered Hand, Griggs’s most graphically violent and complexly plotted novel, shows how black military service can reverse that relationship. Three protagonists are veterans of the Spanish-American War: Ensal Ellwood served as chaplain, and Earl Bluefield and Gus Martin as soldiers: “These three were present at the battle of San Juan Hill, and Gus, who was himself notoriously brave, scarcely knew which to admire the more, Ensal’s searching words that inspired the men for that world-famous dash or Earl’s enthusiastic, infectious daring on the actual scene of conflict” (36–37). Military service stamps their approach to race war. Ensal tries to persuade Americans into racial equality by force of pen, distributing millions of addresses to every home. Earl plans to lead a band of five hundred men to take over a southern state capitol and a U.S. government building (“to make it a national question” [144]). Gus Martin undertakes a standoff against the local citizenry before being murdered by a white mob. Here, overseas militarism is a resource for black militancy, not for conformity to hegemonic notions of patriotism.

Griggs’s commitment to African American independence was part of a larger vision of transnational solidarity among people of color. In Unfettered, the (p.160) Republican Party’s refusal to recognize the independence of Filipinos precipitates the narrative’s central crisis. Dorlen Warthell, heretofore loyal speechwriter to the traditional party of southern blacks (which was the party of Roosevelt, Lodge, and the majority of the frontier clubmen), denounces the administration and sets about forging a third political alternative. This novel also expands the conventional gender focus, by bringing the heroine, Morlene, centrally into the political debate. Signing herself “The Ardent Expansionist,” Morlene becomes the arbiter of Warthell’s political analysis: only once she finds his plan for racial equality persuasive does she consent to marry him.

The sense of black military service simmering as a source of black power also runs through the productions of James Ephraim McGirt. McGirt was a poet—of, among other work, Avenging the Maine (1899)—who left North Carolina for Philadelphia in 1903 to begin McGirt’s Magazine and, in 1905, a book publishing business. It is an apt symbolism that McGirt worked from premises just blocks away from Wister’s law office in Philadelphia where he did his writing. McGirt advertised his aim to reach a white as well as a black audience, “that they may know great men of our race and what they are doing and saying,” and his editorial tone remained respectful of that potential white audience (“I Publish”). Yet the magazine’s content promotes an ambitious agenda for black citizens. Editorials, articles, fiction, and poetry advocate a distinctive African American higher education, business, religion, and publishing. The magazine’s watchwords are black manhood and black leadership. Every so often, these qualities attach to the figure of the black soldier in the Spanish-American War, and then their militant potential becomes clear.

In McGirt’s short story “In Love as in War,” which he subsequently reprinted in The Triumphs of Ephraim (1907), a black sergeant defeats a white officer twice over. The central love plot takes place in the Philippines, during the service of the 9th and 10th Cavalries. Again, a woman arbitrates. Filipina Princess Quinaldo rebuffs the advances of Lieutenant Vaughn in favor of Sergeant Roberts. When Vaughn tries to assert his superiority by both rank and race—“I am a commissioned officer with authority; moreover, my parents are of the best blood in New Orleans”—the princess tells him in no uncertain terms that she “infinitely prefer[s] the company of this noble hero” (73, 74). Roberts’s romantic victory encompasses the larger fight over credit for military victory:

It will be remembered that when our company was ordered up San Juan Hill, in the famous battle, and the Spanish shell and fire were sweeping us down so rapidly that our captain gave the command “To the rear!” it was “Sarge,” who had seen blood and in his rage yelled, “Hell to the rear!” and made a dash up the hill like a wild devil amid the flying shells, leading the company behind him and so startling the Spaniards (p.161) that they dropped their guns and were so panic-stricken that they were soon buried in their own trenches, and, in truth, the day was saved by “Sarge.” (64–65)

No Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, no white men in the van.

Meanwhile, in Boston, the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company began The Colored American Magazine in May 1900 and a few months later expanded into book publication. The journal’s mandate was more radical and its tone more assertive than McGirt’s. It announced itself as a “race journal” whose collective structure kept production and decision-making exclusively in the hands of black stake-holders:

American citizens of color have long realized that for them there exists no monthly magazine, distinctively devoted to their interests and to the development of Afro-American art and literature…. the Anglo Saxon race fails to sufficiently recognize our efforts, hopes and aspirations.

The Colored American Magazine…aspires to develop and intensify the bonds of that racial brotherhood, which alone can enable a people to assert their racial rights as men, and demand their privileges as citizens.48

One of the co-operative’s founding principles was “mutual benefit” within the race, a goal that was furthered through several organizational structures quite different from the quality or cheap publishing businesses of white, mainstream America. For an investment of at least $5, readers could join the co-operative and share its dividends; the company employed agents to sell magazine subscriptions and books; and it initiated at least two clubs, the Literary Agents’ Business Club and the Colored American Magazine Club. In late 1901, the stock prospectus reiterated its commitment: “The company is first, last and always, a Race Publishing House. It has been from the start, and will continue to be, controlled absolutely by members of the Negro Race” (quoted in Knight 451).

Given these principles, it is obviously significant that the first issue of The Colored American Magazine opens with a frontispiece of black soldiers returning from the Spanish-American war. “Company ‘L’ of the Sixth Regiment, M. V. M., reviewed at the State House on its return from Cuba” was also offered as a mounted print for 50 cents—perhaps yet another of the prints Rayford Logan remembers seeing in black households. Accompanying the illustration is an article on the action seen by Company L—the only black company in the Massachusetts militia—in Puerto Rico; “it was the first colored organization of volunteers mustered into service, and the only one favored with active service” (Braxton 19). The authorship also showcases the only officer class available to blacks: Lieutenant Braxton holds (p.162) his rank as a member of a volunteer regiment. In the early years of the magazine, essays and fiction lauding black military service in the Spanish-American War recur regularly, often authored by black volunteer officers. Running in counterpoint is a sustained call for transnational solidarity: one writer criticizes the federal administration for denying self-government to people of color in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines; another warns Aguinaldo about U.S. Jim Crowism; and a third links Antonio Maceo, leader of the Cuban rebels, with Crispus Attucks. There is also a sustained critique of America’s domestic race politics: one essay lambasts the white American press for minimizing the black contribution to the war; another criticizes President Roosevelt’s treatment of black soldiers; and a third skewers anti-imperialists who oppose the subordination of Filipinos abroad but acquiesce in the subordination of African Americans at home. The outlines of a cultural network also emerge: author, editor, and publisher James Ephraim McGirt is featured in one issue of The Colored American Magazine, Theophilas Steward, author and 25th Infantry chaplain, is a regular contributor, and other veterans reappear in these pages.

In short, we can see that the black Rough Rider was immersed in a network of racialized culture quite as deeply as Roosevelt’s Rough Rider was immersed in the Anglo-Saxon frontier club network. The difference lies in the two figures’ meanings and purposes. Seeking to expunge blackness, the white Rough Rider insists on his own youthful innocence as the basis of his imperialist rights. Ironically, this image points up the contrasting manliness of the black Rough Rider. No boyish figure, he is a model of transnational militant resistance, ready to rise in protest against Jim Crow with oppressed peoples of color across the globe and to break down intraracial class, color, and, to an extent, gender divisions at home. The threat of such a figure at such a moment—the motivation for its suppression—was powerful.

“These cats was the original posse”

’Twas I who rescued from the urn

Of death thy fickle soldier chief;

Tis he who gives me in return

Disgrace, dishonor, no relief

—Corporal Charles Fred. White, “Plea of the Negro Soldier” (1907)

Where the black Rough Riders went representationally and where they could go in actual, material terms were, of course, intimately related. Inasmuch as African Americans’ social conditions limited their recognition in the mainstream press, so the repressed representation detailed above enabled a redoubled racism and authoritarian oppression when the soldiers returned to American (p.163) soil. Ultimately, the black community’s one “resource of hope” (as Raymond Williams would call it) was their own memory-making capacity. From this resource came the resurrection of the black Rough Riders.

Edward Van Zile Scott details the “almost daily racial incidents” as black troops returned to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama (28). One of the worst occurred in 1906, in Brownsville, Texas, where three companies of the 25th Infantry were stationed despite warnings about rabid racism. After a night of violence—known as the “Brownsville Raid”—and the murder of one white civilian, 167 soldiers were dishonorably discharged without a public hearing and with the complicity of President Theodore Roosevelt—an act that provoked Corporal White’s angry poem, quoted above.49

Paradoxically, some black soldiers found relief from Jim Crow through employment in an icon of Anglo-Saxon frontier imperialism: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Begun in 1883, the show developed from the spectacular demonstration of western skills to reenactments of western history, becoming, in Richard Slotkin’s words, “the most important commercial vehicle for the fabrication and transmission of the Myth of the Frontier” in the late nineteenth century (Gunfighter 87). In the 1890s, having won an international audience, the show expanded its ideological mandate from frontier nostalgia to global triumph. In 1893, it added a “Congress of Rough Riders of the World,” showcasing the name subsequently applied to the First U. S. Volunteer Cavalry—and provoking a public wrangle between Roosevelt and Cody over who popularized the term. As well as the commercial imperative to own the brand, a racial divide ran between the two men’s usage. While Roosevelt claimed the term exclusively for his Anglo-Saxon cowboy-clubmen, Cody used it to designate an array of racial and national types: South American gauchos, Mexican vaqueros, Arab Bedouins, Cossack horsemen, French Cuirassiers, along with cowboys, American Indians, and U.S. Cavalrymen. Slotkin analyses the Wild West parade as imperialist display subordinating these international representatives to the triumphant Anglo-Saxonism of their leader, Bill Cody. Louis Warren reads it more inclusively, arguing that the Congress invited a diverse range of Americans (including immigrants from the represented countries) to understand their identities in a national and global framework.

This was the context in which black Rough Riders performed when, in 1899, the show added to its reenactments the charge up San Juan Hill. It featured some members of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, some American Indian scouts, and some 9th and 10th Cavalrymen and 24th Infantrymen.50 Black veterans performed themselves, bivouacking in Cuba then storming San Juan Hill. While the African Americans were not exactly stars of the event, the program did draw attention to them. Its illustrations of “Scene I.—The Bivouac the Night before the Battle of San Juan Hill” and of “Scene II.—The Rough (p.164) Riders’ Heroic Charge at San Juan Hill” include black soldiers off-center within the composition. The accompanying text reads in part: “There is a frantic yell of admiration and approval as the soldiers—white, red and black—spring from their cowering position of utter helplessness and follow Roosevelt and the flag.”51 Certainly the black soldiers are subordinated to Roosevelt and the nation. Only a year after San Juan Hill, however, in the face of frontier clubmen’s accounts of black cowardice, it was unusual for any white-owned medium to credit black soldiers for playing their part in America’s international adventure.52 Black performers’ living conditions were also unusually integrated within a racial mixture of Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, white Americans, Cubans, Filipinos, and Europeans.

It did not, however, last. The storming of San Juan Hill served as the show’s culminating spectacle for two years, then was replaced by “The Battle of Tien-Tsin,” a display of American might and international cooperation stemming from China’s Boxer Rebellion of 1901, which followed the same performance structure as the Cuban reenactment. In 1902, San Juan Hill returned for two more seasons, but with a revised program text. With Roosevelt now in the White House, the spotlight was exclusively on him in this scene. All mention of black soldiers disappeared; if they were present in the ring, they were tucked within the designation “U.S. Regulars.” If the program was potentially both a framing device and a mnemonic for the audience, this version gave little encouragement to see or remember the black Rough Riders.

There are those, however, who remember them. This is the final place that the black Rough Riders went—into black cultural memory, which has continued to contest the dominant western formula up to the present day. In the 1900s, the black community in Manhattan’s West Fifties renamed their district San Juan Hill, “a folk tribute to the exploits of Negro soldiers in the Spanish-American War” (Federal Writers’ Project 160). In the 1950s, Rayford Logan remembered them as a source of racial pride: “Negroes had little, at the turn of the century, to help sustain our faith in ourselves except the pride that we took in the 9th and 10th Cavalry, the 24th and 25th Infantry…. They were our Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson” (335). In the 1980s, the novelist Ralph Ellison remembered them through his father, Lewis Ellison: “having had a father who fought on San Juan Hill, in the Philippines and in China, I knew…an archetypical American dilemma: How could you treat a Negro as equal in war and then deny him equality during times of peace?” (xiii). And in the 1990s actor and screenwriter Sy Richardson remembered them, through his grandfather, Abe Richardson, who fought with the 10th Cavalry.53

It was from this last source that Mario Van Peebles’ 1993 film Posse—co-written by Richardson and dedicated to both his grandfathers—erupted, (p.165) telling, as the film’s poster announces, “The untold story of the wild west.” The film opens in Cuba, where the 10th Cavalry is pinned down by enemy fire and by their commander, Colonel Graham who—with his political ambitions and his steadfast refusal to retreat—is a mad, horrifically violent version of Roosevelt. Jesse Lee leads a small group of cavalrymen in resistance, escaping to the United States. They travel west to Freemanville, the all-black town begun by Jesse Lee’s father, Reverend King David Lee (based on Richardson’s maternal grandfather), who has been lynched by whites. Jesse leads his posse in revenge against the lynchers, ultimately triumphing in a Peckinpahesque hail of bullets and conflagration to establish a new frontier settlement with his Native lover.

This film fulfills much of the black Rough Rider vision of a century earlier. Like many of those works, it places black military service in a lineage of forgotten heroes. The film is framed by the aged Woody Strode who, as John Ford’s staple black actor, embodies numerous black Westerners as well as the Buffalo Soldier in Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge of 1960. The ancient “Storyteller” remembering his youth both signifies on Jack Crabb in Little Big Man (1970) and—as in turn-of-the-century accounts—insists on black eyewitnesses challenging the dominant story. He leafs through photographs of forgotten blacks on the frontier: Nat Love, Isom Dart, Cherokee Bill, 9th and 10th Cavalrymen; “People forget their past and they forget the truth. But pictures don’t lie…. These cats was the original posse.” Like Rough Rider Weekly, Posse takes a group of Rough Riders back to the West, in a radically different register and with a radically different purpose.

Through Jesse Lee’s flashbacks, we learn of the savage lynching of his father and gradually realize that western mythology—the coming of the railroad, the town sheriff, the assault on Indigenous peoples, the justification of lynching—is repeatedly motivated by racism. This film shows how the frontier is literally built on the bodies of black people. Lee’s tactics of resistance are reminiscent of Griggs’s. His service in Cuba teaches him to forge solidarity of the oppressed—blacks, Native Americans, and one white posse member—and lead them into smashing evil white mobs and conspirators.

The film, of course, goes farther than Griggs could. The violent confrontation only imagined in Imperium in Imperio is enacted in the film, and it leads to a resolution unavailable to Griggs’s characters. The film usurps white authority, bringing black Rough Riders into mainstream media and seizing the western genre to a degree that no earlier black writer could. In a recognizably John Ford moment, a spokesman for the fearful black townspeople protests to Lee: “These people ain’t soldiers and this ain’t Cuba.” When the townspeople rally to fight on Lee’s side, the implication is that Cuba does, after all, have something to say to black American independence, historical and contemporary.

(p.166) Conclusion

Heather Cox Richardson has argued that, in order to understand the politics of Reconstruction (a period that she extends to 1901), we need to look west. Equally, in order to flesh out the politics of the western, we need to look to Reconstruction. During a period riven with the collapsing and reinstating of racial boundaries, frontier clubmen protected some antebellum southern privileges by removing them to the western plains. In 1886, Roosevelt noted with satisfaction that the big cattlemen constituted “a class whose members were in many respects closely akin to the old Southern planters,” a connection his fellow authors reinforced with tales and images of chivalrous southern cowboys on the western plains (Hunting 29–30). The displacement of the Old South to the frontier West brought with it, of course, the problem of African American presence, with which Wister, Roosevelt, and Remington wrestled in significantly different ways.

Wister most thoroughly expunged blacks from his West, to a degree that speaks of deeply buried impulses. Immediately after The Virginian, despite Brett’s urging to write another western, he wrote Lady Baltimore, a portrait of Charleston (the city in which he completed The Virginian) revolving around another chivalrous southerner. Here there welled up a sustained diatribe against “the modern negro”—the hero bursts out at one point, “if we could only deport the negroes and Newport together to one of our distant islands, how happily our two chief problems would be solved!” (133, 60). Wister uses the novel to justify disenfranchisement and lynching with such insistence that Roosevelt scolded him for it (eighty years later, John L. Cobbs called Lady Baltimore “an unabashed outpouring of racist attitudes unmatched in the fiction of any other major American writer of the twentieth century” [107]). Whatever Roosevelt’s enthusiasms during his time as a Dakota rancher, it was a mainstay of his perceived presidential commitment to clean government that he was staunchly anti-lynching, whether the victims were blacks in the South or “stock thieves” in the West.54 Wister, in turn, vehemently criticized Roosevelt’s 1903 presidential appointment of Dr. William Crum, an African American, as collector of ports in Charleston—to his face at some length, three years later in Lady Baltimore, and, having the final word, in his 1930 biography, long after Roosevelt’s death at a point when black rights in America rankled Wister more than ever.

Roosevelt himself vacillated on the recognition of African Americans, caught between conflicting political, personal, and ideological imperatives. He publicly promoted individual black figures—as early as 1884, when Lodge and he nominated the African American John R. Lynch as temporary chairman at the Republican National Convention—but he steadfastly deemed the race as a whole to be inferior. He certainly was not prepared to share equal (p.167) billing with blacks in western—which came to equal imperial—myth-making, although even on this front political expediency led him to temper his portrait of black cowardice. In 1901, as a vice-presidential nominee concerned about losing black Republican votes, Roosevelt publicly declared that he would be the “last man in the world to say anything against the colored soldiers” (quoted in Dyer 101). Five years later, however, now-President Roosevelt outraged the black community once more by dishonorably discharging an entire battalion of the 25th Infantry stationed in Brownsville, Texas (many of them veterans of the Spanish-American War), on the basis of unproven accusations of violence by white townspeople.

Remington was perennially uncomfortable with the imposition of an Anglo-Saxon template on the racially diverse West. In 1895, while agreeing to illustrate “The Evolution of the Cowpuncher,” he tried to persuade Wister to credit Mexicans as the true cowboys: “I never saw an English cow-boy—have seen owners” (quoted in Splete 265). He disapproved of Roosevelt’s appropriation of black cavalrymen’s valor and was not prepared, in his paintings and writing, to endorse their exclusion from the western scene or the imperial battlefield. He devoted book-length fiction to mixed-race and racially conflicted characters in the West (in Sundown Leflare and John Ermine of the Yellowstone, which I discuss in Chapter Five), although African Americans did not figure in this mix. It was only in the military sphere that Remington lauded African Americans at length, perhaps because the military hierarchy ensured there could be no threat to white supremacy, no claim to black rugged individualism, from this quarter.

The parallels that G. Edward White traced among Wister, Roosevelt, and Remington over forty years ago seem, more recently, to have hardened into an image of three friends working in concert to mythologize a unified West.55 Looking at their work through the lens of African American representation, however, magnifies the fissures in both the relationship and the myth. What the triad undoubtedly did share was that they structured their Wests, in different ways and to different degrees, around black figures—absent or present.

The lens of African American representation also makes visible another arena of popularization, a black literary marketplace beyond the boundaries of the frontier club. By unraveling the making of the white Rough Rider image, we can appreciate the power and threat of the black Rough Riders on and beyond the battlefield. They refused to be silenced, and they were championed by their own publicists and cultural producers. The trope of white boyishness that was forged in places of privilege—the English public school system, the American Ivy League campuses, the gentlemen’s clubs on both sides of the Atlantic—and that was so central to mainstream western mythologizing, looks quite different in contrast to narratives of black masculinity—less (p.168) like innocence and more like weakness. Frontier club narratives shaped the dominant western formula into a negative image of blackness that ultimately diminished white masculinity. They were also challenged by black cultural networks and discourses of valor, independence, and transnational solidarity that have remained a potent resource for black cultural expression.


(1.) “After Four Years: A Square Deal for Every Man,” The Saturday Evening Post, March 4, 1905, 1–2; Wister noted: “I managed respectfully (I hope) to tell him he made a mistake in appointing Crum the negro as Collector of the Port in Charleston” (“Visit to White House” Jan 8–12, 1902, OWPLC, Box 61).

(2.) See William Chanler 19; W. L. Smith 81.

(3.) Ravage 151–53. See also Billington and Hardaway; Durham and Jones; Glasrud; Hardaway; M. K. Johnson; Katz; Massey; Savage; and Q. Taylor.

(4.) These figures are cited by Porter (159) and Buckley (111). Hardaway says there were “several thousand” African American cowboys (“African” 27); Durham and Jones say “more than 5,000” black cowboys went up the trail from Texas in the postbellum years (3). Barr summarizes the disputed figures for African American cowboys in post-bellum Texas, concluding that 8,700 is the most accurate count (xv). Ravage says that there were “tens of thousands of African American men, women, and children in the West during the ‘cattle kingdom’ years from 1860 to 1910” (151–53).

(5.) As early as 1886, in Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Roosevelt implicitly acknowledges and counters ethnic diversity among cowboys: “They are mostly of native birth, and although there are among them wild spirits from every land, yet the latter soon become undistinguishable from their American companions, for these plainsmen are far from being so heterogeneous a people as is commonly supposed” (6).

(6.) Allmendinger touches on the process of whitening (of, for example, Jim Beckwourth). Clark argues, in a different but complementary vein, that African Americans are transformed into horses in the western of this and later periods.

(7.) See Baker.

(8.) For an important essay that riffs off this quotation in another direction, see Owens.

(9.) The Black Hills to Medora stagecoach in which Scipio first introduces himself to the narrator also connects the scene with Theodore Roosevelt’s ranching adventures near Medora and with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, to which the stagecoach was retired (see Hagedorn 209–14).

(10.) For more ways in which The Virginian parallels the race relations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, see Clark 158–59, 170–71. In Toni Morrison’s Paradise, the African American Morgan family, (p.254) which prides itself on its pure blooded, “8-rock” status, traces its surname to “Moyne.… Or Le Moyne or something” (192). On “Lemoyne” as a Creole surname, see McDermott (30).

(11.) On the turn-of-the-century connection between “normality” and heterosexual white racial dominance, see Carter.

(12.) See journals for July, August, September 1888, Wyoming, and October–November 1889, Wyoming (OWPLC, Box 1).

(13.) Owen Wister’s Notebook, Texas, February–March 1893 (OWPLC, Box 1).

(14.) I owe thanks to Rick Walters, photographic technician at the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, for drawing my attention to these recently processed photographs.

(15.) O. Wister, “The Vicious Circle” 87. (“Extra Dry” was first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1909; “The Vicious Circle” was first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1902, then, revised as “Spit-Cat Creek,” in Members of the Family).

(16.) Untitled [or last two pages of “Preface—Thirty-three years after”?] (OWPLC, Box 62).

(17.) Wister noted: “She was a real hen, she did everything I have told about her, and she actually lived in Texas, where I did not meet her because she was dead already. It was her sorrowing owner who told me her tragic story. All that I did was to mix her up with the Virginian, with whom I had lived night and day on the closest terms while pondering the equally tragic story of Pedro the pony” (6); and he referred in the same document to “Em’ly, written in April 1893, after the Texas visit” (11) (“Preface—A Best Seller” [1928]; OWPLC, Box 62).

(18.) Untitled [or last two pages of “Preface—Thirty-three years after”?] (OWPLC, Box 62).

(19.) This quotation is from the version of “Hank’s Woman” in The Jimmyjohn Boss (257). The original ms. of “Hank’s Woman” (December 1891) is in OWPLC, Box 53. Years later, Wister wrote a story about a black man’s pony that ends up on a polo ranch and is talked about in eastern clubs (“Little Old Scaffold,” November 24, 1927, ms.; OWPLC, Box 56. The story was published in revised form in When West Was West).

(20.) See Brooks 207–80; Chude-Sokei 161–206.

(21.) Letter, George P. Brett to Frederick Macmillan, September 12, 1907 (MCR, Box 106); Letter, Owen Wister to George P. Brett, April 8, 1911(MCR, Box 106).

(22.) Letter, George P. Brett to Owen Wister, April 11, 1911 (MCR, Box 106); Letter, Owen Wister to George P. Brett, June 22, 1911 (MCR, Box 106).

(23.) Letter, George P. Brett to Molly Wister, April 22, 1909 (MCR, Box 106).

(24.) Some scholars now refer to the “Spanish-Cuban-American War” and “Invasion of the Philippines” as more accurately naming the politics of the war.

(25.) These connections are explored by, among others, G. E. White (149–70) and Bederman (170–215).

(26.) See Leonard 40–42.

(27.) My characterization of the black military in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines draws on Buckley; Fletcher; Gatewood, “Black,” “Indiana,” “Smoked”; Schubert, “Buffalo”; and Scott.

(28.) Eventually, black volunteer regiments consisted of the 7th through 10th, 48th and 49th Volunteer Infantry, as well as Company L of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia.

(29.) For a recent account of the pre-Spanish-American War formation of the black regiments, see Leonard. For a survey of scholarship on the Buffalo Soldiers from the Civil Rights period onwards, see Leckie with Leckie.

(30.) Morison 823. Leonard Wood commanded the regiment until he was promoted to general, at which point Roosevelt became the regiment’s colonel. All along, he had served as their prime motivator and publicist. On the composition of the Rough Rider regiment, see Jones; Samuels, Teddy; E. Thomas; Westermeier.

(31.) Gianakos examined around 300 works of fiction, concluding that there was an “almost universally favorable image of Negroes in the contemporaneous popular literature of the Spanish-American War” (36). The comment about “segregation” is from Vivian 163.

(32.) See Hoganson (especially 118–32) and B. Miller (especially 19–54).

(33.) See Hagan 44.

(34.) E. Thomas 385; Zimmerman 8; Lodge, “Speech” 293.

(35.) See E. Thomas 348.

(36.) See ibid. 406.

(37.) This summary draws on Cashin; Gianakos; Pullen; Steward; Thweatt; Washington, Wood, and Williams; and Young. (p.255)

(38.) “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” was written by Theodore Metz, first sung by the McIntyre and Heath Minstrels, first recorded by ragtime musician Lew Spencer, then taken up by the 10th Cavalry band in Cuba (Buckley 147; Washington, Wood, and Williams 37).

(39.) For more on The Young Rough Riders Weekly and the symbolism of youth in the Spanish-American War generally and Roosevelt’s role specifically, see Bold “The Rough Riders” (332–38).

(40.) Ravage reads the focal cowboy in Remington’s painting “The Stampede” (1909) as African American (51).

(41.) Quoted in G. E. White 169. In later life, Remington became proud of his association with the unit. On Sunday, December 13, 1908, he noted: “going in towne to Rough Riders dinner to Gen’l Leonard Wood at Union League club—myself only man not R.R. present. 25 in all. I made a speech praising Gen’l Wood. Off wagon. Slept at Manhattan.” Remington died on 26 December 1909. Two days later, Eva recorded his funeral at Canton, noting: “A large wreath from the Rough Riders Assoc.” (Remington Diary, FRAM).

(42.) Vorpahl also used this phrase as the subtitle to his book, Frederic Remington and the West, with quite different implications to my usage in this chapter.

(43.) For different readings of the meanings of this nearly invisible figure, see B. Miller 172–73; Nemerov, Frederic 87–94; and Seelye 299, 300.

(44.) Quoted in Washington, Wood, and Williams 62.

(45.) See Dyer 93.

(46.) For more on the details of the Colored Co-operative Publishing company, see Knight.

(47.) For more details on Griggs’s publishing efforts, see Coleman, Knight.

(48.) “Editorial,” The Colored American Magazine (May 1900): 60.

(49.) J. Payne 22. Only in 1972—with Dorsie W. Willis the sole surviving infantryman—was the injustice corrected. For segregation and racism against volunteer regiments, see Fletcher 51.

(50.) My research on black Rough Riders in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is a work in progress. Many questions about their participation in the show are as yet unanswered. Indeed, Warren points out that African American presence in the Wild West is, in several senses, a black hole in recorded U.S. history.

(51.) “Resplendent Realism of Glorious War,” Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World: Historical Sketches and Programme (1899), 32–34 (WFC, WH 72, Box 2; and PWFC, MS 6, Series I: D, Box OS1).

(52.) Compare Bonnie Miller’s analysis of the ways in which Buffalo Bill’s Wild West at once displayed and contained Cuban insurgents on leave, drawing attention to their wounded bodies, which both heroized them and prevented them from threatening the white “rescue narrative” (26).

(53.) See Keller 29ff.; McGregor.

(54.) Richardson 229.

(55.) See, for example, Watts 145–61.