The inspiration for the character of Cecil Jones in “Calamity Jane- How the West Began” is a single sentence in Nathaniel Langford’s “Vigilante Days and Ways” (p. 362). The setting is the ominous preparation for Sheriff Plummer’s execution:
“A negro boy came up to the gallows with ropes before the arrival of the cavalcade.”
Perhaps this was a youngster being referred to, but as most readers know, it would have been common for an African American man to be referred to as a “boy” in years past. It was a diminishing, derogatory term.
Was this individual a Mason? Seems unlikely the way it is described, but not impossible. I will return to that later.
Could the Cecil character have been as wealthy as depicted in my “Calamity”? Frederick Allen, in his book “A Decent Orderly Lynching” gives light to one such individual. The man is given mention in Allen’s section describing the debate in Congress on admitting Montana to the Union as a territory. The initial proposal in March, 1864 included restricting voting to free white male inhabitants. An amendment was proposed to change that to every “male citizen of the United States and those who have declared their intention to become such.” Lengthy debate ensued, and one of the questions was how many blacks would be eligible to vote. It was at first said that the number was negligible. However, a Senator Wilkinson of Minnesota, who had proposed the amendment, answered: “I wish to state that I called upon a friend of mine [Nathaniel Langford, the above cited author, who was an ardent Unionist] who had moved into Montana from St. Paul, Minnesota, and asked him that question. He replied that there were Negroes there; that one of the most respectable men in the Territory was a Negro worth over fifty thousand dollars.”
That was a lot of money back then. For a rough translation to present-day value, multiply by today’s value of an ounce of gold of more than a thousand dollars (as his worth in this context would have been in gold,) then divide by 20 (the dollar price of gold per ounce back then). Then consider that wages in the goldfields at the time were five times higher than back East (“Gold Camp” by Barseness, p.85). At any rate, it was a lot of money back then.
The idea of a wealthy black man in distant Montana stirred up concern among legislators. Seems that some thought that this information, if it became widely known, might lead to a mass migration of blacks to Montana. The specter was also raised that Montana’s admission to the Union might be viewed as a referendum on black suffrage if this amendment stuck, and thereby jeopardize the election for President Lincoln in the fall. We don’t know how Langford, who was watching the debate in the Senate gallery, felt about the fairness of all this, but we are told that he feared that this issue might jeopardize Montana’s admission to the Union, so he spoke to an opponent of the bill, who then addressed the Senate, saying that he had been told that the black prospector “is dead, and now there is not one single person of African descent in the proposed territory of Montana.”
Most likely, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of this black man’s demise was greatly exaggerated. It was certainly untrue that there were no blacks in the area. How numerous were they? Marilyn Grant, in “A Guide to Historic Virginia City” (p. 23) writes,
“…an African American Social Club formed in Alder Gulch in 1867. Henry N. Blake notes in his memoirs that thirty African Americans lived in Virginia City in 1866.”
At its peak around this time, the area had a population of ten thousand. Later than the events of “Calamity,” they had their own Masonic lodge (personal communication, Ellen Baumler). Before I return to the question of whether the man with the rope could have been a Mason, I will provide a few anecdotes that tell something of this small population. First, how early did blacks arrive in frontier Montana? At least one was among the earliest arrivals in the summer of 1862, part of a party of seventy (“Ho! For the Gold Fields,” Helen McCann White, p. 24):
“A Negro named Tom accompanied a St. Paul building contractor and acted as his cook.”
Here’s one individual cited in “Gold Camp (p.81):”
“Old Brod, ex-Negro slave, made enough blacking boots to lose $50,000 on the New York stock market.”
It seems likely that this is the individual referred to by Langford, as he doesn’t say that there were multiple wealthy black men in the area. There is an additional anecdote about this fellow from “Gold Camp” (p. 256):
“…Old Brod, the Negro bootblack, who drank himself into insensibility now and then, whom the b’hoys whitewashed once when he was passed out…”
A cruel outrage by today’s standards, but also to be judged by the standards of the day where pranksters might place an oil-soaked cork in a sleeping (white) man’s nose and light it. (“Gold Camp” p. 96)
Jean Davis, in “Shallow Diggins” (p. 49) writes of another individual,
“Religion got its start when a colored minister, Mr. Woods, arriving with Hugh O’Neil’s wagon train, preached Bannack’s first sermon on April 20, 1863.”
At the height of the power of Plummer’s gang in this area, it was common for men to go about town armed. Apparently this was the case for blacks as well. There is a short passage in Phillips’ “Medicine in the Making of Montana” (p. 98) that would imply that:
“Dr. McGee… was reported as treating a half-breed who had been shot in the neck by a Negro barber.”
Blacks were few enough that they would have stood out in a crowd, as in the following anecdote from Langford’s “Vigilante Days and Ways.” The setting is a murder trial that occurred early in Bannack’s history (the murder of Dillingham). It was a miner’s trial, so the entire camp was to vote on the guilt or innocence of the accused. A voice vote was inconclusive, so next those in favor of conviction were to go up a hill, those opposed down. Still the vote seemed inconclusive, so a count was taken of these two groups by each man passing between two pairs of men. Langford laments that this voting process was subverted (p. 217):
“The votes for liberty were increased to meet the occasion, by a second passage of as many as were necessary to carry the question. An Irish miner, while the voting was in progress, exclaimed in a loud voice, as a negro passed through the acquittal bureau, ‘Bedad, there’s a bloody nagur that’s voted three times.’”
Another rascal among the black population in the gold fields appears in Mather and Boswell’s “Hanging the Sheriff,” (p. 52):
“…Pemberton was summoned to represent a client Plummer had arrested for theft, a ‘dark feller,’ as he described the defendant, ‘black, with a red shirt on, a dirty flannel shirt and black hair that stood out on end… the hardest looking rooster I ever seen in my life.’ The young lawyer succeeded in getting the accused thief acquitted, receiving as payment his client’s horse.”
See my essay on Calamity Jane’s horse for more on that episode. This description of events is from Pemberton’s memoirs- he seems to have thought his client to be guilty, as I interpret that description. The horse, a magnificent steed, was auctioned for cash and Plummer was the high bidder. That is the “beautiful Sorrel” found in my story.
So, with an outline of the African American community of the time in mind, we now turn back to the question of whether the black man who threw the rope that hung Plummer was a Mason. I turn your attention to the history of African Lodge #1 in Boston, as found on their website, phylaxis.org. This lodge has been in continuous existence since it was chartered by the British on July 3, 1776 under the able leadership of a man named Prince Hall. Black men at the time were “not allowed free access to the streets, etc., unless they could prove they were free. The penalty was flogging, imprisonment, or both.” Prince had been given his manumission papers to prove he was free shortly after the Boston Massacre. He fought for equal treatment, and it appears, failing that, espoused the Return to Africa movement. His lodge established other lodges, and takes pride in its role in having originated the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and having as a member Thurgood Marshall, who led the successful fight against segregation in education.
It is not impossible that in the 1860’s, one of that lodge’s well-spoken members could have fled a legal situation stacked against him and ended up in Montana. That, then, is the back story of the fictional character in “Calamity,” Cecil Jones.