Tales from the Tread: Celebrate Black History Month
February is Black History Month when we honor and remember the experiences and contributions of African Americans to the United States and our collective history.
As we look closer at Routt County history and recent research conducted by historian James L. Crawford and others, we find several African American pioneer families who helped build the foundation of our county at a challenging time not long after slavery was abolished and the Civil War ended.
David White was born in Missouri during the Civil War. At the age of 15, he joined the James H. and Maggie Crawford family in 1877 in Steamboat Springs, and was known as the first African American to live in Steamboat Springs. He was a close family friend of the Crawfords and worked for them, helping with livestock, hauling hay and carrying the mail. In his early 20s, White moved to Chicago to live with relatives.
Henry Davis and his wife Susan Harris were born slaves — Henry in Tennessee in 1836 and Susan in Alabama in 1838. After Davis served in the Civil War, the two came to Colorado and arrived in Routt County in 1883. They spent time on Ezekiel Shelton’s ranch in Hayden before homesteading 4 miles west of Pagoda. Susan died on the ranch in 1887, the first death recorded in the Pagoda community, and she was buried there. In 1896 Henry moved to Monte Vista.
George Bratton was the first African American pioneer to settle permanently in Steamboat Springs. Born in Kentucky in 1857, Bratton arrived on the stage from Wolcott in the late 1880s. During his years in Routt County, Bratton ran his farm and opened a barbershop, pool hall, livery barn and restaurant.
His enterprising spirit didn’t stop there: Bratton was a skilled prospector who had claims at Hahns Peak, Elk Park, Gore Range, Eagle County, and in Wyoming. He is widely credited for discovering the ore deposit on Copper Ridge north of Steamboat Springs and served on the board of the Copper Ridge Mining & Milling Company.
Bratton achieved a rare feat for the time: He not only owned land but also became a successful and respected business leader.
“(Bratton) prospected and mined during the summer months. He didn’t merely talk about it. He got out in the hills and dug. … Bratton not only possessed initiative but really worked at mining. … (He) was an optimistic soul who enjoyed the company of his fellows,” John R. Burroughs wrote in “Head First in the Pickle Barrel.”
Though racism certainly existed at the time in Routt County, and Bratton faced continual challenges, he was remembered as a well-known and beloved member of the community who made a lasting impact not only on the development of the county but also on individuals who fondly remembered the tall, friendly man and his blue coat.
When Bratton died in 1911 from pneumonia, it was noted that his funeral left not a dry eye, and he was heralded by local newspapers. He is buried in the Steamboat Springs cemetery.
Though few pieces of ephemera exist to provide the details of the early life of African Americans in the history in Routt County, through the work of local museums and dedicated historians, we are able to better understand these pioneer legacies and their historical impacts. We seek to pay tribute to these brave and steadfast families, and all they must have endured in the frontier west.
Resources for this article include James Logan Crawford, the Museum of Northwest Colorado, and “Head First in the Pickle Barrel“ by John. R. Burroughs, 1963. Candice Bannister is executive director Tread of Pioneers Museum.
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