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African American pioneers contributed to northern Arizona development

A man does trail work in Grand Canyon National Park in 1934.

A man does trail work in Grand Canyon National Park in 1934.

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — Lumberjacks, railroad men, servers, cavalry and mill workers. Although little documentation exists, African Americans have played a role in the historic development of northern Arizona.

When Spanish ships reached the New World in 1492, African people and products came with them. Spain and North Africa had a strong economic relationship beginning around AD 711 when African Muslims invaded Spain, Portugal and southern France.


photo Williams Library Historical Photo Archive

An African American logger works in the forest near Flagstaff, Arizona in the 1930s.

As the Spanish became established in the new world they began making exploratory expeditions of the Southwest. Africans and mulattos (people of mixed African ancestry) were often members of the exploration parties.

By the late 1700’s, persons of African ancestry or Afro-Latinos were among the founders of numerous towns in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, including Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Tucson. Historian William L. Katz suggests that African ethnicity or color was not a bar to wealth and high social status under Spanish and later Mexican governance. When California became a state in 1850, Afro-Latinos were soon disenfranchised, losing their social and legal status and in some cases the land that was deeded to them by the Mexican government.

African American Western Pioneers


Williams High School yearbook

A Williams High School football player in a 1930s yearbook photo.

In the late 1850’s, a retired Navy lieutenant named Edward F. Beale was commissioned by Congress to survey and build a wagon road to the new land it had acquired from Mexico after the war. The road followed the 35th parallel, which crossed northern New Mexico and Arizona before terminating in Southern California. With the expansion into the West came the question of the expansion of the institution of slavery. The Compromise of 1850 allowed territories to self-determine regarding the slavery issue. Southerners, some of whom were interested in perpetuating slavery, brought slaves with them when migrating to the Western territories.

The slave system was not adopted by most of the western communities; slavery did exist, however, in the early Mormon colonies. Slaves and freed African Americans were among the groups who followed Brigham Young to Utah. They were made members of the church, and Mormon religious doctrine supported the institution of slavery.

There were also African American explorers and trappers on the Western frontier. French and English trappers often included Africans as they explored many of the West’s rivers and mountains. Thought to have a “pacifying effect” with the Indians, American fur traders “always got a negro” to help trade with tribal people for furs they sold to markets in the East. One of the more famous is James Beckwourth, a mountain man who repeatedly crossed the Mississippi River, the Southwest, and the Rockies. He discovered a pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that still bears his name.

African Americans in Arizona: 1840 to 1900

As the historic census data shows, there were very few African Americans in Arizona from 1840 to 1880. The jump in population from 26 to 115 in 1880 likely reflects the steady increase in economic opportunities because of the arrival of the railroad, a copper mine strike in Jerome and the increase in sheep and cattle ranching. By 1890, African American military troops had arrived.

Buffalo Soldiers

Nearly 16 months after the Civil War ended, an act of Congress was passed authorizing the formation of two regiments of cavalry composed of “colored” men to bolster the military presence in Arizona. Companies I and M of the 10th Cavalry protected copper mining and ranching operations

and helped subjugate the tribes. From 1883-1885, they occupied Camp Verde, located on the Verde River 50 miles east of Jerome, and Fort Whipple in Prescott, which was the capital of the Arizona Territory.

After being released from the military, some African Americans chose to remain in Arizona. Archie Mills joined the military around 1883 and served in both the 9th and 10th Cavalry. While in the military, he was stationed in Utah, New Hampshire and Cuba. Mills’ mother, Melinda Burke, homesteaded land in Williams, Arizona and he inherited her land after she died in 1910. When Mills retired from the military in the late 1920’s, he returned to Williams to raise chickens. Mills died in 1943 and is buried next to his mother in the Williams Cemetery.

Railroad Development

The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad arrived in Williams Arizona in 1882. This brought entrepreneurs, and likely African Americans, seeking opportunities to the Grand Canyon region. It became the link to the markets. Many railways employed African American men as laborers to work on

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