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Historically Speaking — Famous black Americans of the Old West

February 25, 2017 • Vistas

The Chisum Ranch with an inset of its owner, cattleman John Chisum. The love of his life was the beautiful mulatto slave girl, Jensie Chisum. The story goes that John and Jensie had two children together and that John, who never married, provided a beautiful home for the couple (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico).)

By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record

For the last week of Black History Month, I would like to recognize three black citizens of the Old West who many people may not be aware of. One lived here in Roswell, one had ties here and one lived in another part of the country. However, all three helped to trail blaze the Old West in a most flamboyant way.

Addison Jones
The first is Addison Jones (ca. 1845-1926), black cowboy and range boss. He became well loved in a world of hard working cowhands for his abilities, and was best known as the “most noted Black cowboy that ever ‘topped off’ a horse.”
Many white and black families looked west for a better life. About half a million black men, women and children moved to the West during the middle of the 19th century. To some extent, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and other areas in the West gave them a little more freedom than they had in other parts of the country.
Life in the West involved ranching with cowhands. Cowboy life required long, lonely hours, and it was hard on the body.
Most cowboys had to break their share of horses, which often involved big falls, broken bones, torn ligaments and even lungs pulled loose from the chest wall because of the shock to the body of the horse’s violent bucking. For that reason, many of the cowboys — black and white — worked freelance and many burned out after a few years, retiring by their late 30s.
In a world where cowboys were mostly anonymous ranch hands, the fact that “Add” Jones became a legend speaks volumes about the level of his skills and the respect he commanded. He is mentioned in memoirs by cattlemen and other cowboys who worked with him on the Littlefield Ranch in northwest Texas, in the Panhandle and other Littlefield-owned ranches in New Mexico.
Little is known about Jones’ early life. On his death certificate, his wife (whom he met late in life) wrote that he was born in 1845 in Gonzales County, Texas. This would make sense for his chosen profession (or the profession that chose him) as Gonzales County was the starting point for many of the first cattle drives. Many who grew up in the area grew up riding horses and caring for cattle.
Jones eventually became a range boss for a crew of African-American cowboys, working for George Littlefield.
Littlefield established or purchased such outfits as the LIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle, the Bosque Grande in the Pecos River Valley and the Four Lakes on the Plains, both in New Mexico, the Yellow House on the Texas South Plains and the Mill Creek and Saline ranches in the Texas hill country.

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A conception of famed black cowboy Addison Jones by Roswellian Lyle Tucker.

At one time, his cattle, branded LFD, roamed over an area of eastern New Mexico the size of the state of Rhode Island. Littlefield went on to acquire other properties and become a legendary cattleman, banker and philanthropist. Littlefield’s fortune depended on having the best cattle and the best men to handle them, and Jones was at the top of this crew.
Jones was clearly a fine cowboy. While most men had their specialties — roping or bronc riding, or managing the cattle on the trail — Jones excelled in all areas and became a legend throughout West Texas and eastern New Mexico.   It was said that he could “read a horse’s mind by staring it in the eye.” When he showed up at a roundup, everyone was relieved because he could “top off” horses that other cowboys feared, and unlike most cowboys whose bodies couldn’t take the punishment once they reached their late 30s, Jones was still working for Littlefield, “taking the sap” out of high-spirited horses until he was in his early 70s.
Because Jones held a respected position with Littlefield, he usually didn’t run into any problems because of his race, but one day he was visiting a neighboring ranch to check on some LFD (Littlefield) horses. The day was hot, and Jones was thirsty and the water bucket was empty. Cowboy etiquette was that you refill the bucket to leave for others, but at this particular ranch the hose that fed the bucket required a man to use his mouth to get the water flowing by suction. Jones put his mouth to the hose so the water would flow and he could refill the bucket. He was immediately whacked on the back of the head by one of the white cowboys.
In 1899, Jones met Rosa Haskins, a cook at a rooming house in Roswell.  When they married, Addison was 54 and Rosa was 36. A popular legend in Roswell claims that when Jones got married, all the local cattle ranchers wanted to show their respects with a gift. Unfortunately, they all had the same gift idea and the newlyweds found themselves saddled with 19 cooking stoves. Not much else is known about Jones’ personal life, but his cattle skills were enough for him to be respected by all.
Jones eventually retired, and the couple lived in Roswell. He died in 1926. The Roswell sheriff noted that Jones died knowing that he had been recognized as one of the best and greatest cowmen of Texas and New Mexico.

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Mary Fields, aka “Stagecoach Mary” (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico).

Mary Fields
Mary Fields was not from this area, but she was so colorful and fun, and definitely added her part to the settling of the Old West.
Also known as “Stagecoach Mary,” Fields was one of the most formidable women of the Old West. Said to be a match for any man, she enjoyed brawling and was known to brag that she could knock out any challenger with a single punch. Newspapers of the time claimed that she broke more noses than anyone else in central Montana and she always backed herself up with a six-shooter holstered under her apron. She liked to drink, smoked bad homemade cigars and was so respected in her adopted hometown of Cascade, Montana, that her birthday was made a school holiday every year.
Born a slave in Tennessee, Fields gained her freedom after the Civil War. She subsequently worked on the steamboat Robert E. Lee during its famous race with the Natchez, when the crew even tossed ham and bacon into the boilers and sat on the release valves to build the steam pressure higher. In 1885, she moved to Cascade, Montana, to work for the nuns of St. Peter’s Convent (now St. Peter’s Mission). She did all the heavy work, including hauling supplies, carpentry and stone masonry.
One of her most famous deeds came when wolves attacked her supply wagon during a night run. The horses were spooked and the wagon overturned, but Fields stood guard over the supplies until morning, keeping the wolves at bay with her trusty revolver.
The nuns loved Fields, but she was forced to resign after Montana’s first Catholic bishop heard of her brawling and a rumored gunfight. Shortly afterward, she hitched a team of horses faster than any other applicant and was hired to deliver mail to the towns around Cascade, braving blizzards and harsh terrain in the process. She was 60 at the time and only the second woman ever hired by the U.S. Postal Service.
There was also a softer side to Fields. She loved baseball and always presented the Cascade team with bouquets of flowers from her garden. She babysat for most of the children in town, including the actor Gary Cooper (born in nearby Helena, Montana), who recalled her fondly later in life. After retiring from delivering mail, she tried to open a restaurant, but went broke because she always let those in need eat for free. When her house burned down in 1912, the whole town came together to build her a new one. A 1910 contract to lease a hotel in town includes a clause stipulating that Fields could always eat for free. She was also the only woman allowed to drink in the local saloon. She passed away of liver failure in 1914.

Jensie Chisum
Jensie Chisum was a pretty mulatto slave girl who became the only love of the great John Chisum, Cattle King of the Old West.
Chisum was a cattle baron who moved longhorn herds from east to west Texas and into New Mexico in the mid-1800s. During the Civil War, John Chisum supplied beef to the Confederate troops west of the Mississippi. John Chisum — who has been featured in many movies — founded one of the greatest cattle spreads in the West right here in the Pecos Valley. John Chisum located his spread within 3 miles of Roswell.
The cattle baron purchased the 40-acre South Spring Ranch. He built an adobe-frame house with four rooms on each side of an open hallway. There were verandas on the front and back of the house, so he could sit in the sun or shade at any hour of the day. This house is still standing. John Chisum was known to be fair to others, he paid his debts, and at one time had cattle from Seven Rivers down by Carlsbad, and to the Bosque Grande north of Roswell.
Jensie Chisum was hard working and completely dedicated to John Chisum. Legend tells that they had two daughters together when he was in his 30s. John Chisum provided a nice home for them in Bonham, Texas, and made sure they were well cared for financially. They were his only family. He never married.
Although the Old West was hard and difficult, these are the stories that bring human interest, romance and the way things actually were, for both the black and white, and all the other races, living in the wild and unruly West during those days.
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or email at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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