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Historian to tell tales of local Black pioneers

Ben Johnson, shown in an undated Oregon Historical Society photo with his wife, Amanda, was a blacksmith in the Applegate Valley.
Saturday talk is in-person and online

Black pioneers were among those who made the long, dangerous trek across the United States during the westward migration of the 1850s — but their stories are largely unknown and untold.

Troy Tate, an Oregon Black Pioneers board member, will tell some of those stories at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 9, at the Eagle Point Museum, 202 N. Royal Ave. The mission of Oregon Black Pioneers is to highlight, document and inform the public of the early contributions made by Black people in the state.

Tate’s presentation is free, but seating is limited for the in-person event. To participate via the free videoconference service Zoom, contact Eagle Point Museum volunteer Maureen Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

The trip across the country was very different for Black pioneers who traveled in wagon trains. Many faced discrimination, isolation and privations that white travelers would not have experienced. In the years before the Civil War, Oregon was not receptive to Black settlers, but some hardy individuals set new precedents in the state.

One of the histories Tate will cover includes that of Ben Johnson, an early Applegate Valley blacksmith. He built a cabin on a mountain that became known as (n-word) Ben Mountain. The name was changed to Negro Ben Mountain in the 1960s, then recently changed again to Ben Johnson Mountain.

Another early Black settler was Letitia Carson, who came to Myrtle Creek in Douglas County in 1845 with David Carson. After his death, Letitia sued the executor of his estate for compensation for their shared property. She later filed a claim under the federal Homestead Act for acreage along South Myrtle Creek — making her the only Black woman in Oregon to successfully secure a claim.

Carson used the federal Homestead Act to bypass a provision in Oregon law that barred Black people from owning land. Under her care, her homestead grew to include a house, barn, smokehouse and apple orchard.

Tate’s presentation will be the second in the Love Local History spring speaker series that is made possible, in part, by an American Rescue Plan Act grant. The grant is administered with the support of Southern Oregon University and the Guardians of the Eagle Point Museum.