The first people of African ancestry to migrate into what is now the western United States originated from Central Mexico, to which 200,000 Africans were forcibly transported between 1521 and 1821. Beginning in the 1600s, the newcomers settled on the northern frontier of the Spanish colony, seeking to improve their lives and escape the social discrimination of the central region. They established a pattern that would continue into the twentieth century.
Isabel de Olivera was typical of the hundreds of Spanish-speaking black settlers who founded and populated cities and towns from San Antonio to San Francisco. In 1781, they comprised a majority of the founders of Los Angeles. Olivera, one of the first inhabitants of Santa Fe in 1600, wrote:
I am going . . . to New Mexico and have some reason to fear that I may be annoyed by some individual since I am a mulatto. It is proper to protect my rights in such an eventuality by an affidavit showing that I am a free woman, unmarried and the legitimate daughter of Hernando, a negro, and an Indian woman named Magdalena . . . . I demand Justice.
When Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821 - abolishing slavery and guaranteeing full citizenship rights to all, regardless of color - hundreds of free African Americans crossed the border into what was then Mexican Texas to seek the freedom denied them in the United States. But Texas revolutionaries crushed the aspirations of free blacks and runaways when they transformed the new Republic of Texas into a vast slaveholding empire in 1836. The days of freedom were over; for African Americans, that part of the West was no longer a safe harbor.
The first significant numbers of African Americans to enter the territory north of Texas did not do so by choice. Between 1830 and 1850, nearly seventy thousand Native Americans were forcibly relocated from the Old South to Indian Territory. Their ranks included ten thousand blacks - some of whom were enslaved. At least 175 perished along the way.