While some African Americans had ventured into Oregon Territory as early as the 1840s, and Colorado Territory after the Pikes Peak gold rush of 1859, the vast majority moved to California. That state's gold rush, which began in 1848, stimulated migration from throughout the eastern United States. Between 1850 and 1860, four thousand African Americans reached the Golden State. Half of that number settled in San Francisco and Sacramento, creating the first English-speaking black urban communities in the Far West.
Mifflin W. Gibbs arrived in San Francisco from Philadelphia in 1850 with only sixty cents in his pocket. After working as a well-paid bootblack, he and a partner opened a shoe store that became highly successful. In a 1902 autobiography, Shadow and Light, he recalled those early days:
Thanks to the evolution of events and march of liberal ideas the colored men in California now have a recognized citizenship, and equality before the law. It was not so at the period of which I write. With thrift and a wise circumspection financially, their opportunities were good [but] from every other point of view they were ostracized, assaulted without redress, disfranchised, and denied their oath in court.
Other black migrants headed for the Mother Lode Country, the gold vein stretching over four hundred miles along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. An unidentified black woman seen in the desert, just east of the mountains, was described as
tramping along through the heat and dust, carrying a cast iron bake stove on her head with her provisions and a blanket piled on top - all she possessed in the world - bravely pushing on for California.
Some African Americans struck gold. In 1851, miner Peter Brown wrote home to his wife in Missouri about his good fortune: "California is the best . . . place for black folks on the globe. All a man has to do is work and he will make money."
The abolition of slavery created the potential for mass African-American migration to the West. Few crossed the plains in wagon trains; they were more likely to take trains or steamboats. The vast majority, however, took the transportation most available to a newly freed people, they walked . . . into Texas, Indian Territory, and Kansas.
In Texas, agricultural workers made $20 a month - double their pay in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Such an incentive attracted masses of people. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the African-American population of Texas more than doubled - from 253,000 to over 620,000.
African Americans, mainly from Arkansas and Tennessee, also migrated into Indian Territory, where they became farmers on land they could not legally own until 1889. In Indian-controlled areas, their status as intruders could subject them to expulsion. Despite these obstacles, the black population in Indian Territory would rise sixfold to 36,000 by 1900, outnumbering the Native Americans.