Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Buffalo Bill and "free white" Iowa

One favor the editor of The Chariton Herald did us when reporting upon the Sept. 15, 1900, visit of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show to Lucas County was to include the text of an address given by Cody the following Monday, Sept. 17, in Ottumwa. Cody opened a week-long harvest festival or street fair there with this address.

It’s an interesting document, obviously designed to make Iowans feel good about themselves (Buffalo Bill was, after all, a master showman). I’ve emphasized three words in the opening paragraph to think about while reading the rest, if you care to do so.

Mr. Mayor, Officers of the Carnival Association, Ladies and Gentlemen: I have ever been proud to own Iowa as my native state. Proud of its progress, since, as a mere boy, I crossed its then broad plains with my father and mother in prairie schooners, from Scott, my native county, westward to and across the Missouri river, early in the fifties, seeking a home in the territory of Kansas. There during the troublesome times preceding the war of the rebellion my father gave his life to the cause of human freedom and liberty which he had imbibed in the atmosphere of this beautiful state which he had helped to make a free white state.

I am proud of Iowa, because, while it bordered on the line of slavery it set its face firmly for freedom, proud that one of its pioneer judges decreed that when a human slave set his foot on Iowa soil he was at once a free man. I am proud that Iowa was once the home of such aborigines as Blackhawk, Wapello and Keokuk, and that the memory of each of these Red men has been honored by a city or a county being named for them.

I am proud that Iowa had such men as Carpenter and Duncan to stand between civilization and savagery; proud that it has ever stood in the front rank of education and industrial progress, for free speech, free schools, and for the fullest liberty for the press and for the people during the civil war.

During the civil war, I was proud when Iowa sent to the front more soldiers per capita to defend the Union and uphold “Old Glory” than any other state, and produced such soldiers as Allison, Harlan, Hepburn and Henderson.

There is no state in the Union that has more or as many prosperous happy homes occupied by their owners and encumbered with less mortgages that can be found in my native state.

Iowa has the distinction of being the home of a master mind for business and affairs, my friend, Charles E. Perkins, under whose control has been built and are now operated the many thousand of miles of railroad known as the Burlington system. It is a railway system that has been a great, if not the greatest factor in the upbuilding of all the vast region west of Chicago.

I have another, a selfish reason for loving Iowa. It is one of the best patrons of my entertainment. I see that your city is dressed in its holiday attire in preparation for a week’s recreation for the people. I am now finishing a tour of the state. On every hand I have found prosperity. The farmer has just finished reaping a bountiful harvest and it is now fitting that he should, with his family, enjoy just such a holiday as I see prepared for him.


By emphasizing “free white state,” I’m not suggesting that Cody was a racist, although he probably was --- to the extent that perhaps 90 percent of our EuroAmerican forbears still were in 1900 (keep in mind that racist attitudes prevailed broadly until segregation’s back was broken judicially and legislatively in the mid-20th century). And in terms of respect for American Indians, Cody generally is recognized as being ahead of his time.

But “free white state” was an interesting term for him to use, harkening back to his boyhood in Iowa and Kansas. Bill Cody’s father, Isaac, is called an abolitionist and is especially noted in Kansas where he took a knife wound to the chest that contributed to his death because of his limited anti-slavery views.

But Isaac was a “free white state” abolitionist, as many of those now called abolitionists were. He wanted a Kansas (and Iowa) free of slavery, but truly free only for white people and free of black people, slave or free, who might be tempted to settle there. And he apparently had no particular problem with slavery as it existed in the South --- so long as it was not extended territorially.

Isaac Cody’s descendants claimed that he had worked actively toward that goal in Iowa, although there is nothing to document their claims that he served in the state Legislature, and that apparently is what his son was referring to in that 1900 speech in Ottumwa.

Iowa certainly was a “free white state” legislatively, at least, when the Codys left it and when the Civil War began (although in fairness most of the “black code” first adopted in 1839 --- the same year as the July 4 territorial supreme court ruling that outlawed slavery --- rarely was enforced).

The Constitutional Convention of 1857, which produced the much-amended document we still use, debated extension of voting rights to black men (women in Iowa did not gain universal suffrage until passage of the federal 19th Amendment in 1920), but decided that was a matter Iowa voters should decide. During the election that followed, 89 percent of Iowans opposed allowing black men to vote, so racism was enshrined unreservedly in our Constitution.

Another vote on the issue, following the Civil War, reflected a shift in attitude --- Fifty-seven percent of voters this time favored extending voting rights to black men. But progress beyond that took many years, many acts of what now is called by some in other circumstances “judicial tyranny” and fierce legislative struggles.

All very interesting, but it is useful to remember, if tempted to be smug about Iowa’s civil rights record as we head into the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, that while most of those Iowa boys who marched off to fight and die for the Union had cast aside the Biblical principle of slavery, they held firm to the Biblical principle that, once free, black people remained an inferior race who should not be allowed to mix with other races in a “free white state.”

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