Today I’m joined by Charles Ray, an author who is setting the record straight straight about the diverse history of the American West, highlighting that not all “white hats” were in fact white and the contribution of black Americans to the development and stability of the frontier.
Like many of my generation, growing up in the 40s and 50s, I spent a lot of time; probably far too much; sitting mesmerized in front of a small screen black and white TV. Like most boys my age, my favorite shows were the war shows and the westerns. I grew up on a diet of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and Gene Autry. I cheered when the cavalry came riding to the rescue of the wagon train under attack by bands of Indians, and dreamed of what it must have been like to live in such times.
What I didn’t realize until I joined the U.S. Army in 1962 was that, like everyone else of my generation, and generations that followed, I’d been given a highly distorted picture of what the American West was really like. The images I grew up with only showed white cowboys and white cavalrymen. There’d be the occasional Mexican bandido, or Zorro—a white guy playing the role of a Spanish grandee—and, the Cisco Kid and Pancho. Oh, and before I forget, the Lone Ranger, a Texas Ranger who survived an ambush in which his brother and friends were killed, who went on to become the masked hero of the weak and defenseless. There was the Chinese cook, Hop Sing, in Bonanza. Now and then there’d be a slave or former slave, always a minor character who seemed afraid and at a loss as to what to do. Everyone who did anything important it seems was white. I was just a kid, though, and my history classes through high school had provided nothing to gainsay that image.
It was only after I joined the army in 1962 that I got a look at a different picture. I was assigned to the 24th Infantry Division in Augsburg, Germany. Always an avid reader, I read everything I could find on my organization. During that reading, I learned that the division was the successor of the 24th Infantry Regiment, an all-black regiment (led by white officers) organized after the Civil War. The 24th was one of four all-black units—the others being the 25th Infantry Regiment, and the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. I learned that they’d been known as Buffalo Soldiers, a name given them by the Indian tribes they fought against. After learning this, I was hungry to know more. Over the years, I scoured military archives and libraries, reading everything I could get my hands on about the role played by African-Americans on America’s western frontier.
Along with the Buffalo Soldiers, I learned of black cowboys like Bill Picket, outlaws like Rufus Buck, and lawmen like Grant Johnson and Bass Reeves. There were also black settlers, and some all-black settlements on the frontier. Runaway slaves and other free blacks were among the Seminole Indians who fought the U.S. Government to a standstill during the three Seminole Wars (1812-1845), and were included in the forced movement of tribes to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory after the war. One group of these black Seminoles moved to Mexico to escape the bigotry of some of the tribes in Indian Territory, and were later recruited by the army to fight bandits and hostile tribes in Texas. The Seminole-Indian Scouts were fiercer than the tribes they fought and were better fighters than the vaunted Texas Rangers. But, the history books and popular media of my day chose to ignore them. It was as if they’d never existed.
When I first started writing fiction, my focus was on mysteries—another genre I’d come to love during my early adult years. But, in the back of my mind, there was always that nagging feeling that something was missing. There was something I had to do, but I wasn’t quite sure what.
I had my epiphany in 2009, when I was serving as American ambassador in Zimbabwe. One day, in a conversation with some of my younger staff, the conversation turned to heroes of the American west, and when I mentioned a few of the darker hued personalities I’d uncovered in my research I was met with blank stares. By this time, I wasn’t much of a TV viewer, so I was unaware that media offerings hadn’t really changed significantly. There’d been, I learned, a few movies that featured African-Americans, including some about the Buffalo Soldiers, but not enough to change the general view that the west was settled by whites; that the cavalry that always came to the rescue was—white.
Well, I thought, I’m a writer. If there’s not enough in the fiction world that sets the record straight, as a writer, I’m at fault for not providing it. It has to start somewhere, with one person, so it might as well be me. Hey, the one thing a writer must have is an ego, right?
So, I started working on an idea. I did some more research to get the historical details right, and then created a fictional unit assigned to the 9th Cavalry. That first story, Buffalo Soldier: Trial by Fire, introduced my main character, Sergeant Ben Carter, and his unit. The plots were pure fiction, but I made an effort to ensure the history, weapons, geography, etc., was right. By this time, I’d given up on traditional publishing. Too hard, too bureaucratic, and too focused on sales, I wasn’t naïve enough to think I could find a mainstream publisher who’d be interested. I was committed to indie publishing—had already created my own book imprint, Uhuru Press—so, I published the first volume on CreateSpace, followed some months later with a Kindle version on Kindle Direct. Paperback sales of the first book were negligible, but to my surprise, the Kindle version actually sold a few dozen copies the first month it was available. My experience with my mysteries had convinced me that the best way to attract more readers was to give them more, and I’d fallen in love with the story, so I decided to make it a series. There was a lot in the archives about the Buffalo Soldiers, so I began plotting further stories, all fictional, but historically accurate.
Two things happened to suck me in completely. First, Kindle Direct instituted KDP Select, which allowed an author to offer select titles free for five days periodically, and I was just getting ready to launch the fourth book in the series. As a trial run, I decided to offer it free for five days shortly after publication. To my surprise, there were over 800 downloads during the free period, along with purchases of the first three. After the end of the trial period, I noticed that people were buying all four, and were buying some of my other books as well. I made over $400 in two months, almost as much as I’d made for the previous year.
I kept cranking out more in the series, more mysteries, along with a few other subjects that interested me, and sales, though they dropped back to around 100 per month, continued. Every month or so, I would notice an uptick in my paperback sales of the same books, 5 – 10 per month. For an author who’d been lucky to sell three books a month this was like manna from heaven. People were reading my books. I was getting reviews as well. A few two and three star reviews complaining about the errors I’d not caught before publication, but a lot of four and five star reviews as well. People actually saying that they were learning something from what I wrote; that gaps in their education were being filled. For me, that was even more important than royalties. Not that the money’s not nice to get, but my writer’s ego was really focusing on the praise.
One day I decided to write a book about Bass Reeves, one of the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi, and the man the Lone Ranger was probably based on. I originally tagged the Buffalo Soldier series, and this one as historical fiction, but I began to notice that reviewers were treating them as westerns, a genre I’d thought all but extinct. Now, I tag them mainly as westerns, with a secondary tag for historical fiction. They continue to sell. For how much longer, I wouldn’t even care to guess, but I’ll keep writing until the well runs dry. Not for the money—but I hope readers will keep buying them—but, for the knowledge that there are people out there now who through my fiction have a more realistic picture of American history. In the end, that’s what it’s all about. The author is the voice for those who have no voice; the chronicler of forgotten history. Through fiction, we who write can offer more truth than the history seems capable of offering.
Wow! Who would have thought that I’m actually a historian. Herodotus, look out. Charles Ray’s gunning for your record.
Charles A. Ray
North Potomac, MD
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