Wagon Uncovered: “Sweet Freedom’s Plains” Wins 2019 Barbara Sudler Award

The 2019 winner of the Barbara Sudler Award is Dr. Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Emerita Professor of History at California State University, Sacramento, for her book Sweet Freedom’s Plains: African Americans on the Overland Trails, 1841–1869. The book is volume 12 of the University of Oklahoma Press’ (UOP) “Race and Culture in the American West Series.” Moore’s book is available for purchase in the museum gift shop at the Center for Colorado Women’s History at the Byers-Evans House or can be ordered online via the University of Oklahoma Press website

Dr. Moore’s book began as a report for the National Park Service and examines the African American emigrant experience on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Pioneer national historic trails from the beginning of the Overland Trail migration in 1841 to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Sweet Freedom’s Plains is guided by three major themes— broad areas that emerged once Dr. Moore began doing research, she said in a phone interview. 

The first theme explores the skills of African Americans in the jumping-off places along the trails. The towns where journeys began were important to the success of the journey ahead. Without status and citizenship, African Americans had to “negotiate their preparations as carefully as they did the trails,” Dr. Moore said. 

The second theme explores Black perceptions of the journey. It was important that the Black experience be interpreted through the eyes of those experiencing them rather than, as Moore noted, “interpreted by the filters of white overlanders, who often times viewed them, when viewing them at all, only as servants and slaves without expectations or dimensions of their own.” When African Americans were recorded in records along the trails they were only identified by race, age, and gender, rendering their stories and experiences invisible. Sweet Freedom’s Plains provides many accounts of overlanders—named and anonymous—via censuses, maps, government documents, white overlanders’ diaries, and a few Black overlander accounts and descendant interviews.

The third theme explores the expectations African Americans had of the West, their new communities, and the many reasons people made the journey. Due to the racial restrictions experienced, “...the lives, hopes, and expectations of nineteenth century Black people differed in critical ways from those of white people. As a result, African Americans understood and experienced the westering journey in ways that white emigrants could not. The study of the African American experience on the trails broadens our understanding of the nature, scope, and meaning of westward migration. The experiences of the thousands of Black men and women who came west compel us to reconsider the traditional narrative of our nation's history.”

When speaking on the journey west, an image that stands out as perhaps the most iconic is that of a covered wagon, Moore expressed. “For many Black and white Americans, covered wagons are a real part of our history—they are an image that is indelible, imbedded very deeply in our narrative as a nation. People don’t tend to think that people of color participated in the move west. Black people were an instrumental part of that story and movement.” 

One such instrumental person covered in Dr. Moore’s book is Hiram Young of Independence, Missouri. A former slave, Young manufactured wagons in the 1850s after earning freedom. He is one of the figures Moore refers to as a “facilitator,” a member of the community who did not make the journey but provided resources and services so that others would be able to. In 2011 a bright orange and green replica of a Hiram Young wagon was constructed by Dr. Moore’s late husband, Joe Lewis Moore, with the help of students, volunteers, and William Pettis, a horse breeder and founder of the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers reenactors in Sacramento. 

Dr. Moore also explores the lives and experience of Colorado Black overlanders in the 1860s and 1870s such as Clara Brown and Barney Ford. In addition to covering the stories of more well-known Black overlanders, Moore includes stories like that of Mary Harris McDonald and Richard McDonald (featured on the book’s cover), freed slaves who settled in Bozeman, Montana after emancipation. Their home is the oldest extant private home in the community today. The research for this work, according to Dr. Moore, was “interesting, eye-opening, and moving,” and research she hopes will continue. 

Sweet Freedom’s Plains and its contributions to scholarship on African American migration makes it a well-deserved win of the Barbara Sudler Award. Named in honor of the first woman to serve as Colorado’s Historic Preservation Officer, the award honors a work of nonfiction on a western American subject by a female author. It carries a cash prize of $500 for the author. Awarded biannually, it has been received by thirteen talented scholars, artists, and historians since 1992. Winning works have covered a broad range of subject matter relevant to western history—from photography collections to autobiographies to a history of barbecue—and have addressed community experience in Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico. 


Entries for the Barbara Sudler Award are single-volume, single-author works (not coauthored or edited books or anthologies) that have a strong western character and link to one or more western themes. Subjects may include history, natural history, literature and the arts, folklore, and social or cultural life of the past or present. 

History Colorado Center volunteers and staff complete the first round of judging and narrow it down to two finalists. Three judges then select the winner. The judges responsible for selecting the winning work are usually scholars, including a previous winner. 

When determining which work to select, judges of the award consider technical criteria like author creativity and clarity of organization and purpose, as well as the significance of the book to an understanding of the West and its people; the degree to which the author has lived up to the subject’s potential; the ability of the author to keep the reader interested throughout; and the book’s potential for making a long-term contribution to scholarship and knowledge about the West and the success with which the book will be meaningful to a broad audience. 


Dr. Shirley Ann Wilson Moore

Dr. Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Emerita Professor of History at California State University, Sacramento.

About Dr. Shirley Ann Wilson Moore

Dr. Moore is also the author of To Place Our Deeds: The African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910–1963 and coeditor of African American Women Confront the West, 1600–2000. She is working on a children’s book about California’s first steamboat, the Sitka.