George Z. Blackmon
The discovery of gold, silver and other minerals in Idaho Territory in the 1860s began with such momentum it drew thousands of fortune-seekers and adventurers. Among those drawn to the Territory was a prospector who left an indelible mark on Idaho.
George Blackmon enters history on November 8, 1854.Enslaved at birth in Fulton County, Kentucky, he grew up the property of a white farming family that homesteaded land in what was once called the Jackson Purchase. The Purchase was negotiated and bought from the Chickasaw peoples by Andrew Jackson and Kentucky governor, Isaac Shelby in 1818.It liesin thefar southwestern corner of Kentucky and is bordered by the Mississippi River to the west, the Ohio River to the north, the Tennessee River to the east, and the Tennessee border to the south. Fulton County was part of the Purchase and was known for its rich soil and dense woodlands.The prospect of profitable farms and the lumber trade drew substantial numbers of settlers in the years following the War of 1812.Those farms also brought the slave trade and its forced free labor. By the 1850s, nearly 20% of the Fulton County population were enslaved people of African descent.
In the 1850 and 1860 United States Censuses, enslaved peoples were listed in the so-called Slave Schedules. They were listed under the enslaver’s name by age, sex, and color (usually B for Black or M for Mulatto). The Census required tabulations for the 1860 Slave Schedules begin June 1, 1860 and be completed by November 1, 1860. Since George Blackmon was born November 8, 1854, he would have been listed as a 5-year-old, Black male in the 1860 Slave Schedules. Of the 216 slave owners in Fulton County in 1860, 7 households had an enslaved Black boy that age. Only two of those households had a 5-year-old Black boy and at least one Black woman of child bearing age. Neither of those households had the surname Blackmon.
What we do knowof his early life is based on stories he told others after settling in Idaho. In one of those stories, afour-year-old George watched his mothersold to another enslaver. She was carried away in a wagon and he would never see her again.Two years later he was told of her death.
With the Mississippi River on its western border,Fulton County was the scene of significant skirmishes during the Civil War. Gunboat fights on the river, troop movements through the county, and the major battles of Shiloh and Vicksburgmeant the young Blackmon likely saw aspects of the war firsthand. Allied with Tennessee by trade and by culture, white county residents were pro-Confederate during the War. The Union seized control of the Mississippi River by 1863. However, with support of local residents, Confederate guerrilla forcesoperated with great success throughout western Tennessee and Kentucky until the very end of the War.
Even though he lived in a conflict zone for 4 years, Blackmon was never known to speak of the Civil War.Several months after the war’s end, the 13th Amendment ending the institution of slavery was ratified by the U.S. Congress. Slavery was abolished officially in every state of the Union. However, Kentucky, like other Southern states, outright rejected the 13th Amendment and did not officially ratify it until 1976.Attitudes like these would have made it extremely difficult forany formerly enslavedperson to remain in a slave state. Angered by what was deemed government interference,the guerilla attacks familiar to Fulton County during war time, were revived.This time the attacks targetedthe formerly enslaved and those charged with protecting them. Subsequently, many fled the state.
We are not certain of the date but there is evidence that Blackmon left Kentuckyduring the spring of 1866. He would have been 11-years-old. Imagine what it took for a young personto walk 400 or more miles to a free state in the North. Did he travel alone? What would he do for food? Could he successfully dodge hired slave patrols?
Fortunately, post-war, abolitionist networks operated throughout the Mississippi Valley and adjacent free states like Illinois. While Blackmon’s safety could not be guaranteed, these networksprovided food, shelter, and protection to those struggling toleave slave states.Presumably with their help, he reaches Iowa, a state with established Black communities and a history of social inclusion.For example, by 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court declared its schools open to all students regardless of race. According to him, hebecomes the ward of an abolitionist family. Under their guidance, he earns an education at a time when 80% of Black Americans were illiterate.He learns new skills and obtains work. In Iowa, wesee the first glimpses of the independence that would define him for the rest of his life.InFulton County, Kentucky, there were no enslavers with the surname Blackmon. This suggests that in Iowa he ditched his slave name and gave himself a new one, as was the custom of many newly-emancipated persons. At age 24, able to read and write, with new skills, anda new identity,George Blackmon sets out for the Western frontier.
In 1879, he arrives in Fort Benton, MontanaTerritory from St. Louisbysteamboat traveling the Upper Missouri River. He joins a party of other prospectors eager to make their fortunes. Together they cross into Idaho Territory through the Lemhi Pass, the same high mountain pass used by Lewis and Clark to cross the Continental Divide. After a stay in the Wood River Valley near what would become the town of Ketchum,members of this prospecting party went their separate ways. Fromthen on, Blackmon mined alone. Modest success mining lodes for lead, quartz, gold, zinc, and silver gave Blackmon a foothold nearIdaho’s White Clouds Wilderness. Using a pick axe, a mule, and his own labor,heworked the Germania and Washington Basins and along the East Fork of the Salmon River. He filed his first claim in 1883. The Deer Trail, Reconstruction, Orphan Boy, Empire, Vanity, and Hot Springs mines were amonghisclaims.
By the 1890s, mining mechanizationhad ended work for many of Idaho’slone miners. There was however a fraternity of prospectorswho continued to work small claims years after most of the mineral wealth had been extracted by companies.These prospectors looked after each other. As reported in the February 27, 1892 Ketchum Keystone newspaper, J.V. Behne of Boulder, Idaho “took sick”, likely with dysentery which was a common and often fatal disease of the times. Blackmon and fellow miner Oluf Fallon “provided themselves with a toboggan” and “brought the sick man…seven miles over mountainous country to the road” where they were met by others who transported Behne by wagon and sleigh to Ketchum for medical care. Days later Behne himself visited the Keystone offices to report that he was doing much better. Blackmon, without fanfare, had orchestrated the rescue of his friend and managed it duringan Idaho winter in an area that averages 100 inches of snow a year.
He was known for his generosity and kind demeanor. He had his ore assayed and smelted in the small town of Clayton, located along the East Fork of the Salmon River. Several times, when in town for supplies, hewould give impromptu fiddle concerts, always with a smile and candy for the children. He was uniquely self-reliant, a characteristic found in many Idahoans. As published in the Scribner’s Magazine, 1930, Issue 3 article, “The Black Man of Blackmon Peak”, a hunting party of recent Princeton graduates encountered Blackmon at his Washington Basin cabin in the summer of 1897.John Thatcher, the article’s author recounted:
He was accustomed to pack in his supplies in the last of August and remain for the winter snowed up until the opening of spring. I remember inquiring: “What do you do if you break a leg?” And after some thought on his part received the answer, “Well, we mostly don’t break our legs.”
In the same 1930 Scribner’s Magazine article, Thatcher writes of his return to Idaho 30 years later to introduce his son to the wilderness and with hopes of seeing Blackmon again.
We called on a forest ranger and were looking at his maps. I put my finger on a certain peak. “Blackmon Peak! I used to know a colored man in that district. Years ago. A miner who guided us out hunting…”
“The peak is named after him.”
“Is it possible? It must be the same.”
“Yes,” said the ranger “and he’s still up there.”
With the help of a rancher who furnished horses and agreed to come along, Thatcher and his son made the 15-mile climb to be reunited with his friend. Underscored in his account is the fact that Idaho had given George Blackmon the extraordinary tribute of naming Blackmon Peak in the White Clouds Wilderness in his honor while he was still alive.
Blackmonmined well into his seventies. As reported in the Challis Messenger newspaper in 1925, he wasdescribedas “72 years YOUNG, well read and has a refined manner of action and speech.”Blackmon said that he had arrived at a point in his life where he’d like to see a “little bare ground in the wintertime”. In his later years, he began to spend more time at lower altitudes, oftenwintering in the town of Clayton where descendants of those who knew him live today. Though older, hewas the same man, helping where he could, even teaching English to newly arrived immigrant families. George Z. Blackmon died April 28, 1936 at age 81.
George Blackmon at his main cabin in Washington Basin. Sawtooth Association/Stanley Museum Collection.
Blackmon Peak, White Cloud Mountains, 10,307 feet / 3,142 meters. Wikipedia under Creative Commons – Share Alike 4.0 International License, 2014.
From the Sawtooth Association/Stanley Museum Collection.
Blackmon Peak from the Southeast Ridge. Photograph by Dave Pahlas, 2013.
The Rescue of J.V. Behne, Ketchum Keystone, February 27, 1892. Images from Chronicling America Historical American Newspapers, a project of the United States Library of Congress.
Blackmon signature, 1908.
George Z. Blackmon grave site, Clayton, Idaho Cemetery, 2022. Photo courtesy David Lash.
Research and text by David Lash, Boise, Idaho. This document donated to the Idaho Black History Museum, June, 2023.