Westerly Winds and Big Skies, Finding Colonel Allen Allensworth at the National Archives

Today’s post was written by Holly Rivet, archival technician at the National Archives in St. Louis.

portrait of Allensworth in
Allen Allensworth, nd (from findagrave)

Allensworth, California was the first city to be established as an African American enclave in California.  It was officially founded on August 3, 1908 by Colonel Allen Allensworth, Chaplain to the 24th Infantry, a buffalo soldier regiment. He was born into slavery on April 7, 1842, in Louisville, Kentucky.  In this period, it was common practice to assign enslaved children to be companions of enslaver’s children.  As the child he assigned to began his education, he taught Allen to read.  His education was furthered when he was ordered to work for a local Quaker woman who took him under her wing.  At this time it was a crime in most slave states to teach an enslaved person to read.  Kentucky was no different and as punishment for learning, his enslaver, Bett Starbird, ordered him to work for crueler people until he attempted to escape in 1855.  After he was caught, he was sold at three auction blocks until he was bought by Fred Scruggs of Jefferson, Louisiana who trained him to be a jockey.  He traveled with Scruggs back to Louisville in the spring of 1861.  It was here he encountered men of the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a Union unit.  At their behest, he joined the Hospital Corps – beginning his long military career as a wanted man.[1]

In the 1890 Special Census Schedules of Surviving Union Civil War Veterans or their Widows (NAID 2602585) Col. Allensworth stated that that he served in the Union Navy from April 3, 1863 to April 3, 1865, and was stationed on the USS Queen City, USS Iowa, USS Cincinnati, and the USS Pittsburgh. It was not until April of 1866 that he was commissioned as a Chaplain of the 24th Infantry for the U.S. Army in Kentucky.  On June 2, 1867 he applied for a Freedman’s Bank account.  In his application he lists that he is employed and his two brothers, George and William, are still alive. His mother is listed as Phillis but does not list his father’s name, only that he was already deceased. It is noteworthy that he signed for himself instead of using a mark, an indication that he was literate.[2] 

b&w photo of a steamer ship on the Western Rivers during the Civil War
USS Queen City, 1863-1864 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

He is listed several times in the U.S. Returns of Military Posts records,[3] placing him throughout the American West.  From 1887-1888 he served in Indian Territory at Ft. Sill and Ft. Supply as a treasurer and librarian, then as the Superintendent of Post Schools at Ft. Baynard, New Mexico until about 1896.  It was here that he undertook providing men and children of the 24th Infantry with a proper education.  In his letter to the Post Adjutant, he expressed a need for a specific school curriculum for the men separate from that of the Post children.  He includes the pamphlet he created in this request which is instructional for both children and adults.  In his request he states, “I have found an elective system, for soldiers to be the most practicable and conducive of the best results.  It would be useless to mention this system without explanation, it is similar to that used in large cities in Night Schools for laboring classes. This mode consists in allowing the men to choose for study that branch in which they are most interested or deficient.”[4] His request for class time, additional teachers, and learning materials was approved and he began to improve the lives of the men of the 24th Infantry. 

cover, "Course of Study and the Rules Governing Post Schools of Ft. Bayard, NM, Allen Allensworth, Chaplain 24th US Infantry"
Course of Study and the Rules Governing Post Schools of Ft. Bayard, NM, by Allen Allensworth, Chaplain 24th US Infantry (cover) NAID 146653412, image 131

He kept his position as Superintendent of Post Schools and also led a gardening union while serving at Ft. Douglas in the Utah Territory from 1897-1899.  He continued his efforts to better Post education at Ft. Mc Dowell, California (1900-1902), and finally at Ft. Harrison, Montana from 1902-1906.  He retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel on April 7, 1906 as the highest ranking African American Officer at the time.  This was only the end of one chapter of his influential life.

front view of 1 story school bldg w/bell on top
Allensworth Elementary School (NAID 123862205)
view of wood frame one story house in a field
House of Allen Allensworth (NAID123862205)

After his service he settled in Los Angeles, California and met Professor William Payne, a man of like mind.  They thought a wholly African American community would provide residents a place where they could prosper and grow without the “direct influences of slave oriented attitudes.”[5] The two began by creating the California Colony and Home Promotion Association in 1908.  The group bought 800 acres near the rail stop Solita in Tulare County, California. Many people came to settle in Allensworth and by 1914 there were 160 residents.  It was in this year that the rail lines closed this stop.  This was only one of their economic problems as it had recently been discovered that natural salt deposits had contaminated the town’s water.  With crop yields decreasing rapidly, their woes only became worse when Col. Allensworth was hit by a vehicle.  He died from his injuries on September 14, 1914 in a hospital in Monrovia, California.  He is buried at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Although the town’s population has diminished, a few families have stayed.  In the 2010 Census the population of Allensworth was 471.  The town was registered as a National Historic Place on September 23, 1972. Some of the buildings have been restored and the town is currently a state park.  As much hasn’t changed, it still captures the imagination of what Col. Allensworth saw it as.  A free place full of possibility where a man born into slavery and could fight a Civil War and bring people together as a community.

The National Archives Catalog now includes digital scans of the applications for places that applied for National Historic Places and Landmarks status: National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (NAID 20812721), RG 79.  The application for the Allensworth Historic District includes photos, maps, publications, and historical narrative.  It can be viewed on the National Archives Catalog, NAID 12382205.

Col. Allensworth’s Consolidated Military Officer’s File (NAID 7064831) is held at the National Archives at Washington, DC.  His Navy service personnel file (ZB Personnel File) is held at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

[1] About Colonel Allensworth. Friends of Allensworth.  https://www.friendsofallensworth.org/pages/about-colonel-allensworth   Accessed May 20, 2021. 

[2] Signature Books of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1974 (NAID 566522), RG 101, Records of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, The National Archives in Washington, DC, Microfilm Publication M816, Roll 11

[3] Returns of Military Posts, 1800-1916 (NAID 561324), RG 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, National Archives in Washington, D.C., Microfilm Publication: M617, rolls 88, 89, 327, 670, 671, 1174, 1244

[4] 1889 – File No. 2884 – Washington [starting on image 128] (NAID 146653412), Letters Received, 1805 – 1889, RG 94 Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1762 – 1984, Microfilm Publication M689; roll 688

[5] Allensworth Historic District (NAID 123862205), National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, RG 79 Records of the National Park Service

This post has been updated from the original to include more information about his life before his military career, as well as other records relating to Allensworth at the National Archives.

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