The Trailblazing Black Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a 19th-Century California Boomtown

Though founded by Confederates, Julian became a place of opportunity for people of color—and a model for what the U.S. could look like after the Civil War

The only available photograph of America Newton
The only available photograph of America Newton, a formerly enslaved woman who ran a laundry business out of her cabin in Julian, California, dates to around 1910. San Diego History Center

America Newton, a formerly enslaved Black woman, and her young daughter, Clara, left rural Kansas 150 years ago, looking for a new beginning in the backcountry hills of San Diego County. To reach the small town of Julian, where Newton planned to homestead, she and Clara traveled over 1,000 miles, ending with the treacherous, dusty trails of California’s Cuyamaca Mountains.

When Newton arrived in Julian in 1872 and established her laundry business, she found a surprisingly mixed citizenry that included Indigenous people, European immigrants, Confederate veterans and recently freed African Americans. The Gold Rush had come to Julian in 1869, after Fred Coleman, likely a former enslaved man from Kentucky, found the town’s first flakes of gold. In this unlikely melting pot—a town officially founded in 1870 by brothers Drury, Frank and James Bailey and their cousins Mike and Webb Julian, all ex-Confederate soldiers from Georgia—Newton used her work ethic and ingenuity to build a new life of freedom.

Drawing of Fred Coleman
Drawing of Fred Coleman Courtesy of Elizabeth Sue Montgomery Weaver

Today, Julian is mostly remembered as a Confederate-founded town. But it was also a major early center for Black settlers in Southern California. Indeed, in the late 1800s, most African Americans in San Diego County lived in this new and tiny town. Following recent work by local historians, we now know that free Black Americans played a central role in establishing Julian.

According to Chuck Ambers, founder and educational curator of the African Diaspora Museum and Research Center (formerly known as the African Museum Casa del Rey Moro) in San Diego, Julian’s history is notable because of the lasting achievements of its African American residents. Black settlers weren’t unusual in the West, but Newton was something of a special case because of her gender: “Here’s a Black woman who decides she’s going to give herself and her daughter a better life,” says Albert S. Broussard, a historian at Texas A&M University. “Most of the migrants were young men in the prime of their lives.”

What made Julian different from other Western towns with mixed populations is the degree of integration Newton, Coleman and others were able to achieve. In 1897, Albert Robinson, a formerly enslaved Black man, and his wife, Margaret, founded the Hotel Robinson, which thrived and remains a town landmark today. For her part, Newton became beloved as a clearinghouse for the news of the town, known and celebrated in Julian for her kindness and buoyant conversation—and for the sweet cocktails she served at her home. Like many newly freed Black people in the West, Newton and Coleman confronted severe obstacles: racism, poverty and a lawlessness that pervaded the region. That’s what makes their entrepreneurial accomplishments all the more remarkable and historically important—an early example of success for African Americans migrating West after the Civil War, and a model for what the new America could look like.

Photo of Margaret and Albert Robinson, owners of the Hotel Robinson
Photo of Margaret and Albert Robinson, owners of the Hotel Robinson, now the Julian Gold Rush Hotel Courtesy of Steve Ballinger

For centuries before European or American settlers arrived, the Kumeyaay Indians lived in the Cuyamaca Mountains around Julian. Coleman, originally from Kentucky, lived among the Kumeyaay when he came to the area and thereby met his wife, Maria Jesusa Nejo, of the Santa Ysabel Reservation.

Coleman’s arrival in the area is still shrouded in a degree of mystery. “No one seemed to know where he came from or when he came to Julian,” recalled James A. Jasper, who served as owner and editor of the Julian Sentinel in the 1890s, in a 1934 manuscript. When he found gold in Julian in 1869, it prompted a local gold rush that brought hundreds of people to the tiny mountain community. Tents sprouted up everywhere—a city of miners, each hoping to strike it big. Coleman built a toll road to town, making it easier for people to travel to Julian. Soon, a need arose for other businesses to serve the boom.

While Coleman was helping to establish the infrastructure for this small but bustling town, Newton was in Missouri, thinking about her own family’s future. She didn’t tend to talk much about her years of enslavement, beyond the fact that she was once owned by a Mr. Dyer of Independence, Missouri, and that her husband had died, according to the late local librarian and historian Myrtle Botts in her 1969 History of Julian.

Newton was far from alone in wanting to flee Missouri in the 1860s. Missouri, a border state where the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation failed to free the enslaved, was still extremely dangerous for African Americans in the late 1860s, says Gary R. Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri. By 1870, more African Americans had left the state than were being born there. “There was this out-migration [of Black people] because of all the violence in Missouri,” he says.

Susie Coleman, daughter of Fred Coleman, and her son William
Susie Coleman, daughter of Fred Coleman, and her son William in an undated photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Sue Montgomery Weaver

In the 1860s and 1870s, the African American population in California was not large, and most Black Americans who did head West settled north, in the Bay Area, says Broussard. It was a period, he adds, when Black Americans were “guardedly optimistic.” But there were barriers: The state had welcomed many pro-slavery white Southerners after the war. Slavery had ended in California by the 1860s, but discrimination persisted.

“California offered opportunity, to be sure, but also a lot of heartbreak and disappointment to African Americans,” Broussard says. “A small number did thrive despite racism.” In Julian, African Americans who worked for themselves, like Newton and Coleman, tended to fare better than those trying to work for others. “You couldn’t get a job if you were an Indian or Black,” says Elizabeth Sue Montgomery Weaver, Coleman’s great-granddaughter, whose middle name honors her grandmother, Fred’s daughter Susie Coleman.

By 1870, Newton and her daughter Clara, about age 6, had crossed the state line into Kansas, a free state that became a refuge for thousands of enslaved African Americans in the 1860s. According to census records, they lived in Grant Township with James A. Cole, a farmer; Newton served as Cole’s housekeeper. But by 1872, Newton was starting anew with little Clara. Cole, a native Virginian, accompanied them on the ride west, where he eventually received a patent for 189 acres through the 1862 Homestead Act.

Once they arrived in Julian in 1872, Cole helped Newton file for her land, an 80-acre homestead just west of the town, near a cold spring. He also built her a little cabin and a two-wheeled cart and gave her “a fat sleek roan horse to pull the cart,” according to Botts. Cole lived next door to her for a few years, and Newton decided to make the most of two assets: the spring near her land that supplied drinking water and the horse and buggy. She saw that the miners flocking to town needed a washing service and by 1880 had opened a laundry business out of her diminutive cabin.

Domestic work was common among African American women at the time, but Newton was rare in being her own boss. She did laundry for Julian’s steady flow of newcomers while also overseeing her ranch, which included a garden and a small orchard of fruit trees. The work was often arduous: Newton had to carry buckets of water from her spring to her washing tub, heat her irons over a grill in the fireplace, chop her own wood, and drive her signature horse and buggy around town to deliver the clean wash. She was fastidious about the wash, writes Botts: “All who knew her claimed no one was so skilled as America in fluting ruffles, baby clothes and shirts.”

Julian Mining Company today
Today, the Julian Mining Company offers visitors a taste of the town's Gold Rush history. Seauton via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Still, Newton became known and loved for more than how she ironed a shirt, and by the 1880s, her business had become a local stopping point—a place for people to have a drink and catch up on the latest happenings. Newton always kept a dipper hanging near her spring to serve thirsty travelers; for those who wanted something stronger, she distilled a boozy drink from honey that she called “Muh-Thig-Gullum.” Local tipplers described it as initially mild but then sneakily intoxicating.

Newton was a gregarious neighbor, eager to talk and share town news and gossip with visitors. Her warmth, humor and penchant for gab drew reliable return customers. Since she couldn’t read or write, she carried a two-bit piece in a handkerchief. When she needed to sign something for business, she would gently remove the coin from her pocket, point to the word “America” on the embossment, and say, “Write it just like that.”

“Everybody knew America,” says Valorie Ashley, who in 2005 helped found what is now the Julian African American Pioneers History Committee, and “America knew everything” about what was going on in Julian. The committee’s goal is to build permanent memorials to the town’s early African American settlers.

In 1880, Newton’s daughter, Clara, then about 15, married an African American widower named W.H. Lowdine and moved away. With her daughter gone, the townsfolk became Newton’s family. “She was loved and respected by those who knew her in those pioneer times,” Botts notes. The townsfolks’ deep affection for Newton helped her in her final years: When she sold her property in 1913 to a man named F.W. Parsons, it was with the understanding that she could live there for the rest of her life.

Newton’s story remains compelling to Seth W. Mallios, an anthropologist at San Diego State University. “[It’s] one of overcoming staggering obstacles,” Mallios says. “She overcame slavery, the Wild West and continued racial injustices in Southern California. Her story is not just an important African American story; it is a quintessential American story.”

By 1880, Julian’s mining boom had begun to wane. But unlike other gold rush towns—Bodie, California, or Vulture City, Arizona, to name two—Julian survived. Of the 55 African Americans living in San Diego County in 1880, 31 lived in the Julian area compared to just 3 in San Diego, according to that year’s census. Newly arrived farmers discovered, as Coleman and Newton had before them, that Julian’s farmland was deeply fertile and produced particularly tasty apples.

The African American community that had prospered in the Julian area through the 1890s was all but gone by 1920, with many migrating to larger cities like San Diego and Los Angeles. Newton herself died of pneumonia in 1917. Her cabin is gone, but longtime locals still call a nearby road by her name. The Hotel Robinson—now known as the Julian Gold Rush Hotel—still stands and is considered the oldest continuously operating hotel in Southern California.

The Julian Gold Rush Hotel, formerly known as the Hotel Robinson
The Julian Gold Rush Hotel, formerly known as the Hotel Robinson Seauton via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2006, Ambers, local historian David Lewis and other members of the town’s African American history committee led efforts to install a bronze plaque honoring local Black trailblazers near the Julian Pioneer Museum, and to buy new headstones for Newton and others. The enterprise provoked some controversy: A few opponents expressed skepticism that the graves really belonged to these pioneers. They didn’t believe white residents of the time would have allowed Black residents to be buried in the same cemetery.

“[But] there was never an African American cemetery,” Ambers says.

Atop a tree-ringed hill in the Julian cemetery, a light wind dances around Newton’s headstone. It bears a simple inscription: “Not Forgotten.”

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