Black History Month is celebrated throughout the month of February to recognize and honor the contributions of Black Americans. Few in Harney County realize one of their own residents, Martha (Adams) Anderson, was a noted author whose writing on African-American history in the Northwest was at the forefront of a movement to preserve the stories of countless Black Americans, like her own family, who contributed to settling the West.
Martha Anderson described herself as coming from an “unusual family.” Born in Denver in 1910, she was reared on a ranch in Idaho. Anderson was interested in writing from an early age. In her 20s, she wrote scripts for Seattle radio stations, and in her later years had been a frequent contributor to trade magazines and other publications.
“As a child I listened to my grandfather (a Union veteran who later settled in Seattle) talk about Civil War battles, and eating mule meat. He was full of history.”
She met and married successful Steens Mountain area rancher, Walter Scott Anderson, several years after the death of his first wife, Stella, from pneumonia in 1936. Walter, a native of Arkansas, arrived in Harney County with his brother Oscar in the early 1910s and soon thereafter established his own cattle ranch at the site of the old Alberson Station.
The brothers, highly respected stock raisers, were noted in the Burns newspaper as the only two black ranchers in the county and remained so as late as the 1950s.
Walter and Martha sold their Juniper Lake area cattle operation and moved to Portland in 1952 due to Walter’s failing heart. In Portland, Mrs. Anderson operated the Medley Hotel for black servicemen who, she said, “didn’t have any civil rights.”
Her interest in history, no doubt fueled by stories from some of her hotel guests, led to the writing and publishing in 1980 of “Black Pioneers of the Northwest, 1800-1918,” detailing the lives of successful black gold rush muleskinners, laundresses, steamboat cooks, barbers, farmers, ranchers and businessmen. The publication is a primary reference for many contemporary works on African-American history in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.
“The blacks who settled in the West in the 1800s," she said, proved that, “it doesn’t take a million dollars to be a good citizen. Rather, they showed an ability to work under any circumstances. Those who worked the mining camps proved that a person could go out with a frying pan into the middle of the desert and make a living.”
Martha and Walter Anderson were both laid to rest in unmarked graves beside Oscar and his wife Maude Anderson in the Burns cemetery, an ignominious ending for true pioneers of their time.
In July 2020, members of the group Rural Alliance for Diversity (RAD) in Burns became aware of the Anderson’s and their unique story. They contacted Oregon Black Pioneers for support in a project to raise awareness and funds for the creation of a grave marker for the Anderson’s. A GoFundMe campaign generated $1400 for the markers. During Memorial Day weekend in May 2021, members of RAD, OBP and the Harney County community formally dedicated headstones in the Burns cemetery for Martha and Walter Anderson. RAD also purchased a copy of Martha Anderson’s book, now available for public circulation at the Harney County Library.
Learn more about the Andersons in the files of the Claire McGill Luce Western History Room, located in the back of the Harney County Library.
Authored by the staff at Harney County Library!