Wellsville Historical Society to recognize African American pioneers (with audio)

In 1860, one of Wellsville’s early pioneers, John Henderson Bankhead, entered the Cache Valley with his family. The group included 11 African American slaves, who took the last name Bankhead and played a key role in establishing the fledgling community.  

While the African American Bankheads are mentioned in “The Windows of Wellsville,” the city’s most comprehensive written history, they and other black pioneers like them have been largely forgotten over time. While documentation exists of their internment in the Wellsville Cemetery, their grave markers are no longer there, and many of their stories have been buried with them.

The Wellsville City Historical Committee, chaired by Ken Larsen and comprised of Mayor Thomas Bailey, Wilma Hall, Heather Rowser, Jami Van Huss and Ron Case, will make an effort on Saturday, May 27, to acknowledge the contributions of the city’s African American settlers and memorialize their efforts.  Beginning at 2 p.m., the committee will host a tribute in the southwest corner of the Wellsville City Cemetery (400 N. 200 E.), erecting a monument engraved with the names of 21 black pioneers who, at least at one point in their lives, lived in Wellsville. The community is encouraged to attend.

“Basically what we’re doing is recognizing their contributions to the growth and development of Wellsville,” said Case. “This is a rare opportunity in our local history to be involved in something like this. Wellsville has long had an active interest in our local history, but this is an area that really hasn’t been explored all that well. You don’t see many opportunities to do this, and this is a chance for us to gather together and remember the people that came in here, both black and white, that worked together to build the community to be what it is today.”

Case said the mission of the Wellsville City Historical Committee is to increase awareness of Wellsville history and “participate in activities that advance public awareness of our local history.” He said the Memorial Day weekend event at the cemetery will further the committee’s mission by reopening a chapter of the city’s past.

One story, for example, involves Nathan and Susan Bankhead, patriarch and matriarch of the black Bankhead pioneers. Nathan Bankhead is said to have been part of the group that participated in the rescue of the handcart pioneers.

“It’s very likely that he was part of the group that went out to the Martin Willie handcart company and was part of the group that brought them in when they were starving because of the winter conditions,” said Case. “He actually made several trips back from what the history says. And from the things that we’ve been able to read, Nathan was quite close with John H. Bankhead and stuck with him as they did their various moves.”

In fact, when the Bankheads left Mississippi to cross the plains, Case said John H. Bankhead gave his slaves an opportunity to choose to travel with him or remain in the South as free men and women. Once they arrived, Territorial Utah’s laws to govern slavery before the end of the Civil War recognized slave ownership but allowed slaves immigrating to Utah to register their preferences on whether they’d like to secure freedom.  Case said another Bankhead slave, Lewis, left Utah with permission from John Bankhead to earn money to purchase his freedom by participating in athletic events. When he succumbed to a sports injury, John Bankhead is said to have driven to California to retrieve the man’s body for burial in the Wellsville Cemetery.

“That’s quite an undertaking in the 1850s, early 60s,” said Case. “From what I understand and can read about him, he was quite an individual.”

Case said the May 27 ceremony to recognize Wellsville’s African American pioneers will include several speakers and a musical presentation. The Wellsville City Historical Committee appreciates the support of the Wellsville City Council and a generous donation by Shayne Leishman of Rocky Mountain Blasting in making the event possible. 

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