Hiram Young (1812-1882) was born enslaved in Tennessee. He entered Missouri as a slave and worked for George Young of Greene County. In 1847, Young obtained freedom, either from his owner or possibly as a result of an estate partition hearing at the request of George Young’s family. It is said that Young worked out his freedom price and that of his wife Mathilda, by whittling and selling ox yokes. Young and Mathilda moved to Independence, Missouri about 1850. They had one daughter, Amanda Jane.
Taking advantage of his location near the beginning of the Oregon, Santa Fe, and other major overland trails in the 1850s, Young built wagons for western emigrants and farmers. He also made freighters for the U.S. government. Until 1855, Young had a free Black man as a business partner, Dan Smith. Smith left independence due to increasing anti-free Black sentiment in the area. The Young family remained.
By 1860, Young was turning out thousands of yokes and between eight and nine hundred wagons a year. He employed about 20 men in his workshops, which included seven forges. Census officials noted 300 completed wagons and 6,000 yokes in 1860 when they tallied Young’s property. Young branded his work “Hiram Young and Company” along with the purchaser’s initials. The wagons Young and his men built could haul nearly 6,000 pounds and were pulled by up to 12 oxen and his factory was one of the largest businesses in Independence and Jackson County, Missouri. He described himself at the time as “a colored man of means.”
(Source: The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed)
The replica Hiram Young wagon is a product of Sweet Freedom’s Plains: African Americans on the Overland Trails, 1841-1869 [A Living History Project]. It is based on the groundbreaking work of Dr. Shirley Ann Moore, California State University, Sacramento for the National Park Service. Sweet Freedom’s Plains explores the stories of African Americans who were part of the great overland trail migration of the 19th century.