Looking Back at Bonanza: Enter Thomas Bowers (1964)

As a child I regularly watched syndicated television shows in historical settings like Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman with my mother. I remembered that some of the episodes featured black characters and dealt with race. I thought it'd be fun to rewatch these episodes and give my thoughts here.

The first episode I dug up was the season 5 episode 30 of Bonanza, titled "Enter Thomas Bowers" which aired April 26, 1964.




The episode starts with three women discussing a benefit concert for the local Native American tribe. One of the women proudly states that she has gotten the internationally famous singer Thomas Bowers to perform and that he is coming in on the next stagecoach. Only when Thomas Bowers (William Marshall) arrives, he's not exactly who she thought he'd be.


Once she realizes that the singer is a black man the entire atmosphere changes.  I have to stop here is point out the irony of them not wanting a black man to sing at a benefit for Native Americans.  Angry and embarrassed at finding out his race, she no longer has a room for him to stay in. The rest of the town follows the same pattern of exclusion as Thomas Bowers goes from establishment to establishment looking for food and lodging.




After getting insulted things turn physical, but are quickly stopped by Hoss Cartwright.  Thomas finds lodgings with Jed (Ken Renard) a black hotel worker and his beautiful daughter Caroline (Ena Hartman).





Things get bed for Thomas when a wired message about a runaway slave that matches his description is shared with the rowdy local gang. Their hate for Thomas and the 1000 reward money puts Thomas Bowers in grave danger.

Hoss hides Bowers at the family ranch, but the gang finds out where he is from the abused and frightened  Jeb. His betrayal of Bowers, upsets his daughter causing a argument between the two. Caroline has some harsh words for her father. I believe this conversation was very well written. Although Jeb was a freeman, his fear of the gang made him a slave of sorts.


"Mind your tongue Carrie. Pick up after them. Know your place" 


I was also impressed by the conversation between the oldest and middle Cartwrights. Adam is upset with Hoss for bringing Thomas to the ranch because of the newly passed The Dred Scott Decision. I wasn't expecting the 1960s series to mention the 1857 law that made all runaway slaves fugitives even in free states. Clearly the series writers put effort into the accuracy of this episode.

Thomas is taken to the jailhouse as a safeguard for him against the gang. While he is still locked up another message comes in clearling Thomas Bower's name. Hezekiah Randolph the real runaway was last seen heading towards Canada; not Virginia City like Bowers.





It takes some convincing, but Thomas Bowers decides to sing at the concert. This is his chance to show all of the townspeople that he is talented, intelligent, and capable.

He brings down the house to thunderous applause.





I won't use the oft used phrase "ahead of its time". I will however say that it was clear the Bonanza writers had taken their stance on race issues. This episode aired in 1964. Yet all of the black characters were three dimensional thinking and feeling human beings. Characters like Jeb who could have been made into a caricature with weaker writing, was bolstered up with tangible character growth. Caroline was a beautiful and kind black woman who cooked and lovingly cared for her father, all without being a Mammy, Sapphire, or Jezebel. Thomas Bowers too was wonderfully dignified. He perfectly possessed the air of a talented opera singer who had traveled the world and sang for  Queen Victoria.

I enjoyed my look back at this episode of Bonanza.
Have you ever watched this episode of Bonanza? What did you think of it?


You can get your own copy of the entire fifth season of Bonanza from here.

 


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