Going Home to Nicodemus – Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994)

 

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Subtitle: The Story of an African-American Frontier Town and the Pioneers who Settled It.

“All colored people that want [sic] to go to Kansas on September 5th, 1877, can do so for $5.” (Taken from handbill issued by the Nicodemus Town Company.)

This was a fascinating read about a part of the Wild West which I’ve not seen receive much mention before: how the pioneer world also included African-Americans in its spread westward during the nineteenth century. What was so interesting for me was learning that Kansas was a hub for these African-American pioneers. Kansas, I hear you say? Really? Well, yes.

In 1865, the U.S. cemented the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. In 1868, the 14th Amendment secured citizenship for African-Americans, and the 15th Amendment in 1870 secured voting rights for African-Americans (at least on paper).

kansas mapSo in the later nineteenth century, former slaves were now free-ish (depending on lots of factors and not just the law), but although they had their freedom, it was not without its own set of problems. Former slaves were often just released without any resources to support them; many had no land, no money (and little chance of getting any), no home, no job, and limited access to employment due to a lack of skills and to rampant job discrimination. How was a former and newly released slave supposed to support him/herself and the family?

Thus the Freedman Bureau  was established to address this need, but it fell wanting in numerous areas. Most slaves were minimally agriculturally skilled which only allowed them to earn a living through share-cropping (where they don’t own the land, but work on it and then share a portion of what is produced on that land). With no means to buy land and thus no opportunity to own land, what was a former slave to do?

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Along around now also came the Homestead Act (1862) which opened up land ownership for many people in the newly established western states (including Kansas). So with the numerous land companies popping up and with their exaggerated exhortations with regard to the amount and quality of resources that were available in these states, newly freed men and women were targeted for populating these wide open states. Slaves with few other opportunities jumped at the chance for a better life and thus a door was opened for the African-American pioneers of the time.

Kansas was, at that time, a mix of pro-slavery and anti-slavery with the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas” due to its liberal values. With the abundance of flowery literature portraying it as a land of plenty and with the fact that famous abolitionist John Brown lived there, the state looked really attractive to the freed slaves and so thousands of African-Americas moved there. The influx of new settlers were called “Exodusters” and estimates go as high as 40,000 people who moved there.

Alongside this was an African-American Kansas resident called Pap Singleton who is credited with being one of the earlier visionaries with regard to establishing all-black communities for these new incomers. His ideas, along with the huge influx of settlers, led to the formation of the town Nicodemus and other communities run for and by black residents. It was quite a revolutionary idea for the times.

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However, with the now-free slaves with few resources and not many skills, many preferred to live close to the already established communities and so although the incomers were many, few had the skills to homestead. Such an increase in community population led to an increase in crime, of poverty and other social ills, and in 1880, the Kansas Governor finally had to say no more to the newcomers and to the town companies who were promoting this state.

Roughly two-thirds of the incomers left the state after that, either going home or on to different states, but even so, it still left a pretty large population of African-Americans struggling to make Kansas their home.

And so the story goes on. It’s an amazing tale and one that I had never heard of, despite having lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. I knew that there were African-American cowboys – in fact, I happen to know two guys who do that now – but I had no idea of the sheer numbers of freed slaves who came west. Just imagine how brave these newly freed pioneers were – and what a risk they took to create new and better lives for themselves and for their families. Amazing.

I’m really interested in learning more about this more unknown side of pioneer life, so I’m looking out for other books now. This was fascinating.

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