“Canaan on the Prairie”New Evidence on the Number of African American Homesteaders in the Great Plains
How many African Americans filed homestead claims in the Great Plains and successfully obtained their land patents? Previous scholars have ventured conjectures on the number, using contemporary news accounts and similarly incomplete and flawed sources. The General Land Office homesteading records do not identify a claimant’s race, so to count black homesteaders one must crossreference homestead files with other records such as the census, a tedious and labor-intensive task. This study undertakes the first systematic accounting based on cross-referencing in eight Great Plains states. We find that in these states more than 1,800 black claimants successfully proved up. If we also add Oklahoma, it is likely that more than 3,400 black claimants homesteaded in the Great Plains. They gained ownership of nearly 650,000 acres of land. Counting claimants’ family members, who typically made crucial contributions to the homestead’s success, more than 14,600 black people lived in families of successful homesteaders. Today there are probably between 100,000 and 250,000 living descendants of the original black homesteaders.
African American, black, Great Plains, homestead, land
“When the car of freedom comes along, I am going to get on board,” James Suggs often said to Malinda Suggs, his wife, on their Mississippi plantation. James Suggs and his twin brother, Harry, had been born into slavery [End Page 223] in August 1831 in North Carolina. When Suggs was three years old, his owner sold him away from his parents and brother. His new owner lived in Mississippi, where Suggs remained until the outbreak of the Civil War. Though initially Suggs gained his freedom by joining the Union Army, after the war he and his family would find their “car of freedom” in the Great Plains through the Homestead Act of 1862.1
Suggs was one of thousands of black Americans who left the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the Great Plains. Many of them claimed land through the Homestead Act. There has been considerable recent scholarship on black soldiers, black cowboys, and black towns in the West, but little research has focused on black homesteaders.2 Some of the most basic questions remain unanswered, including this one: How many black homesteaders were there?
Various scholars have offered conjectures on this question, but their answers have been restricted to specific communities or have been speculations with little evidentiary basis or both. Historian Melvin Edward Norris Jr., for example, estimated that “nearly 700 people” lived in the black homesteader colony of Dearfield, Colorado, based only on a contemporaneous comment in the Weld County News. This figure is almost certainly too high, and Dearfield scholar George Junne Jr. puts the number between 200 and 300 residents, based on other evidence. Kenneth Hamilton and others suggest that the stable population of Nicodemus, Kansas, in the 1880s and 1890s was about 300, based mainly on contemporary news accounts. Even these more careful estimates are limited to individual communities and only tell us how many people lived in and near the town, not how many black homesteaders there were overall. Quintard Taylor suggested that “tens of thousands” of black Americans homesteaded in the West, but he gives no source or justification for his assertion. This question needs a more systematic approach.3
The principal reason historians have no reliable counts of black homesteaders is that the Homestead Act contained no clause limiting or excluding claimants by race, so neither the General Land Office (GLO) nor local land registers had any reason to record it. Race was simply not a category on the GLO’s multiple forms, thus in most cases we cannot determine the race of a claimant from the archives of surviving homestead records.
Over 1.6 million Americans proved up homestead claims between 1868 and 1961, and the vast majority were white. Understandably, the history of homesteading has largely been told as a story about whites, including both American citizens and immigrants. But we know that black people also moved to, homesteaded, and successfully proved up in the Great Plains.4 Unfortunately, we have had little idea of how many they were— until now. In this article we provide new evidence on the number of black people who successfully homesteaded in the Great Plains. As we will see, our analysis suggests that there were likely more than 3,400 black claimants who successfully proved up their claims and received patents (titles) to land. Considering all family members of both successful and unsuccessful claimants as well, probably more than 26,000 black people participated in homesteading the Great Plains.
Identifying Black Homesteaders
While the homestead records contain no systematic racial data, other sources do; in [End Page 224] particular, the decennial censuses recorded the race of everyone being enumerated. Noted publiclands scholar Paul W. Gates saw the possibilities of cross-referencing homestead and census data; in 1979 he mused, somewhat wistfully, that maybe “with the help of the computer” one might match homestead records with the census schedules to determine the racial composition of homestead entries. The only scholar we know of who took on this problem is Michael L. Lanza in his study of Mississippi homesteaders. (Melinda Miller has studied a different scheme, not homesteading, which distributed free land to former enslaved persons in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.)5
Lanza, planning a larger study of black homesteading in the five southern homesteading states, first undertook a pilot study on “a relatively small random sample” to test out Gates’s method. He drew two samples of Mississippi claimants between 1871 and 1883, which included 356 canceled and 284 successful entries. He then used the manuscript schedules from the 1870 census, which recorded race, to match census entries with names in the homestead records and identify the race of the homesteaders. He encountered many problems: for many homestead entries he could find no corresponding census entries; in other cases, the person’s race was not recorded in the census, the racial information was ambiguous or contradictory, or there was some other defect. He deleted from his sample any names for which a clear racial identification was missing. At the end, he was able to identify the race of 367 claimants (57.3 percent) out of the original 640 homesteaders in his sample. These included 186 unsuccessful homestead claimants and 181 successful (patented) claimants. But after spending so many countless hours cross-referencing his pilot-study sample and discovering how difficult the task was, Lanza abandoned his more ambitious plan to study homesteading in the five southern states and instead just analyzed the data from his pilot study.6 Despite its difficulties and great time-demands (even “with the help of the computer”), this method remains the only viable way to identify the race of large numbers of homesteaders.
Counts derived using homesteading data, including those presented below, should always be interpreted as indicators of general magnitude rather than precise numbers. As one of us has argued previously, the original documents filed by individual homestead claimants or land-office registers contain many incidental errors and anomalies; moreover, summations of these claims, whether made by the GLO or independent scholars, are also filled with small errors, incorrect adding-up of columns, omissions, unclear and often conflicting definitions of what is included, and other problems.7 Similarly, the decennial censuses were plagued by many and continuing problems over the years— changing definitions and names of races, reliance on census-takers’ guesses about what race the person was, undercounts of minority persons both intentional and unintentional, and more. These various problems do not make the data unusable, but rather caution us to interpret our calculations as helpful indicators of broad magnitudes but not exact counts.
We followed Gates’s and Lanza’s method to identify black homesteaders in the Great Plains. We focused on eight Great Plains states: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico. We obtained from census records the names of all black heads of households for each state, and then cross-referenced those with names in the homestead records.8 In [End Page 225] order to limit the task, we restricted our cross-referencing to three censuses for each state, in particular those following the most intense periods of homesteading in that state (except for 1890, for which the relevant census records did not survive the Interior Department fire in 1923). The censuses we examined are listed in Table 1.
To limit our task, we imposed a rule that for any census in which the number of black heads of household exceeded 1,500, we would randomly sample entries rather than survey all entries. Imposing this rule resulted in our doing a full survey of all entries for Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming; we cross-referenced every head of household for the three censuses listed for each state. For Colorado and Kansas, however, we created samples of the black heads-of-household and cross-referenced them. For Colorado, the sample consisted of every second entry in the black head-of-household list, which we then cross-referenced. For Kansas, which represented a significantly larger list of black heads of household than the other states, we cross-referenced every sixth person for the first 3,000 heads of household. The sampling procedure allows us to estimate full population totals from each sample.
When cross-referencing heads of household, we were able to identify some people as almost certainly being black claimants, because they showed up in the same county in both the census and the homestead records at the right time, and after searching the census schedules further, we found no one else in that county with the same name. We put these people who were almost certainly black claimants in our “definites” list. Most heads of household were not claimants: their names either did not appear among homestead patents, or other people with the same name were far more likely to be the homesteader based on their residency and year of homestead.
We encountered many of the same problems that plagued Lanza. Sometimes we found someone who very well could have been a black homesteader, but the evidence was unclear. For some, there was also a white person in the county who had the same name and who could have been the homesteader. For others, there was no one in the county with that name. These uncertain cases ended up in our “maybes” list.
One potential limitation of our procedure is that it would have been possible for a black homesteader to file, prove up, and sell his or her homestead, all accomplished in the years between censuses. In such a case, the homesteader would have succeeded yet not shown up in the census.
We found additional names of black homesteaders from what we term “other sources,” that is, from other research we have conducted, especially that on Nebraska. We carefully examined our census-derived names and these “other sources” names to remove any duplicates. [End Page 226] Thus, we were able to identify additional black homesteaders not found in the census cross-checking, including perhaps any that filed, proved up, and sold out between censuses.
Constructing a Reliable Estimate of the Number of Black Homesteaders
We set about developing a plausible and reasonable estimate of the total number of successful black homesteaders in the Great Plains based on conservative assumptions and calculations. Our estimating procedure seeks to minimize the data defects caused by the lack of precision in the homestead records, the deficiencies in the censuses, especially the chronic undercount of black people, and the vagaries of cross-referencing and other potential sources of error. To address these various problems, we introduce several extrapolations and adjustments, fully explained below. We include as black people all those individuals variously identified in the censuses as “black,” “colored,” “Negro,” and “mulatto” (but not including individuals with Chinese surnames who were sometimes classified as “colored”). We start with the results shown in Table 2, which are derived from examining the relevant censuses for each state.9
In Table 2, column B lists the “definites” which we found in each state. Column C shows the “definites extrapolates” for the two states, Colorado and Kansas, for which we must extrapolate from the samples to obtain the full state estimates. Column D displays the “maybes” we found for each state. Column E gives the “maybes” extrapolates for Colorado and Kansas which we use to obtain the full state estimates. Column F adds, for each state, columns D and E, then multiplies by 0.5 to adjust for the [End Page 227] convention that we consider only half of the “maybes” to be black. Finally, column G adds columns B + C + F to obtain the state totals.
“Definites” Plus “Definites Extrapolates.” Cross-referencing census and homestead records, we identified by name and location 307 successful homesteaders in the eight states whom we can say with great certainty were African American; these are listed in column B of Table 2. For the six full-survey states, that completes the calculation of census-derived “definites.” For Colorado and Kansas, however, we only sampled black heads of household, so we need to extrapolate from the sample to find the full-population numbers, that is, the number of “definites” we would have expected to identify if we had done a full state survey. For Colorado, because we examined every second census entry, the extrapolated claims (termed “extrapolates” and shown in column C) is 53, equal to the sampled total. For Kansas, the calculation is slightly more complicated, though the method is exactly the same; it produces 299 extrapolates (also shown in column C).10 The total (not shown) of “definites” including extrapolates is 659 black homesteaders.
“Maybes” Plus “Maybes Extrapolates.”
We identified 637 claimants (shown in column D) whom we labeled as “maybes.” These are claimants for whom we have some information suggesting the homesteader is African American, but there is also some countervailing or contradictory evidence, usually a black person and a white person both with the same name for whom we do not have sufficient evidence to decide which is the homesteader. The “maybes” cannot be added in toto but neither should they be entirely dismissed. We adopt the convention throughout that we will classify half of the “maybes” as black people and include them in our totals.
To calculate how many “maybes” to include, we start with the full-survey states, listing all the “maybes” claimants in column D. For Colorado and Kansas, we obtain population totals by extrapolating from our samples, as shown in column E: extrapolates for Colorado again just equal those identified in the sample; extrapolates for Kansas are determined by a slightly more complicated calculation, following the method from before.11 By convention we will include only half of the “maybes,” shown in column F; column F sums for each state columns D and E, then multiplies those sums by 0.5. Column G presents the resulting totals of “definites” + “definites extrapolates” + one-half of “maybes” + one-half of “maybes extrapolates”; the total of all states taken together is 1,189, as shown at the bottom of the table.
Claimants Found through “Other Sources.”
We also were able to identify a number of other black homesteaders from other sources. Our project has studied the histories and attributes of several black colonies, and in the process, we serendipitously turned up names of homesteaders. Our most intensive examination was of DeWitty, Nebraska, but we also examined Nicodemus, Kansas; Empire, Wyoming; Dearfield, Colorado; Sully County, South Dakota; and Blackdom, New Mexico.12 As we examined cemetery records, landownership data, family records, school attendance lists, and other non-census materials, we came across homesteader names, which we recorded. To eliminate any duplicates, we cross-checked these “other sources” names with black claimants identified through our census cross-referencing. The results are shown in Table 3.13
In Table 3, we reproduce column G from Table 2, listing the census-derived counts. Column H lists all the nonduplicative “definites from other sources” we found, and Column [End Page 228] I lists all the nonduplicative “maybes” from other sources. By convention we count only half the “maybes” as black, which we list in column J. Column K then sums, for each state, the numbers in columns H and J, that is, the total number of nonduplicative claimants identified from other sources, including all the “definites” and half the “maybes.” As explained below, the “other sources” data allow us to estimate an undercount correction factor of 1.553; column L displays the corrected counts, that is, the figures in column G multiplied by 1.553. The totals given in column L are our best estimates of the number of black homesteaders in each state and in the eight states combined.
Let us explore further the meaning of the numbers in Table 3. From “other sources” we identified 337 “definite,” nonduplicative black homesteaders (shown in column H) and 82 “maybes,” nonduplicative black homesteaders (column I). For the six full-survey states, the “other sources” names are clearly just nonduplicative, additionally identified black homesteaders. These individuals were simply not identified in our cross-referencing, either because they were not listed in the census or if they were, we missed them. We add the “definites” and, following our convention, one-half of the “maybes” to produce the totals of “other sources” shown in column K. [End Page 229]
For Colorado and Kansas, we need to adjust the “other sources” names to take account of the fact that we sampled rather than surveyed black heads of households. In particular, the “other sources” individuals could have been duplicates of people enumerated in that portion of the censuses which didn’t happen to be in our sample. In that case, we would have already accounted for them in our previous extrapolation, and extrapolating again here from the samples would result in double-counting them. To avoid double-counting, we cross-checked the “other sources” names for Colorado and Kansas against the roster of all black heads of household for Colorado and Kansas; we eliminated every “other sources” name found on those rosters. This left us with 40 “definites” for Colorado and 147 “definites” for Kansas, shown in column H; and zero “maybes” for Colorado and ten “maybes” for Kansas, shown in column I. By convention, we include half the “maybes,” shown in column J. Column K presents the sum for each state of nonduplicative “other sources” claimants, adding together H and J.
The discovery of other black homesteaders not identified through the census points to a larger phenomenon. As a result of increased interest in black homesteading, including among descendants, we expect that over time we will learn of more black homesteaders than we have yet identified. Indeed, part of our project with the National Park Service is to assist it in encouraging descendants and others to come forward with information about their ancestors who were black homesteaders we missed— to “crowd-source” the discovery of currently unknown black claimants. For this reason, we consider the numbers we present to be time-stamped counts, which NPS will periodically update as more black homesteaders get identified.
Adjusting for Undercount in Our Census Procedure
The identification of homesteaders from “other sources” who were not available through or discovered by our census-based cross-referencing gives us the opportunity to estimate— and correct for— the undercount in our procedure. There are potentially many causes of the undercount, of which the most important are the failure of the Census Bureau to enumerate all black heads of households; the misidentification or misrecording of an enumerated person’s race by the enumerator, either inadvertently or not; and our own failure to identify black homesteaders due to confusing or contradictory data or mistakes in cross-referencing.
To see the problem, consider our Nebraska results. By cross-referencing the census schedules, we found 171 black homesteaders (shown in column G); we also found 60 “definites” from other sources (column H) and 69 “maybes” from other sources (column I); by convention, we count only half, or 34.5, of the “maybes” as being black (column J). Therefore, while we found 171 claimants through our census cross-referencing, we missed 94.5 [60 + 34.5] individuals who should have been counted but were not. The undercount in our procedure when applied to Nebraska, 94.5 divided by 171, thus amounted to 55.3 percent.
Because we have studied Nebraska much more intensively, we had a much greater probability of identifying non-census-derived black claimants. That is, the Nebraska undercount percentage is likely to be closer to the “true” statistic than the corresponding percentages for the other states, simply because we examined other states less. Therefore, we will use the implied Nebraska undercount correction factor to adjust the totals for all our states.14 We apply the Nebraska undercount rate, 55.3 [End Page 230] percent, to adjust the census-derived totals (column G) for undercounting in each state and in the combined total; the result is then shown in column L.
These extended calculations suggest that approximately 1,845 black people (column L) successfully homesteaded in our eight-state region. For convenience of discussion we will use this single number, but we interpret it as indicating an approximate magnitude, such as “between 1,700 and 2,000,” rather than a precise number; while we have been extremely careful in developing the estimate, the underlying data simply do not permit us to make exact counts. Nonetheless, this finding is significant, because it helps us understand the scope of the black homesteaders’ world.
In our calculations, the state with the largest number of black homesteading claims was Kansas, with 734, but we found black people had homesteaded in all the states we studied. We estimate that 345 black claimants gained patents in Colorado, 266 in Nebraska, 222 in Montana, 143 in New Mexico, 52 in South Dakota, 51 in Wyoming, and 33 in North Dakota.
Note that both the state totals and the over-all total constitute conservative counts, because they are based on identifying specific individual black homesteaders and making plausible but limited extrapolations from them. Implicitly we assume that if we did not identify black homesteaders on which the total (including extrapolations and other sources) is based, they did not exist. But of course there are a variety of ways— some intrinsic to the data-bases, others to our own procedures— which make it likely that even after our adjustments, the total is an undercount. For example, there are almost surely more black homesteaders in Nebraska who were not identified in either our census cross-referencing or our “other sources” recording; if true, the undercount correction factor is too small. What our numbers do tell us is that the “actual” number of black homesteaders, if it could be known, would almost certainly be equal to or greater than our estimates, which therefore serve as lower bounds.
Estimating the Amount of Land Gained by Black Homesteaders
To estimate the total amount of land claimed by black homesteaders, we calculated the average black claimant’s total landholding for each state. We include as black homesteaders all persons who claimed land under the original Homestead Act of 1862 (including both proved-up claims and “cash sales” if confirmed as commutations), the Timber Culture Act (1873), the Desert Land Act (1877), the Homestead Reclamation Act (1902), the Kinkaid Act (1904), the Enlarged Homestead Act (1909), and the Homestead Stock Raising Act (1916). These acts differed in the amount of land they allowed entrymen to claim. We used the number and landholdings of all black homesteaders (“definites”) for which we were able to obtain data, including names derived from both census cross-referencing and from “other sources.” Although the calculations suggest great precision, we wrote again that they are best interpreted as approximations. As shown in Table 4, we estimate that the 1,845 claimants in the eight-state region gained ownership of 414,553 acres.
Some Speculative Calculations
With our relatively solidly based figure of 1,845 (or between 1,700 and 2,000) successful black homesteaders as the foundation, we can extend these results in several directions, although admittedly these extensions require a greater [End Page 231] degree of speculation. As we see, the number of black people who participated in homesteading was considerably larger than the figure of 1,845 would suggest.
An obvious way in which the figure of 1,845 fails to reflect the full black participation in homesteading is that it only counts the one individual who filed the family’s claim, not the claimant’s other family members. The claimant was the “head of household,” usually a man. But other members of the family, including the claimant’s wife and children and perhaps other relatives, also participated in the everyday life of homesteading. Their fates were typically tied to the farm’s success or failure just as tightly as the claimant’s was. Their labor was shaped by the needs of the farm, and it was often crucial to the success or failure of the farm. In every way except whose name was on the legal paperwork, they were homesteaders too.
In 1920 the size of the average black family was 4.3 persons, so 1,845 successful claims involved approximately 7,934 people.15
We have so far only been considering those black claimants who successfully proved up, were issued patents, and gained ownership of land. But like white claimants, not all black claimants succeeded in proving up, and if we want to understand the full extent of black participation in homesteading, we also need to include those who filed claims but failed to prove up.
Black claimants, like their white counterparts, failed to prove up due to a variety of reasons. A surprising number of homesteaders died before they could complete their required five years of residency.16 Farm labor was arduous, food was sometimes scarce and nutrition poor, working conditions in the boiling summer heat and bitter winter cold were dangerous to health, accidents were frequent when working with horses, farm machinery, and early tractors, [End Page 232] infections and diseases like tuberculosis were uncontrolled, and medical care was primitive or nonexistent. Even if claimants didn’t die they could be severely disabled by injury or hobbled by disease, making it impossible for them to continue to farm. Presumably many more claimants simply gave up— finding the conditions too harsh, droughts or hail or grasshoppers too devastating, the loneliness and isolation too discouraging. Some claimants abandoned their claims after very short stays, but others struggled on the land for years before giving up.17
Black claimants also may have failed because racism created a hostile social environment in which to homestead. In our studies of six black homesteader communities, we found that in DeWitty, Sully County, and Dearfield, there was no evidence of violent, abusive, or destructive racial acts; indeed, these black homesteaders and their surrounding white communities, including white ranchers, appear to have cooperated, and blacks frequently found needed off-farm employment on white-owned ranches. In Nicodemus, there were a couple of racially driven conflicts, but whites participated in substantial and mutually beneficial ways in the civic and commercial life of the town. Only at Empire and Blackdom were there more serious racial incidents and a racial climate hostile to black homesteaders. At Empire, Baseman Taylor was killed by white sheriff’s deputies while in their custody, an incident that demoralized and eventually fragmented the entire black community. At Blackdom, the nearby regional center of Roswell became increasingly oppressive to African Americans as the original residents from the North departed and were replaced by whites migrating from the South. Hovering over all these communities was a national racial climate that was turning ever more violent, ugly, repressive, and exclusionary to black people. How these racist elements affected their homesteading success rates is unknown.
For the homesteading population as a whole (white and black), about 45 percent of entrymen who filed initial claims failed to prove up.18 If black initial filers failed to prove up at the same rate as the overall population, then alongside the 1,845 successful claimants would have been 1,510 initial filers who did not succeed, for a total of 3,355 initial filers. And 1,510 unsuccessful filers meant that 6,493 family members in total shared in the farm’s failure.
We did not cross-reference census records and homestead files for Oklahoma, which was outside the scope of our study.19 But it is possible to provide a rough estimate of how many black people successfully homesteaded in Oklahoma as follows. In 1920 Oklahoma had 34,539 black heads of household. In 1920 Kansas had 16,255 black heads of household, of which, by cross-referencing and after extrapolations and adjustments, we estimated that 734 were black homesteaders (see Table 3, column L). If Oklahoma black heads of household homesteaded at the same rate as their neighbors in Kansas, then 1,560 blacks successfully homesteaded in Oklahoma. As shown in Table 5, column S, Oklahoma would add 1,560 to our previous total of 1,845 successful black homesteaders to produce a total of 3,405 successful black homesteaders throughout the Great Plains.
We can estimate how many acres black homesteaders claimed in Oklahoma as follows: assume that black Oklahoma homesteaders’ claims averaged the same size as all Oklahoma claims, that is, 149.32 acres per claim. If so, then 1,560 successful black Oklahoma claimants [End Page 233] would have gained ownership of about 232,939 acres.20 Considering all their family members, there would have been about 6,708 black people successfully participating in homesteading in Oklahoma.
One could well argue that, due to the increased violence and white hostility directed at blacks in Oklahoma, their failure rate may have been much higher than elsewhere; but let us assume, conservatively, that Oklahoma followed the national pattern (as we assumed for Kansas).21 If so, 45 percent of its initial filers, or 1,276 black claimants, failed to prove up. Counting all members of the families of those unsuccessful black claimants, a total of 5,487 black people lived in Oklahoma families that tried to homestead but failed. Adding these to the successful families, we get a total of 12,195 (6,708 + 5,487) black people who participated in homesteading in Oklahoma.
Up to now, we have presented various calculations of the number of black people who themselves claimed land or participated in homesteading in the Great Plains. Of course, the opportunities and impact of homesteading were not confined to the homesteader generation itself. The descendants of homesteaders also were affected by their ancestors’ efforts.
It is easy to see the continuing effect, for good and occasionally for ill, of the homesteading generation’s accomplishments in the lives of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. At DeWitty, the succeeding generations moved away to take up successful lives in many parts of the country as educators, nurses, postal clerks, authors, and in one case, a cancer researcher at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. At Nicodemus, the hundreds of descendants who return each late July to celebrate Homecoming Emancipation Day embody the success of their ancestors in the vigor and variety of their own successful careers and the joyful families who accompany them.
How many descendants of black homesteaders in the Great Plains are there? Developing a definitive answer to this question would itself be a major research project, but we can at least make a speculative conjecture due to the innovative work of Trina Williams Shanks. In 2005 Shanks set for herself the task of calculating how many current American adults are descendants of homesteaders (of all races). Her [End Page 234] calculation required her to employ historical vital statistics including the marriage rate for women of childbearing age, the fertility rates of different generations, and the number of generations since patents were granted. When combined with basic data on when and how many homestead patents were issued, Shanks was able to calculate the number of descendants in the contemporary adult population. She provided a “high,” “medium,” and “low” estimate. Although each of her assumptions could be challenged, overall she presents a highly plausible and rigorous procedure for estimating the homesteaders’ progeny. Her global estimate was that probably 46 million current American adults, and perhaps as many as 92 million, were descendants of homesteaders.22
We used two different methods to apply Shanks’s analysis to estimate the number of descendants of black Great Plains homesteaders. The first method, based on Shanks’s “medium” and “high” estimates, modifies Shanks’s detailed five-year cohort analysis to focus on black homesteaders. We updated her data series and then applied her results to our numbers for black homesteaders in the Great Plains. In some cases we could not find extensions of the same series, so we substituted similar data from other sources, although we recognize that using multiple sources with perhaps differing definitions may introduce error. Using this method, we estimated the number of descendants of the 3,405 homesteaders (1,845 in our eight states + 1,560 in Oklahoma) to be between 129,727 and 239,496. This method provides our first estimates of the size of the black descendant population.23
The second method we developed to use Shanks’s analysis is simpler: we calculated the number of descendants by assuming that the gross ratio of homesteaders to descendants for black homesteaders is identical to the ratio for all homesteaders. This method suggests the number of living black descendants of Great Plains homesteaders is in the band from 97,290 to 194,579 persons.24
The two methods for estimating the number of descendants of the eight Great Plains states plus Oklahoma produce quite similar results:
Method 1: between 129,727 and 239,406
Method 2: between 97,390 and 194,579.
A reasonable interpretation would be that the number of currently living descendants lies between roughly 100,000 and 250,000.
Understanding the Dimensions of Black Homesteading
The results of these various calculations lead us to a sharper understanding of the dimensions of black homesteading. We can now answer the question of how many black people homesteaded in our eight Great Plains states: about 1,845 (or between 1,700 and 2,000) black homesteaders filed initial claims, proved up, and gained ownership of land. Counting homesteaders and their family members, about 7,934 African Americans were part of these successful homesteading families. These 1,845 homesteaders probably claimed about 414,553 acres, an average of 224.7 acres. Nebraska homesteaders were the outliers, gaining on average 401.5 acres per claimant, mainly due to the larger claims allowed under the Kinkaid Act. In the other seven states, average claims were more modest: 201.9 acres in Colorado, 165.6 acres in Kansas; 217.0 acres in Montana, 247.5 acres in New Mexico, 177.0 acres in North Dakota, [End Page 235] 196.0 acres in South Dakota, and 336.6 acres in Wyoming.
Probably another 1,510 black initial filers, or between 1,400 to 1,600 black initial filers, tried to homestead in the eight states but failed to persist and obtain their patents. Counting their family members as well, some 6,493 people shared in these farms’ failure.
Although beyond the range of our study, black homestead claimants in Oklahoma may have proved up as many as 1,560 (or between 1,400 and 1,700) homesteads. Counting all family members, we estimate that residing on these homesteads were approximately 6,708 black people who participated in successful homesteading in Oklahoma. These 1,560 claimants likely gained ownership of some 232,939 acres.
Probably another 1,276 or so black Oklahoma claimants failed to prove up. Counting all members of their families, a total of around 5,487 black persons lived in the households of unsuccessful Oklahoma claims.
If we add together the eight-state and Oklahoma totals, we find that around 3,405 (or between 3,300 and 3,500) black homesteaders successfully claimed land. At least 14,642 black people in the Great Plains lived on successful homesteads. Adding together all the black people involved in homesteading, including family members and unsuccessful filers in the eight states plus Oklahoma, we find that approximately 26,622 black people participated in Great Plains homesteading. Overall, the 3,405 successful black homesteaders gained ownership of about 647,492 acres. For reference, this eight-state-plus-Oklahoma total represents a land area about equal to the size of Rhode Island.
The legacy of black homesteaders continues to live today in the lives of their descendants. The living adult descendants of the original black homesteaders probably number between 100,000 and 250,000 (our estimates range between 97,390 and 239,406 persons).
Discovering how many black Americans homesteaded in the Great Plains makes the history of settlement more complete and interesting, but it may also challenge some popular perceptions of black history. Twentieth-century black history is typically presented as largely a story of the rural South, the “Great Migration” to northern cities, and urban life. Yet there was also a remarkable story of black struggle, risk-taking, hardship, trial, and achievement when black people homesteaded the rural areas of the Great Plains. Although few compared to the nation’s overall black population or to the number of white homesteaders, black homesteaders and their accomplishments are surely significant in the totality of the African American experience. Numbers are not everything: the Tuskegee Airmen were a small minority of World War II American pilots, yet their example of courage, persistence, and skill provided a model for many others in the struggle to become free and equal citizens. So too black homesteaders, whose gritty determination to own their own land, educate their children, and live their lives as free and equal citizens provide an inspiring model for all people who believe in their ideals of freedom and equality.
As noted earlier, Quintard Taylor, without any statistical evidence or documentation, suggested that “tens of thousands” of black Americans homesteaded in the West. Our estimate that 26,622 black people participated in Great Plains homesteading, including both successful and unsuccessful claimants and their family members, suggests he was right. [End Page 236]
Calculating the number of black homesteaders may also challenge popular perceptions of the Great Plains. At Nicodemus’s 2018 Homecoming Day celebration a descendant lamented to one of us that when he talks to his friends in urban areas and tells them he grew up in rural Kansas, they are flabbergasted and often tell him they didn’t know there were any black people “out there.” But as we have seen, black people started coming to the Great Plains after emancipation, making new lives for themselves and in the process contributing to the diverse cultures of the region.
Over the last several decades, scholars began assembling a fuller picture of black settlement and achievement in the Great Plains and interior West between 1865 and 1930. One part of this broader narrative is the story of the buffalo soldiers, those black regiments stationed across the West as part of the post–Civil War regular army. A second piece was added by scholars studying the founding and history of all-black towns in the region. Yet a third element was added when historians discovered that, contrary to notions popularized in westerns, many of the West’s cowboys were black.25 We now contribute to a fourth aspect, the story of black homesteaders. General research on homesteading fell out of favor among historians long ago and is only now being revived; the new homesteading research challenges many ideas previously assumed to be settled.
Adding the story of black homesteading similarly challenges conventional and long-unexamined ideas about who it was who homesteaded. James Suggs was one of those, riding his “car of freedom” to Kansas. In 1887 at the age of fifty-six, he went to the Kirwin Land Office to prove up his land claim in Phillips County, Kansas. Phillips County is northwest of Graham County, where Nicodemus is located, but Suggs occasionally traveled to Nicodemus to preach. Suggs' and others' stories move us closer to telling the true story of black people’s achievements in the Great Plains.
Richard Edwards is director of the Center for Great Plains Studies, professor of economics, and senior vice chancellor (emeritus) of the University of Nebraska. Recent books include Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History, with Jacob K. Friefeld and Rebecca Wingo (2017); Atlas of Nebraska, with J. Clark Archer and others (2017); and Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota before the Boom (2015). He is the series editor for “Discover the Great Plains” books, published by the Center and University of Nebraska Press.
Jacob K. Friefeld earned his PhD in history at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is coauthor of Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History, with Richard Edwards and Rebecca S. Wingo. He is currently working with descendants of African American homesteaders to help preserve this important history.
Mikal Brotnov Eckstrom earned his PhD in history at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. His written work includes pieces in the Wall Street Journal, and a coauthored chapter with Margaret Jacobs in Why You Can’t Teach US History without American Indians.
This research was supported in part by National Park Service grant #P17ACOO181, which we gratefully acknowledge; all views expressed are those of the authors. We thank our research assistants Sadie Counts, Crisanto Dubuc, Katie Meegan, and especially Jessica Carter for their excellent help, and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions.
1. Eliza Suggs, Shadow and Sunshine (Omaha, NE: privately published, 1906), 19–20.
2. For example, see Charles L. Kenner, Buffalo Soldiers and Officers of the Ninth Cavalry, 1867–1898: Black and White Together (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999); William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Black Cavalry in the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007); and “Buffalo Soldiers of the American West,” http://www.buffalosoldiers-amwest.org/index.htm; Emily Raboteau, “Black Cowboys, Busting One of America’s Defining Myths,” New Yorker, January 22, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/black-cowboys-busting-one-of-americas-defining-myths; Kenneth Hamilton, Black Towns and Profit: Preemption and Development in the Trans-Appalachian West, 1877–1915 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991).
3. Melvin Edward Norris Jr., Dearfield, Colorado: The Evolution of a Rural Black Settlement: An Historical Geography of Black Colonization on the Great Plains (PhD diss., University of Colorado at Boulder, 1980), 158; George Junne Jr. et al., “Dearfield, Colorado: Black Farming Success in the Jim Crow Era,” in Enduring Legacies: Ethnic Histories and Cultures of Colorado, ed. Arturo Aldama (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2011), 117; Kenneth Hamilton, “The Origins and Early Promotion of Nicodemus: A Pre-Exodus, All-Black Town,” Kansas History 5, no. 4 (Winter 1982), reprinted as “The Settlement of Nicodemus: Its Origins and Early Promotion,” in Promised Land on the Solomon, National Park Service (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1986). Quintard Taylor stated, “After the Civil War, tens of thousands of African American men headed west toward a thousand-mile frontier extending from North Dakota to Oklahoma. Sometimes these homesteaders followed promoters such as Kansas emigration leader Benjamin Singleton and created thriving communities such as Nicodemus, Kansas; Boley, Oklahoma; and Dearfield, Colorado. More often than not, however, they came on their own.” Quintard Taylor, “African American Men in the American West, 1528–1990.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 569 (May 2000): 107 (emphasis added), and In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990 (New York: Norton, 1998), chapter 5, 134–63. Taylor includes homesteading in Oklahoma in his description; it was the site of considerable homesteading by blacks. Taylor cites as his source Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. and Lonnie E. Underhill, “Black Dreams and ‘Free’ Homes: The Oklahoma Territory, 1891–1894,” Phylon 34, no. 4 (1973): 342–57. But while Littlefield and Underhill provide an excellent discussion of blacks’ experiences in the conflict-laden opening of homesteading lands in Oklahoma, they must rely on newspaper accounts, promoters’ claims, and other doubtful sources for estimates of the number of black homesteaders.
4. Jacob K. Friefeld, Mikal Brotnov Eckstrom, and Richard Edwards, “African American ‘Colonies’ in the Settling of the Great Plains,” Great Plains Quarterly 39, no. 1 (Winter 2019): 11–38.
5. Paul W. Gates, “Federal Land Policies in the Southern Public Land States,” Agricultural History 53, no. 1 (January 1979): 214. Melinda Miller developed a sample of black exslaves who had Cherokee owners. In 1866 the freedmen were given the right to claim land in a treaty between the Cherokee, who had fought with the Confederacy, and the US. While not homesteaders, these former slaves’ situation was in certain ways similar to that of the black homesteaders we studied in that they obtained landownership outside the South. Melinda Miller, “‘The Righteous and Reasonable Ambition to Become a Landowner’: Land and Racial Inequality in the Postbellum South,” Review of Economic and Statistics (forthcoming).
6. Michael L. Lanza, Agrarianism and Reconstruction Politics: The Southern Homestead Act (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), appendix A.
7. Richard Edwards, “Why Are the Homesteading Data So Poor (And What Can Be Done About It)?” Great Plains Quarterly 28, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 181–90.
8. We obtained census records through Ancestry.com; these records differ slightly from the census data (e.g., in the number of black heads of household by state), but not to any significant degree nor in any discernable way that would bias our results. We obtained homesteading records from the GLO (Bureau of Land Management) online files, National Archives and Records Administration homestead files, and Ancestry.com.
1880: (8,330/500) × 6 = 100
1900: (12,565/500) × 6 = 151
1910: (15,584/500) × 2 = 62
Less original 14; total of “definites” extrapolates = 299.
Column E calculation: Colorado Column E = Column D. Kansas Column E calculated by census year:
1880 (8330/500) × 6 = 100
1900: (12,565/500) × 5 = 126
1910 (15,564/500) × 3 = 94
Less original 14; total of “maybes” extrapolates = 306.
Column G calculation: Column G = Column B + Column C + Column F.
10. Kansas “definites” extrapolates were calculated census-by-census as follows, where the first number (e.g., 8,330) is the total number of black heads of household in that census, the second number (500) is our sample drawn by using every sixth entry drawn from the first 3,000 entries, and the third number (e.g., 6) is the number of black claimants found in the sample:
1880: (8,330/500) × 6 = 100
1900: (12,565/500) × 6 = 151
1910: (15,584/500) × 2 = 62
Less original 14; total = 299
11. Kansas “maybes” extrapolates were calculated census-by-census as follows, where the first number (e.g., 8,330) is the total number of black heads of household in that census, the second number (500) is our sample drawn by using every sixth entry drawn from the first 3,000 entries, and the third number (e.g., 6) is the number of black “maybes” found in the sample:
1880: (8,330/500) × 6 = 100
1900: (12,565/500) × 5 = 126
1910: (15,584/500) × 3 = 94
Less original 14; total = 306
12. See Mikal Brotnov Eckstrom and Richard Edwards, “Staking Their Claim: DeWitty and Black Homesteaders in Nebraska” Great Plains Quarterly 38, no. 3 (Summer 2018): 295–317; and Friefeld, Eckstrom, and Edwards, “African American ‘Colonies’ in the Settling of the Great Plains.”
13. Notes to Table 3: For columns H and I, as explained in the text, we deleted all names found from “other sources” that were duplicates of names found through census cross-checking. Column J = 0.5 times Column IColumn K = Column H + Column JColumn L = 1.553 times Column G
14. Eckstrom and Edwards, “Staking Their Claim: DeWitty and Black Homesteaders in Nebraska”; Nell Blythe Waldron, “Colonization in Kansas from 1861 to 1890” (PhD diss. Northwestern University, 1932), 121–39; Joseph V. Hickey, “‘Pap’ Singleton’s Dunlap Colony: Relief Agencies and the Failure of a Black Settlement in Eastern Kansas,” Great Plains Quarterly 11, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 23–36. We found “other sources” claimants in all the Great Plains states: Colorado (3.8 percent), Kansas (8.5), Montana (7.7), New Mexico (32.3), South Dakota (47.1), Wyoming (28.8), and North Dakota (81.0). In Kansas, we likely would have discovered many more black homesteaders if we had had the opportunity in addition to Nicodemus to study homesteader settlements in Morris, Hodgeman, and Wabaunsee Counties and elsewhere. We believe the varying levels of our scrutiny is responsible for much of the wide disparity in undercounts for these states, and so we see the Nebraska undercount as the most accurate undercount correction factor.
15. Calculated from US Census Bureau, Fifteenth Census of the United States— 1930: Population, volume VI, Families, table 40, p. 33; Fourteenth Census of the United States— 1920: General Report and Analytical Tables, volume II, table 1, p. 29.
16. We know of no studies directly measuring mortality among homesteaders, black or white, but we can see an echo of death in the data reported for (white) homesteaders in Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo, Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), chapter 6 and table 6-2. A surprising number of women who were married when their husbands made initial entry proved up as widows, their spouses having died before proving up.
17. Among the first large group of colonists arriving at Nicodemus in 1877, some 300 people from Fayette and Scott Counties in Kentucky, approximately half were so discouraged upon seeing the community that the next day they turned around and went home. Presumably they were in Kansas such a short time they would not even have filed initial claims, and so would not be counted in any of the figures cited in the text. Kenneth M. Hamilton, “The Settlement of Nicodemus: Its Origins and Early Promotion,” in National Park Service, Promised Land on the Solomon: Black Settlement in Nicodemus, Kansas ([Denver]: US Government Printing Office, 1986), 8. Another short-termer was Solomon Butcher, a (white) photographer, who tried to homestead in Custer County, NE, in 1880; he filed a claim and built a sod house, but after living in it for two weeks, he found the conditions disgusting and turned the land back to the government. John E. Carter, Solomon D. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 3.
18. Richard Edwards, “The New Learning about Homesteading,” Great Plains Quarterly 38, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 16.
19. We do not analyze black settlements in Oklahoma because it has unusual and much more complicated racial configurations and cultures, a sometimes-combustible mix of the South and the West, with African Americans, Indians, and whites, Indians who owned black slaves, and other elements unique to the state. It deserves and has received substantial and excellent scholarly attention; for example, see David A. Chang, The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Land Ownership in Oklahoma, 1832–1929 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and Littlefield and Underhill, “Black Dreams and ‘Free’ Homes.” We also don’t look at another Great Plains state, Texas, which had no federal public domain lands governed by the Homestead Act due to agreements made at the time of its annexation by the United States.
20. We cannot determine an average acreage for successful black claimants because we did not cross-reference Oklahoma and so we cannot identify individual black Oklahoma homesteaders.
21. See the excellent article by Littlefield and Underhill, “Black Dreams.”
22. Trina Williams Shanks, “The Homestead Act: A Major Asset-Building Policy in American History,” in Inclusion in the American Dream: Assets, Poverty, and Public Policy, ed. Michael Sherraden (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), chapter 2. Shanks’s low, medium, and high estimates are presented in her tables 2.2, 2.3, and 2.4.
23. This analysis proceeded as follows: Step 1. We use Shanks’s “medium” estimates for descendants of all races for the second generation of 7,728,777, the third generation of 23,076,693, and the fourth generation of 40,484,665. We include one-half of second generation + third generation + fourth generation to find total = 67,425,747. Step 2. To determine the percentage of black homesteaders among all homesteaders, we use our data for the number of black homesteaders in the eight Great Plains states (1,845) and for the eight Great Plains states plus Oklahoma (3,405); we obtain data from Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1968), appendix A, to find total patents (958,676) for all races for 1900–1925 (inclusive). We then calculate the black percentage of patents by dividing the number of black homesteaders by the number of all homesteaders:
Percentage black in eight Great Plains states = 1,845 / 958,676 =.001924
Percentage black in eight Great Plains states plus Oklahoma = 3,405 / 958,676 =.003552
Step 3. We multiply the black percentage of patents issued times the total number of descendants to obtain the number of black descendants:
For eight Great Plains states: (.001924) × 67,425,747 = 129,727
For eight Great Plains states including Oklahoma: (.003552) × 67,425,747 = 239,496
We interpret these numbers as being estimates of the number (129,727) of adult descendants of the 1,845 original homesteaders in our eight Great Plains states and of the number (239,496) of adult descendants of the 3,405 original homesteaders in our eight Great Plains states plus Oklahoma.
Total homesteads 1,623,691 (from Gates)
Descendants 46,393,201 (“medium” estimates from Shanks)
Black homesteaders in eight Great Plains states plus Oklahoma:
Total homesteads 3,405 (from Edwards, Friefeld, and Eckstrom)
Descendants 97,290 (calculated)
Total homesteads 1,623,691 (from Gates)
Descendants 92,786,402 (“high” estimate from Shanks)
Black homesteaders in Great Plains:
Total homesteads 3,405 (from Edwards, Friefeld, and Eckstrom)
Descendants 194,579 (calculated)
This method thus suggests that black homesteader descendants today number between 100,000 and 250,000 people. We can also use Method 2 to calculate the “medium” and “high” estimates for just the 1,845 black homesteaders in our eight study states. To do so, we use the following data:
Total homesteads 1,623,691 (from Gates)
Descendants 46,393,201 (“medium” estimates from Shanks)
Black homesteaders in eight Great Plains states: Total homesteads 1,845 (from Edwards, Friefeld, and Eckstrom)Descendants 52,716 (calculated)
Total homesteads 1,623,691 (from Gates)
Descendants 92,786,402 (“high” estimate from Shanks)
Black homesteaders in eight Great Plains states: Total homesteads 1,845 (from Edwards, Friefeld, and Eckstrom)
Descendants 105,433 (calculated)
The results suggest there are between 50,000 and 100,000 descendants of the 1,845 black homesteaders in the eight Great Plains states we studied.
25. In addition to sources cited in note 2, see Bruce A. Glasrud and Michael N. Searles, eds., Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, on the Stage, behind the Badge (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016); Katie Nodjimbadem, “The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys,” Smithsonian.com, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lesser-known-history-african-american-cowboys-180962144/.