Archaeology of Nebraska’s African American Pioneers

[The following blog post is the fifth (and final) in a series of posts highlighting archaeological sites that relate to Nebraska’s Statehood or date to the period around 1867! This series will run through September in celebration of Nebraska Archaeology Month and our state’s Sesquicentennial!]

Archaeological investigation of the early African American experience in Nebraska has been overshadowed by exploration of Native American villages and select Euroamerican sites such as forts, fur trade posts, and territorial townsites. Archaeological investigation of slavery and the plantation system in the southeastern United States extends back to the 1960s (Singleton 1985) but archaeological investigation of the African American experience on the Great Plains is more limited. A notable exception is archaeological and archival investigation of Nicodemus, Kansas (Hamilton 1986; Wood et al. 2007). Nicodemus was a town and associated farms established in the late 1870s by black families escaping persecution, racism, and poverty following the close of post-Civil Reconstruction in the South and the withdrawal of federal troops. Another project in southeast Colorado is documenting African American homesteads (https://thedryarchaeology.wordpress.com/).

Although small numbers of African Americans were living and working in Nebraska in the 1850s and 1860s, the population was quite sparse. The numbers of African Americans in Nebraska began to increase following the Kansas Fever Exodus of 1879. The migration was due in part to the encouragement and efforts of Benton Aldrich and other prominent southeast Nebraska settlers who were sympathetic to the plight of black people fleeing the South. Archaeological consideration of early African American settlement in Nebraska is limited to a few projects, none of which have been long term. Two of these, one completed and one proposed, are summarized below.


The Aldrich Site (Nemaha County):

Aldrich site excavations nebraska archeology african american

Aldrich site excavation plan showing foundation remnants of African American dwelling and later intrusive post-1900 ice house.

In the late 1990s, Omaha Benson High School history teacher Pat Kennedy developed a project to engage and immerse his inner-city students into the history of African Americans in Nebraska (Kennedy 2001). His research focused on Nemaha County and Brownville and the students used archival materials (newspaper accounts, public records, maps, and photographs) to identify specific African American sites. In 1997, Kennedy approached the Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology Division about documenting some of these places archaeologically. The project developed and several sites in the town of Brownville were mapped and recorded but primary attention was focused on a rural site associated with Benton Aldrich who is mentioned above. The site became the focus of 1997 test excavations using over 50 volunteers including Kennedy and 16 of his students (Bozell and Boeka 2001).

In 1880, Aldrich invited several former slaves living in Kansas to settle on his farm and work for him until they were able to purchase property. Based on Kennedy’s research and family oral accounts by Aldrich’s great-grandson Robert Stoddard, an ice house was constructed after 1900 at or near the location of the dwelling occupied by black residents. Several surface features were archaeologically investigated and based on recovered artifacts and architectural remnants, the location of the dwelling was confirmed. More than 3000 artifacts were recovered including nails, ceramics, window glass, bottle glass, building hardware, animal bone and personal items such as buttons, bullets, knife handles, pins, and buckles. An abundance of limestone blocks indicates the dwelling was certainly more substantial than a dugout or shack. The location of all the material in a depression suggests a cellar may be present under the structural ruins.

Aldrich site excavation nebraska archeology

Pat Kennedy (right rear in blue t-shirt) with Omaha Benson High School students and teachers at the Aldrich site excavations.

The people living in the structure subsisted on pork and chicken but were also hunting rabbits and canning vegetables. A wide assortment of bottle glass, table ware, and crockery were recovered. While none are ‘high status’ items, the collection’s diversity suggests the occupants enjoyed some measure of material culture choices.

Only a small portion of the structure was excavated. However, clearly it retains significant potential for understanding the subsistence methods, architecture, technology, and material culture of some of Nebraska’s early African American residents.


DeWitty Community (Cherry County):

            Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in a community of black farmers who homesteaded in Cherry County along the North Loup River. This interest in African American homesteading in Nebraska was demonstrated when a GoFundMe account raised funds to place a Nebraska State Historical Society historical marker about DeWitty on US Highway 83. The unveiling of the marker in 2016 was attended by descendants of DeWitty homesteaders from across the nation as well as by local white ranchers and townfolk.

The story of DeWitty begins as African American homesteaders came west to start a new life and to escape the egregious Jim Crow laws passed throughout the South after 1877 when Reconstruction was ended. Many black colonies on the plains, however, continued to suffer the effects of racism in their new homes. A distinguishing characteristic of DeWitty was a distinct lack of racist attacks from the community’s white neighbors. Historian Joyceann Gray, a descendant of a DeWitty homesteader, has noted that “What is so important about this community is the bond between African American homesteaders of DeWitty and their white counterparts in Brownlee. The two communities were very isolated back then and despite differences of heritage and beginnings, they enjoyed a civil and caring relationship that continues up to this day.”

The trigger for the establishment of DeWitty was passage of the Kinkaid Act in 1904. The act functioned as an amendment to the 1862 Homestead Act. It recognized that arid lands west of the 100th meridian required more than 160 acres to support a family by allowing a homesteader to claim up to 640 acres in western Nebraska. Kinkaid specifically applied to the Sandhills region of Nebraska, with only non-irrigable lands open for entry.

Meehan Nebraska Sandhills African American Archeology

Charles M. and Hester Meehan after their journey from Ontario, Canada to the Nebraska Sandhills.

The overwhelming majority of African Americans who came west to homestead were former slaves or children of former slaves from the South and the people in the DeWitty community were no different. However, DeWitty citizens had one characteristic that distinguished it from other black colonies on the plains: many, if not most, of the settlers arrived in western Nebraska via a circuitous route through Buxton, Ontario, Canada. This province was the terminus of the Underground Railroad, with Buxton (1849-1877) having been established by the Elgin Association for resettlement of the black American refugees to give them a new start. Some of the homesteaders took an even more circuitous route to DeWitty; i.e., homesteading in Dawson County, Nebraska, then moving on to DeWitty, or Dawson County to Empire on the Wyoming-Nebraska border then to DeWitty. But African American settlers at Empire and in Dawson County found that the racism they had hoped to escape was waiting for them at these new homes. Only DeWitty offered the freedom from the fear and violence they were seeking.

A new non-profit organization, Descendants of DeWitty LLC, was established about a year ago with the mission of informing the citizens of Nebraska and beyond about the people and history of this unique community. This year, two of its board members, Chair Artes Johnson and Secretary Denise Scales, and blog co-author, William Hunt, were able to undertake a quick tour of a few DeWitty-related sites, guided by Don “Sonny” Hanna, a Cherry County rancher born during the final years of DeWitty’s existence. During the course of this visit, the group visited eleven of the many sites in the area. These included 6 homestead sites, 2 former river crossing sites, and a possible church/cemetery site.

Riley homestead Nebraska African American Archeology

Sod house of Albert and Lee Ann Riley on their Sandhills homestead.

Among its various outreach goals, Descendants of DeWitty is proposing an archaeological project that is hoped to include archaeologists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Nebraska State Historical Society. This project is dependent, of course, on finding a small amount of funding and getting landowner permissions to survey their properties. Project objectives will be:

  1. Continue historical research seeking out oral histories and primary documents in Nebraska and elsewhere to broaden our knowledge about the community and its citizens;
  2. Conduct an inventory of DeWitty sites, documenting as many of the 53 or more homesteads as possible along with other associated locations such as schools, post offices, bridges, etc.;
  3. Undertake geophysical inventories at select sites.;
  4. Prepare a nomination of DeWitty for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places as a district of related sites;
  5. Since outreach is the ultimate goal of Descendants of DeWitty, will aim to include black and white high school students and teachers in the work; and
  6. Inform community descendants, school children around the state, and the general Nebraska citizenry about DeWitty and why it is so important.

References:

Boeka, Molly
1998    Archeological Investigations at the Aldrich Site, Nemaha County, Nebraska. On file, Nebraska State Historical Society, State Archeology Office. Lincoln.

Bozell, Rob and Molly Boeka
2001    Archeology and the Search for African American Pioneer Sites in Southeastern Nebraska. Nebraska History 82(1): 25.

Hamilton, Kenneth
1986    The Settlement of Nicodemus: Its Origins and Early Promotion in Promised Land on the Solomon: Black Settlement in Nicodemus, Kansas. National Park Service. Washington, DC.

Kennedy, Patrick
2001    Nemaha County’s African American Community. Nebraska History 82(1):11-23.

Singleton, Teresa (editor)
1985    The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life. Academic Press. New York.

Wood, Margaret, Dan Morrow, and Deborah Rumans
2007    Explorations of the Struggles and Promise of African American Settlement on the Great Plains: Archaeological Survey and Testing of Sites Related to the Settlement Period and Early History of Nicodemus, Kansas. National Park Service.


About the Authors – 

Rob Bozell is the Nebraska State Archeologist at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Dr. William J. Hunt, Jr. is a historical archaeologist assisting the Descendants of DeWitty LLC with historical research and development of various outreach efforts. This presently includes a photograph exhibit about DeWitty and its citizens this fall and a short documentary video to be completed in 2018 portraying the exodus from Canada to the Sandhills of Nebraska.


Want to learn more about the Archaeology of African American Pioneers and Homesteaders in Nebraska?

Listen to the NETNebraska Story on “The Exodusters Who Came to Brownville.”

Read Pat Kennedy’s article on “Nemaha County’s African American Community” in Nebraska History Magazine.

Watch “The DeWitty SettlementNebraska Stories segment produced by NETNebraska.

Visit the DeWitty Historical Marker in Cherry County!

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