SIGNIFICANCE OF CANADA'S ELGIN SETTLEMENT TO BLACK HOMESTEADERS OF DAWSON AND CHERRY COUNTY, NEBRASKA
In 1914, seventeen-year-old Bill Meehan lamented the family move from Dawson to Cherry County, Nebraska. He wrote a poem that included the line, "we stick just because we are here." My humble opinion is that they "stuck" because decades of living and working together had forged these individual family units into a cohesive community that they carried across a continent.
Over the years much has been written about homesteaders of African descent who settled across the American west. Many of the black homesteaders were part of the post-Civil War migration of formerly enslaved people known as Exodusters. The migration route started far to the north for a small group of homesteaders who settled in Dawson and Cherry counties.
Years before the Exoduster movement, African descended people escaping slavery in the United States and Free People of Color escaping tenuous lives, made their way to Canada. About 1848, the Elgin Settlement (Buxton) in Kent County, Ontario, was established. It became home to families who would eventually form the nucleus of African descended homesteaders in Overton and DeWitty, NE. Isaac Riley, enslaved in Missouri, is considered the first resident of the little Canadian enclave. Mr. Riley was also one of the first settlers to leave the Elgin Settlement for Nebraska.
The African descended homesteaders from Canada were a cohesive group of family and friends. Their experience in the Elgin Settlement honed their skills in community building, in farming, and in gaining economic stability. Education was fundamental to the community and many of the children attended the Buxton Mission School. Those living in the Elgin Settlement were landowners and required to buy lots of at least fifty acres.
Ten years after the signing of the U.S. Homestead Act in 1862, Canada passed a Homestead Act. The Elgin settlers made the monumental decision to forgo land in Canada, though. Their sights were set on Nebraska. Between 1880 and the early 1900s, several members of the Elgin Settlement, most life-long friends, made the trek to Dawson County, Nebraska. This group of settlers were prepared to take on the rigors of homesteading life and they were determined to succeed.
It is not clear whether the Elgin families made a planned migration or if they followed one another to Nebraska. The Guilds/Robinson family may have been one of the first families to make the trip about 1879. They were soon joined by the Riley’s and between 1880 and 1890 the Emanuel’s, Rann’s, Meehan’s, Hatter’s, Walker’s, Crawford’s, and Brown’s. Others also made the journey, though the names included in this article do not constitute an exhaustive list.
Garrison Shadd, a Buxton (Elgin) neighbor and brother of abolitionist Mary Ann Shadd Cary, purchased land in Nebraska. Although he never relocated, he spent some time in Columbus in Platte County, NE. The diary of Garrison’s son, William, says that Garrison left Buxton for Columbus on October 11, 1884. He purchased a 2-way ticket, an indication of his intent to return to Canada. A list published in the Columbus Journal on December 17, 1884, includes a letter unclaimed by Mr. Shadd.
OVERTON, DAWSON COUNTY, NEBRASKA
Several of the African descended homesteaders in Overton were members of the Samaritan Presbyterian Church, which appears to have been a mixed-race congregation whose common goal was survival, community building and God’s kingdom. The Canadian homesteaders were largely Methodist and Baptist, but they were not unfamiliar with the Presbyterian church. A Presbyterian minister founded the Elgin community.
In 1946, Rose Meehan Speese, my aunt, made a sentimental visit to her Overton birthplace. She wrote of seeing childhood friends and Samaritan church members, Sadie Schull, John Carey and Ellis Dustin.
Overton was home to many of the black Canadian homesteaders for at least twenty years. Friendships formed by some as children in Canada gave way to marriages and filial bonds that held the families within a tight community throughout their lifetime. One such friendship was that of Charles Meehan and William Crawford.
The core of black homesteaders from Overton may have migrated to get more land in the Sandhills. A mitigating factor for a few of the families may have been the perceived racially motivated harassment of a member of the community. The February 24, 1905, Overton Harold printed Mr. William Crawford’s response to “untrue” statements made about him by a member of the [white] community. Mr. Crawford categorized the comments as “a base slander on himself and [his] race.” Not long after the incident, the Crawford and Meehan families departed for Cherry County.
BROWNLEE, DEWITTY & AUDACIOUS, CHERRY COUNTY, NEBRASKA
One of the first members of the Overton community to set out for the Sandhills was Leroy Gields. Mr. Gields was born in Canada about 1859 and migrated to Overton about 1879 with his mother, sister and her family. On June 12, 1902, he filed a Homestead claim in Valentine, Cherry County, and on July 10, 1907, he published a notice of intention to make his final five-year proof. Other families from the original group of Canadian homesteaders, including the Meehan’s and Crawford’s, followed Leroy Guilds to Cherry County.
Rose Meehan Speese said in a letter dated May 23, 1963, that William Crawford, Dennis Meehan (born in Overton in 1885 to Charles and Hester Meehan), and Mr. [George] Brown traveled to Cherry County in the fall of 1906 to “look over the situation.” By that time a few other Overton families were already in the Sandhills. Both Ava Speese Day and Albert Riley share accounts of several families forming a small wagon train in March of 1907 and leaving Overton for the Sandhills. Rose Meehan Speese recalled in a letter to her brother Bill that they departed Overton in May 1907. Those who did not travel by wagon rode the train.
When the Canadian core of black homesteaders arrived in Cherry County, they settled near Brownlee. The Brownlee community was welcoming and helpful. Over the years a bond between the two communities formed that has lasted for a century. For several years the African descended homesteaders used the Brownlee post office.
In 1915, homesteader Miles DeWitty donated a portion of his land for a post office. The United States Postal Service announced the establishment of the new post office on April 6, 1915. The town of DeWitty was born. One year later Mr. DeWitty left the area and the new postmaster, Dennis Meehan, renamed the post office and town, Audacious. He believed it was a fitting description of the people who settled there. One of the author's fondest bits of family lore was her fathers claim that the town of Audacious was named after him. Her father, Bill Meehan, was the younger brother of Dennis, the postmaster.
By 1936 DeWitty ceased to be. A very small number of the Black homesteaders returned to Canada. Most of the families remained in the United States, settling in places like Alliance in Box Butte County and Denver. Several others relocated to larger cities like Omaha, Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota. Through the years the black Canadian homesteading families maintained the bonds of family and community, regardless of their physical location.
The DeWitty/Audacious community became known as the “largest and most permanent colony” of African American homesteaders.” It is my strong belief that the success of the DeWitty homesteaders is attributable, in part, to their shared Canadian experience.
“Nebraska’s Negro Homesteaders Located at DeWitty,” Nebraskaland Magazine, Jean Williams, 1969. Retrieved from Cherry County NEGenWeb Project © 2000-2011.
Statement by William Crawford published in the Overton Gazette, February 24, 1905.
Garrison Shadd Diary Collection, Shadd Diary & Transcription, 1881-1889, Rural Diary Archive, Library, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
The Columbus Journal (Columbus, Platte, Nebraska, United States of America), 17 Dec 1884, Wed., Page 3.
Crossing the Border, A Free Black Community in Canada, Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Personal letters from Rose Meehan Speese to her brother, William H. Meehan, from the collection of Catherine Meehan Blount.
William Harvey Meehan, personal conversations with his daughter, Catherine Meehan Blount.
Perkey's Nebraska Place Names (Publications of the Nebraska State Historical Society, V. 28), J & L Lee Co., Revised Edition, June 1, 1995.
A planned Canadian community, years of family and friendship building, and unbreakable determination contributed to the success of DeWitty/Audacious, NE.
NOTE: List of family names not exhaustive.
This grid map shows a section of DeWitty/Audacious in Cherry County, Nebraska. Meehan family land is highlighted in yellow. Holdings by former Canadians/Canadian Sojourners are highlighted in red. Many of DeWitty's residents spent their entire lives in the United States. But it is hard to ignore the presence and influence of the Canadian experience on the small village.
Those Audacious Meehans
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