Overton, Nebraska, has never been a large town. The 2020 US Census reflects a population of 561 people, a 58% increase over the 326 people recorded in Overton when the 1880 census was taken. Located in Covington Township, Overton has maintained a steady, if slow, population growth. I imagine Overton to be a place boasting a friendly, small-town character held in the face of a rapidly changing world.
But there is one glaring change between the 1880 and 2020 census reports. Unlike the total population of Overton, the racial demographics changed drastically. In 1880, 14% of Overton’s population identified as Black or Mulatto. 2020 Overton is entirely devoid of people of African descent.
When black families began to return to the United States from Canada, many settled in the neighboring states of Michigan and Ohio. But a small band of families from Buxton (Elgin Settlement), Ontario, set their sights on Nebraska. The group that eventually formed DeWitty, NE, first settled in Overton. The former Canadian black sojourners who appear in Overton’s 1880 census include the families of Joshua Emanuel, William Walker, Isaac Riley, William Rann, William Small, and the Gields/Robinson family. The Robert Allen family from Kentucky rounded out Overton’s 45 black residents.
Unlike DeWitty, Nebraska, or Nicodemus, Kansas, the black settlers in Dawson County did not establish a separate community. They lived for almost thirty years as a community within a community. A 1969 Nebraskaland Magazine article by Jean Williams discussed attempts by black homesteaders to establish themselves in Nebraska. Many failed, but “by the turn of the century, one colony of Negroes was succeeding. These people filed claims on land near Overton in Dawson County in 1880. The homesteaders forming the nucleus of this settlement came from Canada. They were educated, weather-oriented, and conditioned. Some were skilled artisans, and all brought goods, supplies and money to sustain them until they could harvest a crop.”
In just a handful of years after the first black Canadian homesteader left Overton for Cherry County beginning in 1902, most of the black families from Canada followed. By 1915, the United States Postal Service established a post office in DeWitty which went on to be referred to as “Nebraska’s largest and most permanent colony of African American homesteaders.”
In DeWitty’s shadow, the memory of the unnamed Overton colony of black settlers faded. But for the original Canadian group, Overton was home and the birthplace of the first generation of Canadian sojourners who returned to the United States.
Rose Meehan Speese wrote to her brother, Bill, in August 1946 after traveling back to Overton from Pierre, South Dakota. She spoke joyfully about seeing her childhood friends and concluded the letter by saying, “It sure felt good to step onto old home soil.”
1880 and 1920 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Online publication.
Nebraska’s Negro Homesteaders Located at DeWitty, Nebraskaland Magazine, Jean Williams, 1969. Published with permission at Cherry County NEGenWeb Project 2000-2011.
Letter, Rose Meehan Speese to brother William Meehan, August 28, 1946, postmarked Pierre, South Dakota.
Some names are synonymous with Black homestead settlements throughout the Great Plains.
In Cherry County, NE, it is DeWitty-Audacious;
in Holt County, NE, it is Bliss;
in Weld County, CO, it is Dearfield;
and, in Goshen County, WY, it is Empire.
But the Black homesteaders in Dawson County were residents of Overton, and they sometimes seem to be overlooked. Or so I thought and wondered why. The article I found today answered half of the question.
An 1893 newspaper article referred to the area north of Overton as the Blackville Settlement.
There are too many reasons to speculate why that name, or some other, didn't take hold; we accept they did not name the community.
While going through old books, a small envelope fell out of one. When I opened the envelope, I knew it was something special.
This small card was from my father's earliest school days in Overton, Dawson County, NE, between 1902 and 1906. In 1907, the Meehan family left Overton for the Sand Hills. I imagine Dad saved this card because of the bond he shared with his earliest teacher.
Miss Dora Wallace was born in Nebraska in 1883. In 1900, she was a seventeen-year-old student living with her parents in Overton and may have started teaching in the early 1900s. The 1910 U.S. Census lists Dora as a schoolteacher in Overton. Bill Meehan and other first-generation Black homestead children were likely among her earliest students.
According to vital records, Miss Wallace never married. She continued to teach school in Overton until her death on November 21, 1938, at 55. She is buried at the Overton Cemetery with her parents.
Miss Dora Wallace gave her students Christmas cards and a love for learning.
I wonder if Dad thought of Miss Wallace when he wrote his 1914 poem, The Old Home Place Is The Best Place. He laments leaving Overton for Nebraska's Sandhills and wishes for a life "where the schools go onward like clockwork, nine months of the year without fail."
In the hills of north western Nebraska,
Far out on the desolate plain,
I sit while my mind wanders backward,
To the years that shall not come again.
Seven years have I been in this region,
Where the crops never grow in excess,
Seven years have I toiled on a Kinkaid,
In the cattle land of the west.
It's no use to farm in these sand hills,
Where the wind blows a gale all the year,
And the droughts wither up all the grain fields,
But we stick just because we are here.
I think of the time we arrived here,
Great promise we saw in our land,
Our fortunes we thought we'd soon make here,
In this desolate region of sand.
Better far had we stayed where we came from,
In central Nebraska so grand
Where no cattle men rule all the region,
And the land is not loose sifting sand.
Where the schools go onward like clockwork,
Nine months of the year without fail,
Where the crops are never a failure,
Unless they are struck by the hail.
We were close to the market and railroad,
Old Overton was the home town,
And if you wish to see farming,
Just visit the country close round.
No need had we for the office,
For the postman was out rain or sun
And we got our mail every evening,
On the R.F.D. No. 1.
There's a moral in what I've been telling,
But for fear you'll not study it out,
Before I go any farther,
I'll tell you just what it's about.
Don't seek to better conditions,
In a land you know nothing about,
For the old home place is the best place,
You'll agree when you study i t out.
William H. Meehan at 17 years of age
Carolyn V. Hamilton
“State of Nebraska vs. Leroy Gields, indicted by grand jury for shooting one Dick Robinson, with intent to kill. Plead not guilty, and was discharged.”
“Posters are up announcing a discussion between Wm. Crawford and James Hatter at Crandall’s Hall Saturday evening, May 20. The subject to be settled for all time by these able contestants is whether women or men have most to do with civilization.”
“Ed. Meehan who is breaking prairie for G. B. Darr at Cayote came home Wednesday to wait till the ground dryed off as the rain made it to wet to break.”
“Miss Anna Meehan who has been assisting Mrs. Gus Hendrum with her housework, returned to her home north of Overton, Saturday.”
"A number if the young friends of Miss Annie Meehan met at her home last Monday evening and enjoyed a social time and an old fashioned candy pull. The occasion being her birthday.”
“The following officers were elected by the Samaritan Sunday School last Sunday. Supt., C.H. Meehan; Asst. Supt., John Larson; Treas., C.A. S*n*ahl; Sec., Emma Larson; Liberian, Hattie Larson.”
“This year’s graduating class will consist of the following pupils Dennis Meehan, Eva Batie, Corene Orchard, Verna Holmes, Elsie Trimble, Wm. Wallemeyer, Lily Wallace and Floyd Worthing,”
“Ed. Meehan undertook to out push a Broncho in a stall last week but came out second best, getting a rib cracked.”
“The friends of Amos Walker will be glad to learn of his promotion. He was born in Ontario, Canada, raised in Nebraska, educated in District No. 34, later graduating from the Nebraska State University in Lincoln. Amos taught three terms of school at Oregan Missouri and now has secured a position in the High School at St. Joseph Mo. At a salary of $90.00 per month.”
“James Hatter had a sale of horses in front of the bank building about three o’clock. Mr. Hatter contemplates going to Virginia where he was born and visiting relatives. From there he will go to Canada and other places – in all spending the rest of the summer visiting and enjoying himself.”
“Chas Speese of Westerville, and Miss Ida Shores of Comstock, visited friends here from last Friday until Tuesday of this week. Doss Emanuel has been repairing his house and has added another room to it. W.P. Walker commenced this week to remove the lower story of his house and replace it with brick.”
“Miss Rose Meehan gave a birthday party to her friends last Friday night. Over thirty guests were present and all report a good time. Miss Meehan received a large number of nice presents.”
Those Audacious Meehans
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