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 congenial, small-town character that it has maintained in the face of a rapidly changing world.
But between the 1880 and 2020 census reports, there is one glaring change. 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 completely 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 written 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 these Canadian sojourners who returned to the United States.
Rose Meehan Speese wrote to her brother, Bill, in August 1946, after traveling from Pierre, South Dakota back to Overton. She spoke with joy 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.
Those Audacious Meehans
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