Although individual African Americans had moved to the west throughout the early decades of the 19th century, it was in the years following the end of the civil war and the end of Reconstruction that thousands of African Americans migrated to western regions in an attempt to move away from the socio-economic and political oppression of the south.Encouraged by the advertisement of bountiful land, African Americans migrated to Kansas and neighboring states, forming the movement known as Exodusters (Painter 1976).This notion highlights a Euro-American-centered history full of romantic imagery: settlers traveling long distances, leading wagons and family to homestead in a land of open, endless prairie, rolling hills, and tall grass.
The fate of many was sealed when the towns were bypassed by the railroad and dwellers started moving to cities.
The original Homestead Act of 1862 had provided homesteading of 160 acres, after payment of a fee, claimed in deed after settlers had lived on the land for five years and showed evidence of having made improvements.
Nevertheless, dryland farming in Southern Colorado proved unsuccessful and homesteaders started taking jobs in nearby towns and in the railroad, while others took to dairy farming, the land reverting to pasture. At The Dry it was not unusual for women to hold land deeds, to be mentioned as pillars of the family, and to have central roles in maintaining local social networks.
The Dust Bowl–devastating dust storms of loose soil occurring in the Great Plains during the 1930s draught, resulting from deep plowing–crushed the last hopes for farmers at The Dry, and few families stayed after this time. Boswell, Noah Smith, Harvey Craig, Rolan Craig, and Diana (one of the Craig's foster children). Unlike urban black communities that were rigidly segregated in enclaves within cities and towns (e.g., Five Points in Denver), the rural population in Manzanola seems to have maintained more relaxed relations with its white and Hispanic neighbors. Alice Mc Donald, who lived at The Dry until the mid-1950s, recalled that the harshness of the land contributed to relationships among homesteaders' neighbors that seemed to dismiss racial differences: "We were all very poor and had to help each other to survive." Inter-racial marriages were not uncommon, but the presence of the KKK in the area was a continuous reminder of Jim Crow racial ideology.
They acquired land, developed homesteads, and started a number of all-black towns mainly in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
By the turn of the century, 765,000 African Americans lived in the West (Moos 2005, p.60), focusing on building towns and agricultural colonies as collective enterprises in a project of racial uplift (Micheaux 1913, 1917).Many black towns, including Nicodemus, soon began to decline as a result of dry conditions and the unpredictability of rainfall.Unlike the Reconstruction "Exodusters," who were mainly former slaves, the new settlers hoped to convert their claims to dryland farming, thus venturing further west from their original communities. The area known as "The Dry" was one such early 20th-century African American small homesteading community, located eight miles south of Manzanola in southern Colorado. But they had no money to go back and had to stay in Colorado." (Author interview with Alice Mc Donald.) Settlers collectively attempted to build an irrigation system using water from the Apishapa River, but after the system's collapse during the 1923 floods, it was never rebuilt, as homesteaders realized that irrigation farming was an impossible task. As with other rural communities, recollections of the descendants from The Dry seem to indicate a large measure of mutuality among community members and a relaxation of culturally determined barriers, including gender and racial barriers. In the early 20th century, farm experts (Campbell 1907; Hargreaves 1957) believed that dryland farming, uniquely dependent on natural rainfall and using non-irrigated crops, such as wheat, corn and beans, could be successful and provide profits when practiced on large-scale acreage. It is acknowledged that the homesteading experience enhanced female status and autonomy, with women sharing responsibilities that altered the traditional gender division of labor, and freed them from traditional gender constrictions. But the lack of means to acquire sufficient land to ensure economic success, allied with the harsh conditions, made farming too uncertain. The 1909 Enlarged Homestead Act, an amendment to the 1862 Homestead Act, recognized that prime alluvial land was not available anymore and, considering the aridity of areas such as the Great Plains, provided claims of 320 acres, leading to a new movement to the West. "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." In Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" and Other Essays. Smaller places–Dearfield (Greeley, CO) and "The Dry" (Manzanola, CO), for example–continue to be mostly unacknowledged and to have their contributions to the history of the West effaced.By providing diverse narratives of African American homesteading beyond the widely acknowledged approaches, we are able to not only challenge the veracity of the Western frontier myth, but also complicate western identity and bring to the forefront marginalized narratives.