Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Tens of thousands of African Americans moved into the Great Plains to begin new lives during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. These Plains settlers have often been referred to as Exodusters. Beginning in the 1870s and continuing into the 1890s, the Exodusters settled in all Great Plains states and territories, even as far north as Canada, but Kansas and what would become Oklahoma Territory were the main destinations.

Several factors–both push and pull–help explain this sudden and massive migration. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, western territories and states searched for ways to entice prospective settlers. Increased populations would bring statehood for territories and profits for land speculators and railroads, who owned a great deal of land and property. Territorial and state governments and the U.S. Congress passed a variety of land acts and other provisions to attract people to the region. The 1862 Homestead Act, for example, opened up opportunities for African Americans just as for other Americans. Local governments, private individuals, and companies also disseminated elaborate brochures, and newspaper and periodical advertisements solicited black individuals and families to relocate to the Plains. The often-unscrupulous western developers targeted African Americans because of a belief that they would be easy to attract with offers of free or low-cost land. Seldom did boosters and speculators admit that farming conditions, climate, and access to water were not what these immigrants were used to.

Although territorial and federal governments offered inducements to African Americans, a more immediate cause of black migration was the dire conditions of the post- Reconstruction South. The end of Reconstruction in 1877 led to increased racial violence, disfranchisement, loss of civil rights, and lack of economic opportunity for southern blacks. These hardships, combined with rumors of free transportation, free land, and even monetary gifts, led to a massive migration of African Americans to the Great Plains during the late 1870s. Men such as Henry Adams of Louisiana and Benjamin "Pap" Singleton of Tennessee organized and led large numbers of southern blacks to Kansas. Singleton made several trips to Kansas during the early 1870s and helped found several black colonies.

The migrations of 1879–in which 6,000 African Americans settled in Kansas–took on a religious tone. African American migrants saw themselves as taking part in a biblical exodus, with Kansas as the promised land. In 1879, often referred to as the Exodus Year, more than 20,000 black men, women, and children passed through St. Louis to Kansas and points west. Many never reached Kansas, settling instead in urban areas such as Kansas City, Missouri. More than 6,000, however, settled in rural Kansas towns, including all-black towns such as Nicodemus. This Plains town, platted in Graham County, Kansas, in 1877, is the best-known black town in the Great Plains. By 1879 it had a population of more than 600, making it the largest community in Kansas north of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. While Nicodemus was a major destination, it was only one of many all-black towns established in the Central Plains in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Other black towns included Langston, Oklahoma, founded in 1890; Boley, Oklahoma, founded in 1904; and Dewitty, Nebraska, also founded in 1904.

The Exodusters often had dreams of recreating the lush farmlands of their native states only to find that the unpredictable climate of the Great Plains thwarted their ambitions. By the late 1800s many had returned to their home states, but some, as in Nicodemus, learned to adapt to the new environment, use fertilizers, build water-diversion channels, and survive the harsh winters. The pioneers of African American settlement in the Great Plains–the Exodusters–anticipated the much larger black migrations from the South after 1910, migrations that were increasingly directed at large Plains cities.

Jack Ravage University of Wyoming

Athearn, G. Robert. In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879–1880. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

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