Untold Stories of Black Homesteaders in South Dakota

Home on Blair Homestead

A large part of Clara’s Journal focused on women whose lives defy the popular narrative, whose stories of bravery, resilience, talent, and success are so often left out of our national discourse. 

And it turns out that a story I missed, a story also ignored, was that of the thousands of African Americans who homesteaded in the Great Plains in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

One of my favorite parts about writing Clara’s Journal was the research: the books, the websites, the journals, the newspapers, ancestry.com, the phone calls, the emails, the family papers. And one of my favorite parts of the research, of reanimating lives from the past, was discovering how many of our assumptions about the lives of so many people are simplified to an inaccurate caricature.

After talking to a couple of readers, I decided to develop lesson plans that could be used in conjunction with the book. And last week, I finally finished the American History lessons after making the English/Language Skills and Map Skills plans available for both teachers and homeschoolers.

One topic addressed in the American History Lesson Plan is homesteading on the Great Plains. After all, Clara’s father, George Horen, was an early homesteader in the Dakota Territory, arriving in 1882, building a sod house, and eventually marrying and raising four children.

In my research for the Lesson Plan, I learned about the African American homesteaders. It’s a story left out of history books as well as out of pop culture; westward expansion is typically considered a purely Anglo-American experience. 

I love these stories of unexpected perseverance that challenge the popular narrative! I wish I had known about this when I had written the book so I could have included it. Instead, I’ll retell it here.

First, the Homestead Act had no race or gender requirements to qualify for land out west. The only requirement was citizenship or the intention to become a citizen, which opened the opportunity to immigrants). As a result, many women made claims, including George Horen’s wife Florence. In 1866, a civil rights act declared that all blacks were citizens of the United States, thus making homesteading available to them going forward. One of the most famous African Americans to homestead was George Washington Carver (in Kansas). Another famous settler was Oscar Micheaux, the first black filmmaker in Hollywood. He was also the author of two novels recounting his experiences homesteading: The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913) and The Homesteader (1917) – the second of which he made into a film (1919). 

About 30% of black homesteaders lived on claims independently, but the other 70% made claims in “colonies” with other African Americans. The six most successful colonies were Nicodemus, KS; Dearfield, CO; DeWitty, NE; Empire, WY; and Blackdom, NM; and Sully County, SD. Since Clara’s Journal focuses on South Dakota, I did some digging on the history of Sully County, an area about 100 miles SW of Cresbard and 40 miles north of Pierre (the capitol), along the Missouri River. 

One family in particular is credited with the creation of the Sully County Colored Colony, whose population peaked at 200: the Blairs.

Norvel Blair

Early information about patriarch Norvel Blair is contradictory and full of holes, which isn’t surprising since he was born into slavery in Montgomery County, Tennessee, the son of slaves Norvel and Lucy Blair. According to his autobiography, he was born in 1825 and belonged to an orphan girl named Mary Keteral. (I cannot find any information on her or any other of the Keteral family). When he was eight years old, he had to leave his parents behind when he was sold to Urich Lyson, whose family lived in Indian Territory. While there, he married slave Mary Elizabeth Bagby, who was half Cherokee. In the years that followed, he was sold and swapped numerous times, moving around Tennessee and Arkansas. The couple had five children during their years as slaves. Once they were free, thanks to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, they had two more children.

Once free, Norvel moved with his wife, seven children, and his parents to Grundy County, Illinois, where he was a successful landowner and entrepreneur and even a school teacher. But he became a victim of the racism that was rampant in the area. His book (which you can read HERE), with the unwieldy title Book for the People! To Be Read by All Voters, Black and White, with Thrilling Events of the Life of Norvel Blair, of Grundy County, State of Illinois: Written and Published by Him, and with the Money He Earned by His Own Labor, and Is Sent Out with the Sincere Hope that if Carefully Read, It Will Tend to Put a Stop to Northern Bull-Dozing and Will Give to All a Free Ballot, without Fear, Favor or Affection and Respect, is a detailed recitation of how his attorney and a judge swindled him out of his property. He wrote about threats and about his home being robbed and riddled with bullets and of the “racial hypocrisy of wealthy Illinois Republicans who [took] advantage of … struggling Black settlers, cheating them with maliciously cooked-up land deals.”

For an uneducated man born into slavery, Norvel had incredible business sense, a relentless sense of justice, and a never-ending ability to rise above and find success. For someone who could have claimed every excuse possible for failure, his success is nothing but admirable and inspiring. I can’t emphasize it enough.

Norvel knew it was time to leave Illinois. In 1882, he sent two of his sons, Benjamin and Patrick, to the Dakota Territory to check out the homesteading opportunities. In 1883, Sully County opened up for homesteading, and the boys decided this was a great place for their family. So in 1884, Norvel took his family to Fairbank Township along the Missouri River. 

1916 Map of Fairbank Township

In the partial map of Fairbank Township from 1916 below, you can see Norvel’s original homestead plot in section 1 on the top right corner. Also, the town of Fairbank consisted of Upper Fairbank (section 4) and Lower Fairbank (section 8), which you will find along the Missouri River on the left side of the map. 

Close up often right corner of 1916 Map of Fairbank Township

At the time, the town of Fairbank was seriously considered a top contender for the capital of the Dakota Territory, and it quickly boomed, with a hotel, stores, and many new homes. According to The History of Sully County chapter on Fairbank Township (written in 1923), the town had a 100 foot long skating rink, a race track, four saloons, and three newspapers (Fairbank TimesFairbank Tribune, and Fairbank Pilgrim)! In 1884, Fairbank competed with the towns of Oneida and Clifton as the county seat of Sully County. And word was that the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad planned to build its railway through the town and then over the Missouri River. In fact, the railroad bought land in and had begun surveying and platting the area. But soon after, the railroad sold the land.

Map of Chicago & Northwestern tracks in South Dakota. The northern track ends before it reaches Fairbank on the river while the southern track goes all the way to Pierre.

Many families invested in the town, including the Blairs, who had purchased a number of lots. But in a vote, Oneida won the title of county seat, and the railroad decided to build rails to Pierre and to cross the river there.

Fairbank quickly collapsed, and soon many families abandoned the town. The Blairs, however, remained. And they were successful on many levels. They engaged in multiple businesses, and also established and supported local schools.

For one, the Blairs became extensive landowners, raising livestock and growing crops, with six of the children having their own land claims. But they also were instrumental in attracting other African American homesteaders, sending out a “welcoming invitation to all hardworking farmers and dreamers of African descent.” In 1903, Norvel’s daughter Betty moved to Des Moines, Iowa, and worked for the King Real Estate Company. She specialized in the sale to African Americans of land in Sully County, which ultimately added up to thousands of acres. “Like most land agents she was pretty good at embellishing a tale,” recalled Fern Barber, a teacher in the area in the 1950s. “She went back east to recruit buyers and even got them to believe there weren’t any flies in South Dakota.”

In 1906, Betty’s brother Benjamin joined with other African Americans and formed the Northwestern Homestead Movement, which sought to attract blacks to settle in colonies in South Dakota, such as the one in Sully County. The president was Reverend John C. Coleman, a pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Yankton, SD. His goal was to convince blacks to leave “congested districts” in the east and south and help them live independently as farmers. The organization’s goal was to bring “a better class of intelligent negroes from the southern states to South Dakota, to file on land in colonies and in the case of those having the means, to buy land outright.” The new homesteaders worked together to create a true community; they built churches and organized baseball teams, reading circles, choral groups, newspapers, investment clubs, sewing circles, and dances and celebrations.

The Blair children were already educated when they arrived, and all the black homesteaders had a great belief in educating their children. The Blairs helped found and operate the local schools. Norvel, who worked as a teacher when he lived in Illinois, even pledged 1,700 acres of his land to build an agricultural college in the community meant to educate African Americans in the farming methods best suited to the Great Plains. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition. However, his son Benjamin became the first African American to be on a school board in South Dakota, serving as chairman of the Fairbank School District for ten years. 

The Blairs were also entrepreneurs. Benjamin and Patrick operated a livery in Fairbank. In 1901, daughters Betty (the one who later went into real estate in Des Moines) and Winnie moved to Pierre and opened a restaurant and bakery. Another daughter, Nancy, married the Rev. Cornelius Wright, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church. 

Norvel also had a passion for horse racing. He had brought his Morgan racing horses from Illinois and continued to breed them, opening the livery with his sons in Fairbank. They became well known for the success they had raising racehorses, taking their horses throughout the region on the racing circuit. One of their horses, Johnny Bee, held the record for the fastest horse in the state from 1907-1909. He was described as dark brown, with a “luxurious mane and tail,” and was a high-spirited, dependable racer, “always getting off to an unusually fast start.” Norvel was quoted as saying, “Racing horses is a fine sport for any man, as it teaches him how to be a good winner and good loser, and if you can’t be both, you should never race horses.”

Another of Norvel’s sons, John Wesley, was the only one to not live in Sully County. He moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, and was employed by the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad as a Pullman Porter. George Pullman invented and manufactured the Pullman sleeper car, and he often hired former slaves to work as porters; their job was to carry luggage, shine shoes, set up the sleeping berths, and serve passengers as needed. It was a job highly sought after. As a result, Wesley, as he was called, was well travelled and well read. He continually supplied his family in South Dakota with reading material that kept them appraised of what was happening in the world.

Wesley briefly earned nationwide fame in 1894, when he received special recognition from the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad that included a lifetime job and a gold watch. It was in that year that a huge fire destroyed not only Hinckley, Minnesota, but five other towns and over 400 square miles; estimates are that 600 people were killed. And the train that Wesley was working on that September 1st rode right through it, catching on fire. He is credited with saving many lives. According to news reports, “Utilizing his knowledge of the country, (Wesley) Blair hurried the passengers to a marshy spot in the forest and ordered them to lie down until the fire danger had passed.” 

However, the firsthand accounts of the event are simply terrifying. A pamphlet written by Swede local Gudmund Emanuel Åkermark relates personal stories from that horrific day. What follows are some stories from that document.

The train was headed south from Duluth, expected in Hinckley at 4:06 PM. But before it arrived, the sky grew black with smoke. Soon, 

the engineer, James Root, stood imperturbably calm at his post, a veritable hero in mind and action. The fire threw itself in from all directions, through the windows in his cab, singing his hair, half peeling off his face and hands, but anyhow he held up. Not [even] when his clothing caught on fire did he show the inclination to give up the unequal fight. With amazing calm and unusual cold bloodedness, he ordered the fireman, John McGowan, to pour water on him, and with a still firmer grip on the steering pole, he drove the burning train with a speed of 60 miles an hour further, further towards the goal for saving. Three times his clothing caught on fire and three times he was drenched with water by the fireman.

The scene in the passenger cars was just as bad, but not everyone remained calm: 

Strong men, who one should believe possessed nerves of steel, have lost [their] senses by the fear and the results of the intense heat and suddenly threw themselves out of the windows of the cupés — right into the glowing forge [of fire] there outside, their death cries out-shouted by the fire’s roar. Upon the car’s floor laid women and children immersed in burning prayers, begging Him, who directs everything, to be spared [their] life. The small ones clung verified to their mothers, both with them or summoned by their anxious cries of distress.

At some point before reaching Hinckley, the train stopped, unable to continue forward. And at that moment, a passenger explains, 

a mass of people pushed forward from the edge of the woods on our left side. They were fleeing city residents, who came to seek saving on board the train, and when they came up to the barbed wire fence by the railroad embankment, I saw how the men pulled and pushed the women and children through the same without concerning themselves at all that the clothing thereby was cut into rags and that the fence barbs scraped deep into their bodies. They jumped, staggered or crawled in wild crowding up the track embankment and entered one by one into the train cars. I pulled myself quickly back into the car and pulled down the window just at the same moment [when] the flames from the sea of fire reached us and began to lick the outsides of the train, which at the same moment began to back up.

The engineer had made the decision to reverse course.

We had gotten going nice and easy when the one cupé windowpane after the other fell in with crashing sounds from the heat. The men hurried to pull away the window shutters and roller shades [down], but a half-minute later, even these were eaten up by the fire, and the flames pushed freely in through the openings. Some competent women then cut loose the seat coverings, wetted these in the water containers and held them up before/over the windows. During this time, the train had increased [its] speed to full pressure. It made for a furious lurch, and I thought for a moment that we had gone off the track, but soon it was on the right keel again and continued unimpeded on its unbelievable race. So gradually we succeeded to lay the sea of fire a bit behind us, but a whole length of a car stood in hissing flames. After a further 10 minutes of travel, we came into a region of smoke, which felt significantly cooler, and in the next moment, the train’s speed slowed and [it] finally stopped.

They had reached Skunk Lake. Wesley is the Negro referred to in the following recounting:

Now a general rushing out of the cars began when someone called, “Stay onboard!”, and several women turned [and re-entered] into the cars. They were immediately afterwards burned up. I observed that the grass was short and wet at the place where we climbed out, so that it was apparent that the fire should not catch fire in it and spread. We all laid ourselves prostrate on the ground with [our] faces pressed tight against the wet swampy ground. …I crawled on all fours forward over the ground to a place that seemed to be a dried out riverbed. There we laid down. The air was filled the whole time with sparks and embers and the women’s clothing constantly caught fire. An attendant in our car, a Negro, stood with [his] back towards the fire and took care with a fire extinguisher, which he had the presence of mind to take with him from the train, and with this piece of equipment, he was ready to immediately squelch the fires as soon as they flamed up on the women’s and the children’s clothing. He was a brave and competent man.

Another passenger, G. L. Gorman, told of his experience after leaving the train:

I know that many continued the flight on foot northwards from the track after they had climbed down from the train, for I and my wife started in the same direction, and we saw a whole bunch fleeing before us. The wind threw such masses of embers over us that I decided to turn back in order to reach the little open patch we had glimpsed to the right from the point where the train had stopped. I did not know that there was there a little collection of water but raised the weak hope that the opening should give us protection. The train’s porter, John [Wesley] Blair, was the one who first mentioned the water’s nearness and pointed out that we should get down in it.

Gorman estimated that there were about 80 passengers aboard the train and that 50 more people jumped on when the train stopped near Hinckley. Yet when rescue teams arrived to the marsh, only 50 had survived.

According to the chapter on Fairbank in the 1938 book The History of Sully County, Grandfather Blair, as he was called by locals, “was a remarkable memory and he was an interesting man in conversation. It can be said that he set us all a good example by his industry. When almost ninety years old he would take a team, go to the cornfield and snap a fair-sized load of corn for the hogs.”

Novel died in 1916 and was buried in Blair Cemetery, along with his wife Mary, his sons Benjamin and Patrick, and his daughter Winnie. Another man instrumental in the success of the Sully County Colored Colony who is buried at Blair Cemetery is John McGruder.

John McGruder

John McGruder was also born a slave, on April 4, 1850, in Bethel, Missouri. The woman who would become his wife and the mother of his nine children, Ellen Kenchylo (sometimes spelled Kinchelow) was born a slave in Bethel on June 12, 1852.

When they were emancipated in 1863, John became very successful, even purchasing some of the land on the plantation where he had been a slave. There he farmed but also trained and raised race horses. In fact, one of his horses won a race at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The prize was the choice of $100 or a large wrought-iron range. John chose the stove, the date 1893 inlaid in granite. Great-grandson Cecil recalls, “It was beautiful, made of marble and inlaid silver. It was too pretty to use, so it just sat there, all those years.”

Soon John and his wife Ellen wanted to expand their land holdings, and in 1907, they purchased 1,200 acres in Sully County, Betty Blair brokering the deal, her largest one. A year later, the entire family relocated to Fairbank Township. They were very successful, with three hundred head of cattle, three thousand sheep, and thirty race and work horses. 

John McGruder died in 1913 after being ill for a year. Sadly, it didn’t take long for his wife Ellen to lose the land, unable to pay the mortgage. However, by 1920, she had been approved for a homestead claim of 160 acres, which she worked with her son William.

Sadly, on January 14, 1937, 84-year-old Ellen was adding kindling to a fire when her clothes caught fire, burning her severely. A snow storm had blocked the roads, but many went to work trying to clear a path so that she could get to a doctor. But they were unsuccessful. And according to The History of Sully County, “a week later, ‘Grandma McGruder’ as she was lovingly called by all, passed quietly away.”

This was in the middle of the Great Depression, which hit the community particularly hard; most of the African American families left the area entirely. The McGruders were the only ones that remained. And as recently as 2019, a McGruder still lived on (or rented out) Ellen’s homestead. 

A woman writing about Fairbank and Sully County Colored Colony in the 1930s noted that “Unlikely surpassed by any county in the state are these people of dark skin, who are always kind, friendly, and jovial, and who have a multitude of friends.” And one of the last McGruders to live in the area, Cecil, the great-grandson of John McGruder, said of the early years in Sully County, “I had no problem whatsoever. I did not run into a lot of prejudice. Never had a problem with places like banks either. In fact, sometimes bankers lent me money when maybe I shouldn’t have gotten it.”

So African Americans homesteaded not only in the Great Plains, but specifically in South Dakota and in Sully County. And their story should be told – the story of the Blairs, the McGruders, and the thousands of other African Americans born in slavery, emancipated by President Lincoln in 1863, who formed families, and then found great success across the Great Plains. These men and women faced unimaginable obstacles, agonizing hardships, and prejudiced assumptions. Yet they persevered, against huge odds. 

It seems to me, we should be sharing these stories of accomplishment as a way to inspire gratitude among those who see themselves as helpless victims.

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