Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Homestead Act and New Trails across Kansas

Imagine reading flyers posted outside the local mercantile that promised affordable land with rich soil, a healthful climate, and railroad access. President Lincoln’s signature on The Homestead Act of 1862 led thousands to respond to these booster mantras. In addition, railroads promoted and profited from newly acquired government lands. As a result, schemers and developers publicized the region labeled “The Great American Desert” on maps as a way to live the good life and get rich at the same time. Man and machine-made trails soon riddled a country once traveled only by game, indigenous peoples, and a few hardy trappers and explorers passing through.

Dreamers and the downtrodden looking for opportunity headed west. W.R. Hill, a developer, joined with African American minister Reverend W. H. Smith to form the Nicodemus Land Company. They promoted a town site and farmsteads along the South Solomon River in western Kansas. One group interested in promises of country filled with plenty of wild game and affordable land included slaves emancipated from former Vice-President Richard Johnson’s estate in Kentucky. This group and others gathered what they imagined they needed to farm their own acres and bought Union Pacific tickets to the Promised Land.

After a long journey, these first immigrants arrived in Ellis in June of 1877. They discovered this was not the end of their travels. They still had a journey of about 35 miles to their new homes. This humble group that began an historic Kansas community walked behind a wagon filled with their meager belongings to begin the Ellis/Nicodemus trail, a route they and other newcomers would travel to and fro many times during the following months and years.

Keep in mind these fresh arrivals were from the South, a well-watered land with established agriculture. They arrived on the high plains at the beginning of summer so they would’ve scanned acres covered with still-green buffalo grass and emerging blue stem rather than thriving farmland. Used to seeing groves of hardwood trees, they’d have wondered at the scarcity of such on the plains and at the lack of variety they’d used to build and warm their former homes. Rivers where they came from were wide and deep, so their first jaunt across Big Creek in Ellis would have triggered some mumbles. What they say when they first saw the Saline and South Solomon?

For the next few years, the Ellis/ Nicodemus Trail became the standard route between the two communities. According to old Ellis Headlight and Nicodemus news articles, these newly minted agriculturists and businessmen brought grain to the mill, broken tools to the blacksmith, and their sick and injured to the company doctor available in the thriving railroad community of Ellis. One report described the excellent quality and quantity of broomcorn delivered by Nicodemus farmers. Another detailed how the railroad doctor set a Nicodemus man’s badly broken leg.

Today, that trail is a memory and a few references in old newspapers. If local historian Angela Bates has anything to say about it, this route will once again be marked and affiliated with the Nicodemus Historic Site. This path offers evidence that peoples of the prairie didn’t live isolated lives. It indicates connections between rural communities that still exist even if the roads between them are different.

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