by Kevin M. Lyles, PLA, ASLA, and Robert Brunswig, PhD
The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 12th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document historic Black landscapes. Black people have built and shaped the American landscape in immeasurable ways. Documenting these histories and spaces will expand our understanding of America’s past and future.
The prevailing depiction of homesteaders settling the Great Plains of America is that of stoic white men and their supportive families. But people of all walks of life, races, and creeds sought new opportunities by heading west. Recent research indicates more than 26,000 Black people participated in homesteading the Great Plains, with about 3,500 successfully ‘proving up’ their claims (Edwards et al.). Like most homesteaders, Blacks sought opportunities to start over, obtain land at low cost, and build futures. Additionally, Blacks sought to escape oppression and rising post-Civil War “Jim Crow” racism. Many followed the teachings of Booker T. Washington, an African American intellectual who advocated for Black economic self-sufficiency and social advancement though hard work and vocational training, instead of political agitation. And so many headed west.
Unlike many white homesteaders, most Black homesteaders chose to settle together in rural communities as self-identified ‘colonies.’ Among those communities were Nicodemus (Kansas), Dewitty (Nebraska), Sully (South Dakota), Empire (Wyoming), Blackdom (New Mexico), and Dearfield (Colorado) (Friefeld et al.). Dearfield is exceptional because the colony’s main townsite remains one of very few that still has intact, original standing buildings. It was also one of the latest, established in 1910 when most of the West and Midwest’s desirable farmland and water rights were already claimed.
Located in the sand hills east of Greeley, Colorado, the colony consisted of a 320-acre platted townsite adjacent to approximately 19,000 acres of agricultural land. At its height, the colony as a whole was home to about 300 Black residents (Junne et al.). Both the colony and the townsite of Dearfield were founded by Oliver Toussaint Jackson, “who felt that the people of his race should be given an opportunity to achieve a degree of independence through agriculture which they could not experience as long as they continued to sell their services to others for a daily wage” (Jackson).
Utilizing the Homestead Act of 1862, a homesteader could acquire 160 acres for very little cost aside from toil needed to ‘improve’ the land and prove residency. Just prior to the colony’s founding, the Act’s allowable acreage was increased to 320 acres with passage of the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. The 1909 Act was prompted by emergence of the dryland farming movement which promoted increased agricultural production on drought-susceptible western lands through the use of deep plowing and summer fallowing practices and the development and use of drought-resistant crop varieties.
Located just fifty miles east and in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, precipitation at Dearfield has been historically unpredictable and often insufficient to sustain agriculture without supplemental irrigation. Ownership and use of water in Colorado are governed by the Colorado Doctrine, which aims to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number” in the state’s semi-arid climate. By 1910 most readily available water had been claimed or existing water rights were too costly for homesteaders to acquire. For this reason, Dearfield homesteads were farmed without supplemental irrigation through farming methods which formed the primary rationale of the 1909 Enlarged Homestead Act.
Many settled in the Dearfield townsite and its associated Black homesteads during a period of above-average precipitation, and many crops thrived. Unusually high rainfall, combined with the high prices and demand for crops during World War I, allowed dryland farming to be viable. In 1917, crops (wheat, corn, sugar beets, and vegetables) were valued at $50,000 (approximately $1,000,000 in 2021 dollars). High yields at a time of high prices supported the expansion of farming operations and the establishment of new business, such as a collaborative venture of Black Dearfield farmers who pooled money to buy modern harvesting equipment and hired themselves out to Black, Mexican, and white farmers at Dearfield and its surrounding high plains region. Community institutions and events such as a U.S. Post Office, four churches, an official county school, annual colony fairs, rodeos, and a baseball team enriched the lives of residents and visitors alike.
By the mid-1920s, crop prices declined and severe drought settled in, causing many homesteads to fail. The subsequent Dust Bowl and Great Depression in the 1930s led to the collapse of the colony, with most residents returning to city life. Only a few residents remained, including founder O.T. Jackson and his family and Squire Brockman, a blacksmith and fiddler who was one of the Dearfield townsite’s early residents.
According to researchers at the Center for Great Plains Studies, “For many Black homesteaders, their farms were seen as a transitional phase, carrying them from the horrors of slavery and Reconstruction to some better future in which their descendants’ lives were better but not necessarily tied to a family farm. Their “success” was thus not in whether future generations continued farming, but rather whether the homesteading generation equipped future generations with the life skills and education they would need to succeed in a wider world” (Friefeld et al.). From this perspective, Dearfield could be seen as a success. Although very few of Dearfield’s Black farms survived the Depression and harsh conditions of the Dust Bowl, many families came away with sufficient financial resources to purchase homes and property in Denver and other Colorado towns and cities that enabled them to better weather the hard economic times which followed the virtual demise of the colony.
Today the Dearfield story is being kept alive through oral histories of those who lived there and their descendants, and the research and preservation efforts of dedicated anthropologists, sociologists, and historians from the Black American West Museum (Denver, Colorado), the University of Northern Colorado, the City of Greeley (Colorado) Museum, Weld County (Colorado) government, Colorado State University, and the University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies, among others (Brunswig et al.). Both dedicated research and Dearfield townsite preservation activities have accelerated over the past decade, in a race against active threats of residential development. By 2020, a national homebuilding company had purchased 144 lots within the platted townsite, a National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) District, with the intent to build affordable housing within the boundaries of the historic site. Fortunately, the Black American West Museum was able to negotiate a land swap to preserve the townsite’s NRHP lots in exchange for twelve blocks of less significant land outside of the town center. Nonetheless, some portions of the original platted townsite had been earlier acquired and developed with residential homes, losing those areas to ongoing and future archaeological investigations.
Five archaeological field seasons have been conducted since 2011, consisting of archaeological and remote sensing (cesium magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar) surveys, excavations and laboratory analysis of artifacts and building remains, along with archival and historical document and photograph studies, 3-D laser scanning of Dearfield buildings, and high-resolution drone (UAV) photo-mapping surveys. Ongoing Dearfield research results are not only being published on their own but significantly inform the town and colony’s role in a wider ecumene of historic Black farming communities being documented by the University of Nebraska’s Black Homesteader Project (Edwards et al.).
Most of the above noted research has been performed since the publication of the Dearfield Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS CO-7) in 2012, which covered the entire 20,000-acre colony (Lyles et al.). A future update to the HALS documentation is planned in the next year or two, to incorporate this new information and provide a richer biographical and photographic description of this rare remnant of Black homesteading in the West.
Those who wish to learn more about Dearfield and its ongoing preservation and research programs may contact Dr. Robert Brunswig (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Dr. George Junne (George.Junne@unco.edu) at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado.
Brunswig, Robert Henry, George Junne, Ellyn Dickmann, Mark Brown, Gillian Bowser, and Erin Renfrew. Dearfield Dream Project: Developing an Interdisciplinary Historical/Cultural Research Network. Social Sciences 2, no. 3 (2013): 168-179.
Edwards, Richard, Mikal Brotnov Eckstrom, Jacob F. Friefeld. Black Homesteaders in the Great Plain: Historical Resource Study (Center for Great Plains Studies: Lincoln, NE, 2020), 61.
Friefeld, Jacob K., Mikal Brotnov Eckstrom, and Richard Edwards. “African American Homesteader “Colonies” in the Settling of the Great Plains.” Great Plains Quarterly 39, no. 1 (2019): 11-37.
Jackson, Oliver Toussaint. “Dearfield Colorado Townsite and Settlement.”
Junne, George, Jr., O. Ofoaku, Rhonda Corman, and Robert Reinsvold (2011) “Dearfield, Colorado: Black Farming Success in the Jim Crow Era.” In Enduring Legacies: Ethnic Histories and Cultures of Colorado, edited by Arturo Aldama, pp.101-118. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.
Lyles, Kevin, Robert Brunswig, and George Junne (2012). Historic American Landscapes Survey, Dearfield Agricultural Colony, Dearfield, Colorado. Colorado Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Denver.
Kevin Lyles, PLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect, principal, and founder of Confluent Design located in Colorado. He was the lead researcher and author for HALS CO-7, Dearfield Agricultural Colony (2012). Robert Brunswig, PhD, is a Professor Emeritus & Research Fellow for Anthropology at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Northern Colorado. Additional assistance was provided by Mikal Brotnov Eckstrom, Research Assistant Professor at the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
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For more information on the 2021 HALS Challenge, Historic Black Landscapes, please see this previous post. Each month between now and the July 31 HALS Challenge deadline, we’ve showcased historic black landscapes that are being documented for HALS, like Buffalo Soldiers of the Southwest Border, highlighted in June, or that have already been documented for HALS, like Daughters of Zion Cemetery, featured in May; Marian Anderson Heritage Village and the Anne Spencer Garden, featured in April; Allensworth: A Town Built by and for African Americans, featured in March; and the Smokey Hollow Community, featured in February. If you missed the HALS Challenge webinar on Acknowledging Historic Black Landscapes with Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA, NYCOBA-NOMA, Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., Joseph Disponzio, Ph.D., and Christopher Stevens, ASLA, the recording is now available.