Dearfield, Colorado: Homesteading and the Dream of Black Independence Through Agriculture

by Kevin M. Lyles, PLA, ASLA, and Robert Brunswig, PhD

Black-and-white portrait of Oliver Toussaint Jackson
Oliver Toussaint Jackson moved to Colorado from Ohio in 1877 at the age of 24, establishing and successfully operating a catering business, cafes, a small resort, and a farm in the Denver and Boulder areas. Largely on his own personal initiative, Jackson formed the Negro Town Site and Land Company in 1909 and began purchasing homestead land in the Dearfield area under the Desert Act of 1877 in 1910. / image: James A. Michener Library, University of Northern Colorado

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.

Continue reading