Index to “List of Free Negroes over the age of Twelve years in the Corporation of Staunton June 4 1851” Cathran Anderson F -washwoman Eveline Alestuck -house servant Henry Bird M -carpenter June Bird F Rebeca Baldwin F — Washwoman Patsy Brean -bound Lusy Brean -house servant Charles Brean -bound servant David Brown- apprentice to shoemaker Ben Brock M -labor Clary Brock F Robert Campbell M -barbor Murial Campbell F Mary Jane Campbell F Charlot Campbell F William Campbell M Luis Campbell M Thomas Campbell M -barber Lora Campbell F John H Fergenson -blacksmith Hugh Gaunt -blacksmith Jefferson Hall -labor Thomas Kinney -plaseter Charles Prean-carpenter Aron Shovler -shoemaker Frances Hatter — Washwoman Nancy Henry -house servant Jane Luis -washwoman Lucinda Lukis-washwoman Caroline Kinney (Alias Kenney) -washwoman Margaret More -washwoman Ann More -washwoman Sally Morris -washwoman Carline Moler -washwoman Mary Tyry -house servant William More Sarah Yates -washwoman Duffrey -boatman
Staunton (Va.) Free Negro and Slave Records, 1811-1861
Library of Virginia
Delbert DeWitty, a descendant of Miles DeWitty, (the firest Postmaster of the longest lasting African American settlement in the State of Nebraska) gave an excellent presentation in Lincoln, Nebraska. Check it out!
What a wonderful time we all enjoyed! The fellowship was just so amazing!
Last Monday, April 11, 2016, the Historical Marker was officially installed that celebrates the importance of the DeWitty African-American Settlement in a ceremony attended by close to 200 people. DeWitty was the longest lasting African-American, most successful rural settlement in all of, Nebraska.
Parked cars lined the side of the highway. Elementary and college students stood with bright eyes filled with interest and wonder. Many traveled from the various Ranches of the surrounding areas including Brownlee, Seneca, and Thedford. Valentine residents also came to learn, share and enjoy the greatness of the occasion. This occasion was a culmination of a lot of research, phone calls, fundraising and reaching out to the families of the homesteaders and the Sand Hill communities.
The great Ladies of Brownlee prepared a scrumptious midday meal to be enjoyed after the ceremony in the Brownlee Community Center. Sonny Hannaspearheaded a tour of the Sand Hills taking many of the descendants to the land their ancestors once made their homes and many were still interned there.
Rev.Khadijah Matin gave the invocation
Stew Magnuson, author of Hwy 83, “The Last American Highway”, was the master of ceremony and spearheaded The Descendants of DeWitty Team (Catherine Meehan Blount, Joyceann Gray, and Marcia Thompkins) in the making of this dream come to fruition. The great folks at the Cherry County Historical Society and the Nebraska State Historical Society quickly approved the application for the marker. And so it began, raising the money, buying plane tickets, gathering up old photographs as the excitement increased daily until 17 descendants came from all over the country to reconnect with a place that feels like home! They came representing the homesteaders who many traveled over 1700 miles from Canada and more from Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia to settle in the Sand Hills taking advantage of the Homesteader Act of 1862 and the amended Kinkaiders Act of 1904.
What is so important about this community is the bond between African American homesteaders of DeWitty and their white counterparts in Brownlee. The two communitieswere very isolated back then and despite differences of heritage and beginnings, they enjoyed a civil and caring relationship that continues up to this day. “Something the rest of America should learn from” stated local resident Shelley Christiansen. Ron Lee also voiced his opinion: “As far as race relations…I will say this..there was not one single person there at that dedication ceremony who was anything different than anyone else. We were just all people celebrating a time in the past where everyone worked together, And, though we’re not neighbors now, land-wise or ownership of the land-wise, we’re still neighbors. Lyn & Bruce Messersmith, Bree & Martin DeNaeyer, Byron & Mary Eatinger,and Ann Manning-Warren to just name a few of who open wide the doors of hospitality.
Lyn & Bruce Messersmith, Bree & Martin DeNaeyer, Byron & Mary Eatinger,and Ann Manning-Warren to just name a few of who open wide the doors of hospitality.
In the audience were some students that were taught by Goldie Walker Hayes, a renown teacher throughout the area. She is our maternal grandmother. They expressed their fond memories and shared so many pleasing stories of her grace, beauty, teaching ability and her kindness. This was so heartfelt and enriching for us who lost her while we were just small children.
Catherine, the granddaughter of Hester and Charles Meehan, spoke of the homesteaders struggles and delights and recited a poem her Dad wrote at age 17, speaking of an old footbridge across the North Loop River.
Yours truly, granddaughter of Roy and Goldie Hayes reminded the crowd: “Although the town was reclaimed by the land the legacy of the homesteaders carries on for they were a success! This town was not a failure. It wasn’t an experiment; it didn’t wither away because people couldn’t handle the weather – it was a testament to their vision. Which is to set roots down in a foundation for educating their children and giving them a chance at the American dream.”
We found our great grandfather, one of the original homesteaders
William P. Walker’s burial plot in the Brownlee Cemetery.
Charlotte Woodson (Granddaughter of Charlotte Riley Walker) with her daughter, Marcia Thompkins granddaughter of Boss Woodson, Rancher and Fernnella Walker Woodson, also a teacher in the county districts expressed her joy: “It WAS an awesome day! We, the descendants, made great connections, saw pictures we hadn’t seen before, heard more stories from the warm and welcoming people of the community that we hadn’t heard before, toured the land, found our ancestors resting places… I could go on and on! My life has been enriched beyond expectation, and I am forever positively changed!”
BackRow:Delbert DeWitty, (nephew of the Postmaster), Hershel Riley, Byron DeWitty, Artes Johnson& brother Maurice, (Grandson’s of Corena Walker- Williams) Garland Miles (Riley) Middle Row:Rev. Khadijah Matin, (Granddaughter of Roy and Goldie Hayes) Catherine Meehan-Blount, Jacob & Leah Ferrell, 3x Great grandchildren of William P. Walker, William Pegg, (Grandson of Roy and Goldie Hayes), Emerald Miles (Riley,) Phyllis Brown Denise Brown (descendants of Radford Speese, older brother of Charles Speese.) Joyceann Gray, (Hayes and Walker descendant). Seated front Row:Charlotte Woodson (Granddaughter of Charlotte Riley Walker) and her daughter Marcia Thompkins.
And so we met back up at the Brownlee Community Center and ate a delicious meal and chatted and shared while Ann Manning-Warren gave us a trip down memory lane!
Words from Lyn Messersmith, whose family opened their homes to us: 4/27/2016
The Lay of the Land
By Lyn Messersmith
Build It and They Will Come
They got it backward, but it worked. A group of Canadian-born Black families, former slaves, and their descendants came to a desolate and lonely region in the Nebraska Sandhills and built a community they called DeWitty, later renamed Audacious. Six hundred and forty acres seemed like a lot; surely enough to survive on, perhaps even prosper. Prosperity probably wasn’t a concept they dwelt on, so much as survival. That’s how it was in those days, and you didn’t have to be Black to know hard times in the hills. There were neighbors who understood that and welcomed them. The little town of Brownlee, a dozen or so miles downriver, had amenities that served the newcomers until they established businesses of their own, and interactions continued in the form of competitions at rodeos, baseball games and Independence Day celebrations. Brownlee had a community hall, and DeWitty had music makers, so there were dances too.
DeWitty residents were strong for education, which eventually contributed to the demise of the community. Young people went away to college, became doctors, teachers, ministers, and writers and the elders finally drifted away too, but memories of those years lingered around Brownlee and became the legend as I was growing up nearby. My dad and his peers spoke names like Speese, Riley, Turner, Hayes, and Woodson, with admiration and respect.
Stew Magnuson, an author with Sandhills roots, has traveled Highway 83 many times and chronicled the people and places along that route in a series of books. He became fascinated by stories about DeWitty, and recently spearheaded a project to raise funds for a historical marker about it.
On April 11, 2016, nearly two hundred people gathered at the marker for a dedication. Descendants of DeWitty came from both coasts and everywhere in between, and my family was privileged to host several of them. Sandhillers traveled more than a hundred miles to honor our common roots, and the ladies of Brownlee and surrounding communities put on a “Y’all come” feed in that old community hall. The rancher who owns much of the ground where DeWitty stood organized a tour for those who cared to see where their ancestors had settled, and others uncovered buried grave markers in the Brownlee Cemetery for family members to photograph.
As our guests departed for various destinations, they said the weekend had given them closure, and they felt like they had, in some sense, come home. I felt closer to my own family and more proud than ever of my heritage and neighbors.
Many people snapped pictures during that celebration, but I carry mine in my head; of women carrying more chairs to the community hall to accommodate overflow crowds, of a man with a shovel uncovering gravestones and a rancher’s plane sitting in a meadow near the marker. Of people walking half a mile back to their cars after the ceremony because of limited parking at the highway site, and children from a nearby school eating sack lunches brought along on the field trip.
DeWitty is gone, and Brownlee nearly so, but the spirit of neighborliness is not. There are memories of moments less proud in the minds of descendants on both sides, but healing is possible, and the marker celebration is proof of that.
A group of locals leaned on parked vehicles outside the Brownlee community hall and visited while waiting for the room to go in and eat. A thought came to me as we stood there, and as we drove away. It lingers now, as I look back on the event.
Historical Marker for DeWitty is installed.in remembrance of Nebraska’s largest and most well-known African-American rural community, off U.S. Highway 83 near Brownlee.
DeWitty was the town that had the audacity to think they could, and so they did.
Although the town didn’t survive and most of the land reclaimed itself, the legacy of those who came is evident by the descendants who will stand with us Monday, April 11. The driving force behind every plow, every nail driven, every sod wall built was with one purpose in mind. Not to build a lasting farming town but to be the stepping stone for their children’s futures. Each family ensured that education both religious and academic teaching were primary and the support to choose their direction was indeed encouraged for they were taught to believe they could grasp whatever star they reached for. Freedom to seek out adventure that beckons the bright and spirited minds.
So April 11, 2016
Just south of Brownlee turnoff, Highway 83 – we the descendants, neighbors, and friends will come together and shall honor the hard work of our ancestors, their drive, devotion, and visions. Remembering DeWitty pays homage to those who confronted racial barriers in the pre-civil war of United States, in Canada and in the Nebraska Sand Hills with a ‘we can overcome’ attitude. Remembering DeWitty gives anyone who knows their story a reminder that they can, too.” Contrary to various accountings for the reason of the demise of this town, DeWitty renamed Audacious centered their energies, visions, and struggles to achieve the American dream. They achieved their mission, and this is a fitting memorial for all their struggles.
So by chance you can come and plan to share at 10 am, April 11, 2016, please do; for after the ceremony, there is a planned potluck luncheon by the folks of Brownlee in the Community Center for all to meet and greet.
A few days ago, I was on my back porch, and I noticed a lovely butterfly landing on one of the plants. Wow, I wonder if she’ll stay long enough for me to go get my camera?? I dashed into the house, and, of course, the camera wasn’t ready. I had to stop and put the SD card back in. Feeling a bit deflated because I was taking so long, I just knew that the beautiful butterfly would be long gone. But I headed back out to where I saw it and low and behold she was still there!! As I snapped picture after picture I talked gently to her.
Black and beautiful as can be!
She was just fluttering from plant to plant, then holding still at times and posing for me. I was so excited for I had heard that when butterflies come to you they are in fact your ancestors coming to say hello with a meaning we have to find. Then later that day I went out to get the mail and up from the small group of flowers at the base of the mailbox stand, came two pure white butterflies. They both flew all around me as I walked back up towards the house. I changed my mind and veered off the driveway towards my small vegetable garden to see what was growing. The White butterflies continued to fly around in front of me. I saw there were string beans and a large green tomato that I wanted to harvest, so I headed back towards the house to get a bowl. Those butterflies followed me right up to the front door. Of course (as usual), as I entered the houseI got distracted, I changed shoes and went into my office and sat down at the computer. On top of papers directly under the computer screen; was a form from the Oklahoma Historical Society Research Center. My intention was to fill it out and request a copy of any records available for Polly Johnson, (paternal our great-grandmother). As I reached for a pen, I picked up the phone instead and called the number listed on the form.
I spent almost an hour on the phone with a lovely young lady Katie, who guided my search through various links and what we found…well I just had to take a moment and breath….I didn’t realize until then that I had been holding my breath and gritting my teeth so hard my jaw began to ache. Finally, after getting my breathing under control, I said a prayer of thanks, both to God and to the Butterflies!
These two images are Polly Johnson’senrollment card as a Creek Freedmen qualifying her for payment of 40 acres we found. Sadly, though it states that Polly was not mentally well enough to speak for herself. Her cousin Sally Roberts gave witness on her behalf. The back of her card (to the right) list Polly’s father; “Thursday” listed as a Seminole Freedmen, and her mother Elsie Doyle a full blood Creek. Other records support her mother’s bloodline.
Now I believe I understand why I couldn’t find our names on the rolls. Polly born 1845, was registered on the 1865 Dunn rolls before her first child was born, by the time the Dawes rolls were put in place (1906-1907) Polly had seen such hardship we hesitate to imagine. Her husband had died, left her penniless with five children, then her brother moved in as a widow, invalid and with two young daughters. As 1900 rolled in she was still struggling to make ends meet. Living with her extended family in a boarding house and washing clothes for 10-12 hours each day, seven days a week for so little pay. By 1903, Polly was in poor health, just plain worn out and with the help of Sally Roberts her cousin and other family members they moved her to Oklahoma nearer to her family. Her children were all grown and gone on to find their way in life, but she had her daughter Ida and many other family members to count on. Her oldest was John Grant Pegg, married to the former Mary Charlotte Page of Kansas, father, and a respected Republican in Omaha employed by the Mayor as the Weights and Measures Inspector. Her daughters Ida and Maggie both married and with families of their own. Not sure what happened to Robert but Bayless her second son by this time was up north with younger brother Charles homesteading on their cattle ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska. They eventually gave up the harsh life and Charles first moved to Illinois then onto Oakland, CA and Bayless moved to Chicago, IL.
Listed as a Freedmen was a mixed bag for many, it must have felt like being the ball in a ping-pong tournament First the mixed blood was accepted, and then the Five Tribes declared them noncitizens. This argument has continued to present day. Can the descendants of the mix blood and slaves of the Indians be counted as citizens of the Indian Nation, can they have the rights and privileges, voting and such?
So now what we do know is Polly Johnson’s father was Thursday and her mother Elsie Doyle and her cousin is Sally Roberts with a younger cousin Sid Kernel! Not bad for a phone call on a hot afternoon!
There is much more to this story, please follow me and get my updates.
Group Raising Funds for Nebraska Historical Marker on Highway 83
Spot near North Loup River on Hwy 83 in where the marker may be placed.
Descendants of a legendary Sand Hills settlement, the Cherry County Historical Society and a Nebraska-born author are teaming up to have a historical marker placed along Highway 83.
The Nebraska State Historical Society recently approved a roadside historical marker for DeWitty, the longest lasting, most successful African-American rural settlement in Nebraska.
DeWitty — in later years called Audacious — was first settled in the early 1900s by a group of homesteaders along the North Loup River in Cherry County, just west of present-day Brownlee. They were taking advantage of the Kinkaid Act of 1904, which allowed settlers to claim 640 acres of land, or one square mile, in the 37 counties that comprised the Sand Hills.
Now that the marker has been approved, the group is trying to raise the $5,100 the state historical society requires as payment.
Donations can be mailed to or dropped off at or mailed to:
Security First Bank
PO Box 480
Valentine, Nebraska 69201
Make checks payable to: “DeWitty Historical Marker Fund.”
The first group of DeWitty settlers came from Overton, Nebraska, in Dawson County. But they were originally from the Buxton Settlement, Kent County, Ontario, where many escaped slaves and free people of color resided. The settlement placed a high value on educating its children, an ethos they had brought from Canada. More than 100 families lived in the settlement during its roughly 40+ years of existence.
“The homesteaders of DeWitty were just that —Audacious,” says Catherine Meehan Blount, one of the Meehans’ last two living grandchildren. “They were Audacious for believing that the American dream belonged to them, too, and they were Audacious for committing all they had to attain that dream. Remembering DeWitty pays homage to those who confronted barriers in the pre-civil war United States, in Canada and in the Nebraska Sand Hills with a ‘we can’ attitude. Remembering DeWitty gives anyone who knows their story a reminder that they can, too.”
Joyceann Gray and Marcia Thompkins great granddaughters of DeWitty homesteaders William P. Walker and Charlotte Hatter-Riley Walker, say:
“When we can clearly mark where our ancestors have been — and by name — we can ensure the full story will be told and we can then better understand the purpose of our journey.”
Example of Nebraska State Historical Society Marker
“This is really the tale of two communities: DeWitty-Audacious and Brownlee,” says Stew Magnuson, former Nebraska nonfiction book of the year winner, and author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, which has a chapter on DeWitty-Audacious. “Relations between the two communities were by all known accounts, excellent. The mostly Danish settlers of Brownlee and the African-Americans in DeWitty held a July 4th picnic together every year. William Walker was the county Veterinarian supported both communities.
Some of the one-room schoolhouses were integrated. Teacher Goldie Walker Hayes and her one room school
There is also another photograph in history books that shows the Brownlee residents on the day they came to help build the DeWitty Church. People had to depend on each other in that remote, harsh land,” says Magnuson.
Magnuson first encountered the DeWitty story in a Nebraska land Magazine article he found in his grandparent’s home in Stapleton, Nebraska when he was a teenager.
“The thought that there was a black settlement in the Sand Hills blew my mind because I had been raised on a diet of Hollywood westerns and TV shows that portrayed the American West as populated only by white folks and Indians. The towns and homesteads were in fact far more multicultural and racially integrated than the media and history textbooks have portrayed.I hope the sign does a little to dispel that myth,” he says.
Thank you for your efforts and this excellent write-up!!
Just a side note: Goldie (my grandmother) and her sister Fernnella Walker were the teachers in district 164 and their brother George Riley was the director of the schools you spoke of!!!
Thanks for that great article, Stew, and all of your efforts to recognize and memorialize an important piece of American history! To add to Joyceanne’s side note, Fernnella Walker is my grandmother. Her husband, Charles “Boss” Woodson organized and lead the DeWitty dance band and was widely known (and remembered by many) in Cherry County for his impressive musical talents. 🙂
Now that the New Year is here and the holidays distractions are behind us, it’s time to get back on tract!
During the course of my researching various family members I have run across the terms Mulatto, White and Black all in the same census of one family. So I stopped and took a bit of a turn to research the words and why they might be used in this context.
The term “black” is often used in the West to describe people whose skin is darker. In the United States, it is particularly used to describe African-Americans. The terms for African-Americans have changed over the years, as shown by the categories in the United States Census, taken every ten years.
In the first U.S. Census, taken in 1790, just four categories were used: Free White males, Free White females, other free persons, and slaves.
In the 1820 census the new category “colored” was added.
In the 1850 census, slaves were listed by owner, and a B indicated black, while an M indicated “mulatto.”
In the 1890 census, the categories for race were white, black, mulatto, quadroon (a person one-quarter black); octoroon (a person one-eighth black), Chinese, Japanese, or American Indian.
In the 1930 census, anyone with any black blood was supposed to be listed as “Negro.”
In the 1970 census, the category “Negro or black” was used for the first time.
In the 2000 and 2012 census, the category “Black or African-American” was used, defined as “a person having their origin in any of the racial groups in Africa.” In the 2012 Census 12.1 percent of Americans identified themselves as Black or African-American.*