The Wild West of Yester-Year

Nicodemus, Kansas
By Rachel Kovaciny

In 1877, twelve years after the American Civil War, seven men founded the town of Nicodemus, Kansas. This doesn’t sound unusual until you learn that six of those seven men were black. Nicodemus became a thriving black community that showed the nation what former slaves could accomplish with little or no help from anyone but themselves. After the Civil War, many former slaves looked at Kansas as a “promised land,” like the Biblical land of Canaan the Israelites yearned for after they escaped slavery in Egypt. Why Kansas? Partly because abolitionists and pro-slavery forces tore it apart before and during the war, especially the famous John Brown. They knew it as a place where people had fought passionately to end slavery. And also because of the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed individuals or families to claim 160 acres of land, free and clear, if they lived on and farmed or otherwise developed the land for five straight years.

The Homestead Act drew many Americans to settle Kansas, but in movies, fiction, and even many history books, we seem to ignore or even forget many of those Americans were black, not white. In the mid-1870s, a white land speculator named W. R. Hill began talking up the beauties and opportunities of Kansas to African-American communities in Kentucky and Tennessee. The former slaves listened eagerly to his stories of rich farmland, few settlers, and a place to start their lives over fresh. Most interested of all was a black preacher, the Reverend W. H. Smith. Together with five other black men from Lexington, KY, Hill and Smith formed the Nicodemus Town Company, found a suitable site near the Solomon River for their community, and began recruiting potential settlers.


By the summer of 1877, they had 300 people. The Reverend Simon P. Roundtree was the first official settler, claiming his land in June. Zachary T. Fletcher and his wife Jenny (the Reverend Smith’s daughter) soon joined him. The rest of the settlers rode the trains to Ellis, Kansas, and traveled the last fifty miles on foot or on horseback. When the new settlers reached the “town” of Nicodemus in September, they discovered it was little more than a few sod huts. Undaunted, they built their own soddies and dugouts along the Solomon River. Within the first month, the first baby was born to the community, child of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Williams. Because they arrived so late in the growing season, the first settlers could not raise a crop that first year, and surviving until spring became everyone’s main concern. The majority were so poor they could not bring along proper farming tools. Many turned to working for the railroad for the first few months to provide food for their families. Others turned around and went back east or south. Still others sought help and provisions from the local Osage tribe.


In 1878, a fresh wave of settlers arrived, swelling the town’s population to over 600. These new arrivals brought seeds, horses, and farming tools. By the end of the Exoduster Migration of 1879, the townsfolk no longer needed the charity or help of others and were almost entirely self-sufficient. Soon they had a hotel, three churches, a school, and two stores. During the early 1880s, the town prospered. A series of good farming years and a continued influx of new settlers meant by the mid-1880s, stone buildings had replaced most of the sod ones. While the land around Nicodemus was good for farming, it had very little timber, so the town had few wooden buildings. Many settlers lived in the Nicodemus area for only a few years, proving up on their claims and selling them so they could move farther west. When the railroads bypassed the town in the late 1880s, Nicodemus dwindled. After an economic depression struck in 1890, most of the townsfolk moved to Bogue, where the railroads had gone instead.


But Nicodemus did not become a ghost town. Though most of the businesses closed, it remained a social gathering point for people all around it, hosting dances, an annual emancipation celebration, horse races and baseball games well into the twentieth century. You can still visit Nicodemus, as a National Historic Site, and see the two churches, a school, the town hall, and a home originally owned by the early settlers, Zachary and Jenny Fletcher, which also served at various times as a post office, school, and stagecoach station. The town is the longest-lasting African-American community in Kansas, a monument to the intrepid pioneers who staked their lives on the chance to begin anew.