Black Homesteading in the American Western Frontier

Photo Essay

Claim shanty

Following the end of the American civil war, thousands of African Americans migrated west in search of land, economic opportunities, and a reprieve from the political and social injustice of the South. The life that these pioneers found in the largely-unsettled West, however, was exceptionally challenging. While the settlers banded together, often forming their own bustling towns on the prairie, unpredictable rainfall and perplexing agricultural conditions made it difficult for these communities to support themselves. In the face of these complications and encouraged by the 1909 Enlarged Homestead Act, some of the so-called "Exodusters" who had moved to Kansas in the 1870s decided to attempt "dryland" farming on larger homesteads further west.

"The Dry," not far from Manzanola in southern Colorado, was for many years a small homesteading community that was home to a few dozen African American families. This part of the country was ill-suited for the farming techniques of the day, though, and most families did not stay in the region for more than a couple of decades. One notable family, the Craigs, held out until the early 1970s, when the family matriarch and The Dry's most famous resident, Lulu Mae Sadler Craig, passed away. Lulu Craig had been friends with George Washington Carver and was the subject of a 1970 documentary film, Happy Birthday Mrs. Craig.

In this AASC photo essay, anthropologist M. Dores Cruz (University of Denver) examines the general history of black homesteaders and the particular experiences of the settlers who chose to live at The Dry. The essay also includes a survey and photos of the archaeological dig that Cruz directed at The Dry between 2010 and 2012. Cruz's work at the site reveals a great deal about the everyday lives of black homesteaders and helps to preserve a fascinating, yet often-overlooked, aspect of American history.

(Photo courtesy of the author and the Denver Public Library.)

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