May 25, 2008

Nebraska’s Black Homesteaders

By Paul Hammel, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

May 25--EWING, Neb. -- For nearly a century, the sandy soil around Goose Lake concealed a secret: Freed black slaves once had struggled to settle the harsh plains.

That mystery might have remained buried if not for the chance discovery of a cast-iron toy pistol and the relentless searching of a retired Internal Revenue Service agent.

And on Memorial Day, Dennis Vossberg's pursuit of the ghosts of Bliss, Neb., will be in the spotlight.

Dozens of people, including at least three descendants of Bliss settlers, are expected for a 9:30 a.m. ceremony Monday at Valley View Cemetery, five miles south and 13 miles west of Ewing.

A granite monument, financed by donations, will be placed at the mass grave of up to 20 black homesteaders.

That grave includes the remains of as many as 10 settlers who were reburied from what then was called a "Negro cemetery," which blew open during the Dust Bowl.

A trio of local ranchers, who felt the settlers deserved a decent burial, hauled the bones and caskets using horse and wagon for reburial at Valley View. Ten more black settlers previously had been buried in unmarked graves at that location.

Vossberg, 59, published a book about the black settlement called "Hector's Bliss." He said there's great satisfaction in seeing a forgotten story, and now the forgotten graves, recognized.

"I feel like the guy on top of a mountain who kicks a few rocks loose, and they kick a few more rocks loose, and it creates an avalanche," he said.

As an IRS agent, Vossberg, of Plainview, Neb., said he was as interested in people's stories as in their tax returns. He'd heard ranchers in southern Holt County talk about black cowboys who once worked in the area.

The stories took on new meaning in 2005, when a cousin showed him the toy pistol found amid the ruins of a sod house just south of Goose Lake, near the Holt-Wheeler County line.

Soon, Vossberg was interviewing ranchers, digging through history books and cemetery records and hiking the marshy prairie in search of a settlement known as Bliss, after the founder of the country post office.

Black settlers arrived in southern Holt County around 1882, Vossberg said.

Former slaves, many had worked in coal mines in southeastern Iowa and were duped into buying the Nebraska land by land agents who told them the Goose Lake area offered both fertile land and coal. The agents "salted" some sand blowouts with scoops of coal to reinforce their ruse, he said.

While the "mine" played out quickly, he said, the dream of gaining ownership of 160 acres by living on the land for five years must have been a powerful incentive for the former slaves -- enough to keep them in the area despite inhospitable conditions for farming.

At the peak, there were 12 to 14 black families. Bliss had a community church and a school. Some ranchers still recall parents and neighbors who attended the school with the Bliss children.

One former slave, Hector Dixon, the main character in Vossberg's historical novel, rose to prominence, serving as schoolteacher, justice of the peace and driver for a creamery. Dixon amassed 1,000 acres of ranchland before he died in 1912, Vossberg said.

Bliss never was incorporated as a town, but its population may have risen to as many as 100 or 150 around 1890. It dwindled as settlers realized the sandy land -- marshy and under water one year; dry as the Sahara the next -- wasn't suited for farming and as better jobs became available in the city.

The last settlers left around 1918, Vossberg said. Since then, Mother Nature has obscured most traces of Bliss.

The sod houses crumbled, leaving only a rise in the prairie marking their location. A rectangular concrete foundation is the last remnant of the last post office. The last school now is a weather-beaten storage shed, hidden by trees along a dead-end trail.

Attempts to locate the original Bliss cemetery have been unsuccessful. Stan Lambert of Chambers, a farmer and long-time secretary of the Valley View Cemetery board, recalls his father telling him about discovering the exposed caskets and bones in the 1930s.

A tattered record book gives no hint to the identity of those re-interred at Valley View. Hand-written entries list the 10 other burials of black settlers. But those listings are incomplete and sometimes misspelled: "Newman girl,""Daisy Feres" and "Baby Feries."

A descendant of Bliss settlers, Eileen Watson, who lived in Lincoln, Grand Island and Omaha before moving to Selma, Ala., said genealogy research indicates that her great-great grandparents, John and Emma Fears, had three young children, Daisy, Louvie and Charles, who died on the plains of Bliss.

Watson, who gave talks about rural black settlements for the Nebraska Humanities Council from 1994-96, said she appreciates the efforts to uncover the nearly forgotten history.

Both she and Vossberg said they doubted that the Bliss settlers faced much discrimination, though there was some bigotry in every community.

"Everyone was just trying to make it," said Watson, a Lincoln Northeast graduate who plans to attend Monday's events with her two children, Tina Carriger and Dean Cloud, both of Lincoln.

Vossberg said that almost as an afterthought, he ended his book with a mention of how it would be fitting to place a monument on the unmarked, mass grave.

"It makes you kind of melancholy to think of these people who came so far, and are now and buried and forgotten," he said.

Donations of from $5 to $500 trickled in from readers and from the Valley View Cemetery. Then a friend, Dale Powers, who runs a monument shop in Plainview, offered his labor and expertise to finish the project.

"In memory of the black settlement of former slaves." the inscription begins. More than a dozen family names of the settlers, Dixon, Freeman, Patterson and others, are listed on the back.

The Memorial Day event, Vossberg said, will be a fitting final chapter.

"It's like a mystery story . . . once you get started, you get hooked, and then you don't know when to quit," he said.

--Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, [email protected]


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