The Exodusters: Part 2

When March 1879 hit, the Exodusters were ready to go.

They came from all parts of the South. Mississippi was well represented, as was Texas.  Many Exodusters were from Tennessee, where Benjamin “Pap” Singleton had been particularly active. Others came from Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia.

Their numbers could only be estimated, but the following spring the postmaster of Topeka stated that somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 blacks had arrived during the Exodus.

Wandering in the Wilderness

Unfortunately, the hopes of many of the Exodusters were unfulfilled on their journey. Not only was General Sherman nowhere to be found, but free accommodations were lacking.

The first major obstacle was the Mississippi River. For months the banks of the river were lined with black people camping out waiting for the steamboats. When the boat captains unanimously refused to take them aboard without payment, the Exodusters paid their passage, determined to continue. Still, delays were inevitable. The steamboats could not possibly carry all of the passengers clamoring to get aboard.

When the boats landed in St. Louis, the Exodusters found themselves faced with another obstacle—crossing the state of Missouri. Here again free lodgings and transportation were absent. Many Exodusters were forced to sleep next to the river and decide how to continue their journey in the morning. While a few could afford train tickets, all too many were forced to set out across Missouri on foot.

Settling the Land

Fortunately, when the Exodusters arrived in Kansas, Pap Singleton was waiting for them. There were no government tools or mules to be had, but Singleton had discovered how to obtain free land through the Homestead Act.

The railroads had largely occupied the best farmland in Kansas, and these properties were only available to those who could afford them. The land covered by the Homestead Act was far less inviting. The Exodusters found themselves scattered across the uplands of central and western Kansas, dry and rugged acreage that thwarted many a farmer.

Like the white homesteaders, the Exodusters had hopes of changing the unforgiving climate through agriculture, clinging to the maxim that “rain follows the plow.” Kansas soil, however, simply refused to act like the soils of the humid South, even for those who were properly equipped. Those who had blissfully set forth with nothing but the clothes on their backs and expectations of receiving free implements found matters even worse.

By 1880, only a third of the Exodusters had any hope of becoming self-sufficient, provided that they persevered a little longer. The remainder were absolutely destitute or were living on the aid of the Kansas Freedman’s Relief Association, founded by Governor John St. John the previous year.

Disillusioned, the Exodusters began to scatter. Some moved back to fairer climates. Many again hired themselves out to white farmers, albeit on more favorable terms than they had received in the South. Others became laborers in cities such as Wichita, Topeka, and Kansas City. Still others, determined to carry on, colonized with the help of Singleton and the Kansas Freedman’s Relief Association. Many took refuge in the famous all-black town of Nicodemus, founded in 1877 and now a National Historic Site.

Letters traveling back to prospective settlers still in the South admitted that many of the rumors that had started the Exodus were false. The only free lodging and supplies were graciously provided by donation to deal with the Exoduster crisis. Those who followed the footsteps of the Exodusters were careful from that time on to save their money first so that they could afford tools, draft teams, and better farmland.

Helpful Resource

History and information to help you plan your trip from the National Park Service.