Nicodemus Part 1: Into the Land of Smoking Holes

Dugout: aka “smoking hole”
(Kansas State Historical Society Photo)

“9 MONTHS OF SUMMER” the hand bills promised the freed slaves during the Reconstruction Period. All they had to do was travel west to stake their claim. When they showed up, they found smoking holes. Click here for the fascinating story of Nicodemus, Kansas….

It began with a promise.

The Promise

Newly-freed slaves living under Jim Crow in post-Reconstruction Kentucky and Tennessee were given a chance to own their own land. A quarter section of it – 160 acres. All they had to do was show up to claim it.

The catch?

The land was located in Kansas.

Still, many decided a new life in an unknown land was worth the voyage from familiarity to frontier.

Truth and Grace Hannah
Nebraska Homesteaders
(Kansas State Historical Society Photo)

So begins the story of Nicodemus, Kansas.

Recently, mule Polly and I took a break from searching for marine fossils to visit Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, Kansas

Enter Angela Bates.

Angela Bates
Nicodemus, Kansas

Angela runs the Nicodemus Historical Society Museum. She explained what the freed slaves found when they showed up to homestead their claims. They found much of what I did. Expanses of grass so vast as to blur the foreground and horizon in a sea of waving blades.

The land of opportunity?

Willina Hickman, one of the settlers who had been lured to the Kansas plains by handbills promoting “9 MONTHS OF SUMMER” and “3 MONTHS OF FALL AND SPRING” was in for a start when she first laid eyes on Nicodemus.

9 Months of Summer

Making her final miles across the treeless, windswept landscape, lured by the promise of upper-case promoted “CHOICE FARMING LANDS”, she was overcome with second thoughts.

“I looked with all the eyes I had. ‘Where is Nicodemus? I don’t see it.’ My husband pointed out the various smokes coming out of the ground and said, ‘That is Nicodemus.’ The families lived in dugouts… The scenery was not all inviting and I began to cry.”

Dugout life: the source of “smokes coming out of the ground”
(Kansas State Historical Society Photo)

To listen to Angela Gates explain Nicodemus’ start, click on the audio player below

Coming next, Angela Bates explains how Nicodemus got its name.


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