There is an abundance of information on the American West, but start digging in, and you’ll find a gap. There is little history accessible on African Americans and their lived cultural and political lives as generations moved to, settled in and shaped the West. In fact, one-quarter of the cowboys who have so profoundly defined “the West” as we think of it were indeed African American.
Across the West, a few all-Black settlements were established in the early days of westward expansion. And one of those settlements was called Dearfield, Colorado. With little-to-no farming experience, little money and no experience in homesteading, through their hard work, the people became successful. The Dust Bowl and the inability to obtain irrigation water doomed Dearfield and other farming communities on the eastern high Plains to become the ghost towns that we now see scattered across the region. But even though the bricks began crumbling and the voices faded from the town, Dearfield is still a place where the true story of life in the early West lives.
Oliver Toussaint Jackson was born April 6, 1862, in Oxford, Ohio. He was the son of Hezekiah and Caroline Jackson, two former slaves. They named him after Toussaint L’Ouverture, the runaway slave who successfully overthrew the French in Haiti in 1804. Hezekiah had learned to read and made sure all six of his children did, too. At the age of 25, Oliver Jackson did what so many in generations that followed would do: Go West. He moved to the Denver area (which had a population that soared from 4,579 in 1870 to 106,713 by 1890) and got a job as a caterer. He settled into the Colorado life and in 1889, he married Sarah “Sadie” Cook, a relation to the famous composer Will Marion Cook.
In 1894, Jackson made the short move from Denver to Boulder to manage the Stillman Café and Ice Cream Parlor on Boulder’s beloved Pearl Street. He became a staff manager at the Chautauqua Dining Hall in 1898, supervising 70 people. Customers paid $5 a week or 35 cents a meal. After working in management for some years, he opened his own restaurant on 55th and Arapahoe, where the Boulder Dinner Theatre is now located. His restaurant was famous for its seafood, particularly the oysters. Jackson made enough money that he bought a farm that he owned for 16 years. But in 1908, Republicans won the spring election, making Boulder a dry town and prompting Jackson to make the move back to Denver.
There, Jackson began a 20-year career as messenger for Colorado governors. While he was working for Gov. John F. Shafroth, Jackson was determined to make good use of his political connections and actualize his dream of starting an agricultural colony where Black Americans could own homes and control their municipal government, schools and farms. He forged ahead with his plans, using whatever support he was able to receive from Denver officials as well as the Colorado State Teachers College and the State Agricultural College (University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University, respectively). In May 1910, he filed a homestead entry on a tract of land outside Greeley. On February 4, 1914, he purchased 40 acres of land for $400 and the community was officially born.
Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook of Denver a physician and one of the first settlers of Dearfield, gave the colony its name. At the June 12, 1909 meeting of the founding team, he articulated the sentiments of his colleagues in these words:
“We plan to make this our home. These are to be our fields and because they are ours and because we expect and hope to develop them and make them into substantial homes, they will be very dear to us, so why not incorporate that sentiment in the name we select and call our colony Dearfield.”
The first group of settlers moved to Dearfield in 1911, the same year the Denver-to-New York long distance telephone service was completed. There were immediate problems. Apart from not lending their political support for the project, middle-class Black Coloradans generally showed little interest in relocating to Dearfield. Some of the early settlers were so poor they could not afford to ship their possessions from Denver and had to walk part of the distance. Among the members of this group, only two families could afford to erect their 12-foot by 14-foot homes with a fence. The other five families had to live in tents or in hillside dugouts. Sometimes the men had to work on other farms to earn money while the women and children worked their land. This tenacity demonstrates how much people wanted to possess their own homes and farms.
Western Farm Life interviewed O.T. Jackson in its May 1, 1915, issue, five years before Dearfield reached its peak. According to reporter Frederick F. Jackson, the Dearfield project included 40 farms of 160 acres each, with the townsite embodying 140 acres. In his judgment, “(I)t took plenty of nerve for this small group of Negroes to go out upon the barren, sage-brush prairie and undertake, without means or capital, to force a living from the unyielding soil.”
It took seven years for the town to see its first marketable crop, which included “potatoes, beans, corn, watermelon, cantaloupe, pumpkin, squash, onions, turnips, cabbage, tomatoes, oats, rye, alfalfa, and native hay.”
Dearfield was a vibrant Black community. But today, it’s difficult to find on a map. Its rise and its fall parallel other farming communities in the West.
Dearfield had clearly begun to show strong signs of prosperity. Some records state that white farmers in the area assisted their Black neighbors and, sometimes, traded goods and services with one another. Residents established the Dearfield Farmers Association and met monthly with farming agents from the Colorado Agricultural College, now Colorado State University. Residents filed for homesteading on 8,400 of the 20,000 available acres in Weld County. For that small group of Black farmers and their families, the ideals of self-reliance and self-pride appeared to be coming true. Dearfield was no longer a chimerical handful of Black adventurers nursing their dreams in the middle of nowhere, but a vibrant community whose courage and creativity were beginning to draw the attention of neighboring communities and state officials.
While there were many African American agricultural communities throughout the United States, there were a smaller number of homestead communities that had been platted, with maps usually located in county offices. Examples include one just a few miles from Dearfield — the community of Chapelton, Colorado. Although rivals, together they were touted as being the “Twin Cities of Dearfield and Chapelton.” In Otero County south of Manzanola is a homesteading site called The Dry, where a descendant of one of the founders still resides. A platted homestead community that was not able to materialize because of the lack of funds was Easyville, located near Akron, Colorado.
Some of the most famous Black communities at this time include Nicodemus, Kansas; Langston, Oklahoma; Empire, Wyoming; Dewitty, Nebraska; Sully County, South Dakota; and Blackdom, New Mexico. Other communities were located outside the United States in Canada — some which began following the Revolutionary War — and in Mexico, the southern end of the Underground Railroad.
By 1920, Dearfield had a population just short of 300 persons who worshipped on Sunday in two churches. The hotel, restaurant, school and other amenities signaled the residents’ devotion to building a functional community. There were even plans to build a canning factory. After only 11 years of its existence, the total value of the colony went clearly over one million dollars.
Following WWI, residents could afford automobiles. Jackson also reported they owned “six pianos, twelve Victrolas, four automobiles, and one truck.” Ten of the settlers pooled their money to buy a thresher and paid for it from the money they received from threshing beans.
Daily life in Dearfield seemed to reflect life in many other colonies in the state of Colorado. Women worked as hard as the men did. While men worked the fields, the women worked at home and tended cows and other livestock. Sarah Fountain recalled, “They were that kind of women. To make a life, you endure most anything.” Olietta Moore said that her grandmother worked in the fields and raised corn. The family sold the corn in Denver and gave some away to friends. Another woman recalled night activities where people held moonlight picnics and chicken fries by lanterns.
Dearfield was a vibrant Black community. But today it’s difficult to find on a map. Its rise and — imminently — its fall, parallels that of other farming communities around the West. In the late 1920s, the price of wheat fell from two dollars to one dollar a bushel in the global market. Argentina, Canada, Australia and Russia began supplying wheat and meat to Europe, thereby saturating the market. Between 1919 and 1923, over 400,000 American farmers lost their farms and by 1932, almost 10 percent of all of America’s farmers lost their farms. When the rains stopped, the Depression struck in 1929 and the Dust Bowl storms swirled around the community, most of Dearfield’s residents moved away. Recalled by one resident, “Most people went out there with high hopes and left with bitter disappointment. It all dried up and blew away.” By 1936, the community was almost deserted. And Jackson’s dreams with it.
O.T. Jackson died on February 18, 1948, at the Weld County Hospital in Greeley. He was 85 years old and had lived in Dearfield for 38 years. With the colony he founded almost vacant at the time, Jackson’s demise symbolically marked the end of “the last major attempt at agricultural colonization on the high plains,” Fountain said, according to accounts from historian Quintard Taylor.
To preserve, stabilize and restore the Dearfield townsite, the Dearfield Dream Project was formed in 2013. Group members include The Black American West Museum, the University of Northern Colorado, Colorado State University, the City of Greeley Museums, Weld County Government, Colorado Preservation Inc., The Great Plains Institute of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the city of Greeley.
In the time since, scientists and researchers have conducted archaeological digs, drone mapping and other methods to better understand the community and its residents. Four Colorado State Historical Fund grants have been named to fund Dearfield’s preservation, plus a National Park Service African American Civil Rights grant. In 2021, a move began to have Dearfield designated a National Historic Site with the National Park Service. A “Dearfield Study Act” was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressmen Ken Buck and Joe Neguse in 2022. A bill with the same name was introduced by U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper. If the bill passes both houses and is signed by the president, Dearfield will obtain its National Historic Site designation.
Many educational textbooks have omitted histories of African Americans in the West or — if at all — mention them briefly. African Americans played a vital role in the development and settlement of the West, historically and today — voting, running for public offices, mining, herding cattle, farming, soldiering and operating businesses, plus providing many goods and services to create the infrastructure we live among today. Black Americans established communities, created economy and many prospered through their hard work. No longer should their rich tradition be ignored.
George H. Junne Jr. is a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Northern Colorado.