The black homesteader title

The black homesteader: William Johnson

First United States Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment
The First United States Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment on parade in Knoxville, Tenn. William Johnson would use his service here as a step to becoming a black homesteader using the Homestead Act. The Exoduster movement may have influenced him. (Library of Congress)

A black artilleryman becomes a homesteader

A gravestone in Goodland (Kan.) Cemetery honors Cpl. William Johnson, Company I, First United States Colored Heavy Artillery. This is his story. William Johnson of Hawkins County, Tenn., started his life as the property of his master. But before he died, Johnson was a property owner. He earned his way to land ownership as a Civil War veteran, possible Exoduster, and black homesteader in Sherman County, Kan.

A hard road to freedom

President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but Johnson, his wife, and two-year-old son Lewis were still enslaved. The proclamation had a trap in it. It only applied to enslaved people under Confederate control. While Tennessee had joined the Confederacy, it had returned to Union control by 1863.

While emancipation had not freed Tennessee’s enslaved people, it had allowed African-Americans to join the army. Johnson, therefore, emancipated himself. He enlisted in the First United States Colored Heavy Artillery as Robert Miller (PDF).

Knoxville, Tenn., home of the First US Colored Heavy Artillery
A panoramic view of Knoxville, Tenn., in March of 1864

Gen. Grant permits a black heavy artillery regiment

United States Colored Troops artillery soldier and family
An unidentified family of a United States Colored Troop soldier. No photos of the Johnson family are known to exist. (Library of Congress)

In the winter of 1863, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant visited Knoxville, Tenn. Gen. Davis Tillson asked Grant for permission to recruit African-American soldiers. Tillson’s boss, Gen. John Foster, wrote the orders on Jan. 6, 1864, and Tillson sent out recruiting parties. The recruiters enlisted African-American men between the ages of 18 and 45. Johnson would have been in his 40s.

Johnson’s journey to enlistment was difficult. The walk over the mountains from Hawkins County to Knoxville requires 20 to 30 hours on 21st-century roads. Imagine making the trek in a 19th-century winter. Johnson completed the journey and joined (PDF) the artillery regiment’s Company I. He later received a promotion to corporal.

The regiment was organized in Knoxville Feb. 20, 1864. They expanded Knoxville’s existing fortifications. They manned them until January 1865. In the war’s final months, they fought in various campaigns. After the fighting ended, the Army stationed the artillery regiment in Tennessee. They mustered out on March 31, 1866.

Black artillery soldiers and their families suffer

Many of the regiment’s families were destitute. Men deserted to help their families. Their commanding officer begged for adequate provision for the families. He recommended hiring women as cooks and laundresses. While the families struggled, the men also suffered. More died from disease and accidents than died in battle. But Johnson navigated through all the war’s dangers.

Post-war life offers dangers, opportunities for black homesteaders

Exodusters handbill advertising the Homestead Act for black homesteaders
Benjamin Singleton urged blacks to become Exodusters. They could use the Homestead Act to become farmers.

Life after the war was dangerous, too. Tennessee discriminated against blacks. Ironically, Tennessee was the first former Confederate state to ratify the 13th Amendment. The amendment allowed all males to vote. It also declared that African Americans were citizens.

But, to limit black and poor white voting, Tennessee enacted a poll tax. Would-be voters had to pay before they could vote. Adding to black distress, the terrorist Ku Klux Klan enforced white supremacy.

The Homestead Act looked promising for the potential black homesteader. The Exoduster movement arose from that promise.

Using the Homestead Act as Exodusters

Benjamin Singleton founded the Exodusters movement. He had escaped slavery in Tennessee. After the war, he urged people to leave the South. Escape the restrictions. Earn the right to own the land under the Homestead Act, he said.

The Johnsons abandoned Tennessee and headed west. They may not have been formal Exodusters, but they followed Singleton’s lead as black homesteaders. Census records from 1895 (PDF) trace the Johnsons’ journey. In 1884 or so, William’s son Lewis married a woman from Indiana. Lewis and H.J. Johnson’s daughters, Dora and Arrena, were born in Nebraska. Willie and Eva were born in Kansas.

An unidentified black homesteader and Exoduster family using the Homestead Act
A black homesteader family in Custer County, Neb. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Homestead Act offers veterans’ bonus

Congress had passed the Homestead Act in 1862. Under the act, any adult could claim 160 acres of surveyed government lands. They had to build a home and cultivate the land. After five years and a small fee, the original filer could claim the land. Many potential black homesteaders missed out on the Homestead Act’s bounty. However, William’s service gave him a leg up on most Exodusters. Union soldiers could deduct their service time. Johnson’s service cut his time to free land to three years.

A short life as a black homesteader

GAR medal for the black homesteader and artillery soldier, Exoduster, and Homestead Act claimant
Grand Army of the Republic medal (Parsa/

When the Johnsons came to Sherman County in the 1880s, he was the only African-American veteran. He and Lewis were also the county’s only black homesteaders and Exodusters.

By May 17, 1890, the Johnsons had received title to 316 acres (PDF) from the Homestead Act.  Sadly, Johnson would only enjoy his full landowner status for less than a month. He died Friday, June 13, 1890, at his son’s home (PDF) 3 miles northeast of Goodland. The Goodland News said (PDF) the 65-year-old Johnson had died of paralysis.

The Sherman County Dark Horse gave a tribute. He “has ever been recognized as one of our most reliable citizens,” it said.

The Grand Army of the Republic buried him in the Sappa Cemetery. Later the community moved the graves to the current Goodland Cemetery. Johnson now rests in the Old Veterans’ Plot south of the cemetery chapel.

More to explore

The Goodland Cemetery, 434 N. Main, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. When you visit Johnson’s grave, also stop at Lowell Coleman‘s marker. He died in France during World War I and the Goodland Veterans of Foreign Wars post bears his name.

Read more Goodland stories. Goodland is on Land and Sky Scenic Byway. Drive the byway north and pay respects at a Korean War Medal of Honor winner’s grave at the Cheyenne Valley Cemetery south of Wheeler.

In Decatur County, the Last Indian Raid wrecked many homesteaders’ dreams.

Enjoy more of Northwest Kansas in Oberlin and Norton east of Bird City on Highway 36. Learn more about destinations in the Midwest, particularly in Kansas and Nebraska. Find more Presidential sites.

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