A Black Homesteading Experience
Dennis G. Casebier
It comes as a surprise to many visitors to the five-year-old 1.4 million acre Mojave National Preserve to discover there are tens of thousands of acres of private land in Joshua tree forested Lanfair Valley.
A little probing into the history of the region reveals there was a homesteader boom there beginning in 1910 and continuing into the 1920s. Looking out across the vast valley, that is largely devoid of human habitation today, it is hard to realize that at one time there were farms, schools, stores, post offices, and even a railroad traversing the region.
A few people live in Lanfair Valley today, but most landowners use their land more informally. Some parcels of land remain in the ownership of the families that homesteaded there eighty years and more ago.
The attraction of the valley for prospective homesteaders centered around the railroad that ran up from Goffs into the New York Mountains to Barnwell and thence northwesterly into Ivanpah Valley with another branch eastwardly to Searchhlight, Nevada. The presence of the railroad supported a speculation that the land might be worth something someday and it was there for the asking. All you had to do was file a claim with the General Land Office, pay a small fee, live on the land for three years, clear forty acres or so, plant crops (didn't matter if the crops came up or not), file final proof, and a patent would be issued by the federal government giving full title to the land. Most homesteads were for 160 acres, but modifications to the homestead laws permitted some entrymen to gain 320 or even 640 acres.
It appealed to many mostly youngish and adventuresome people. Amongst those there was a sizeable number of black people who came to the valley from Whittier, Los Angeles, and Long Beach.
The blacks were mostly together in the southeast part of the valley laying along Lanfair Road and to the east several miles out toward the Piute Range, but closer to Lanfair itself than those mountains.
There were three aspects to the Black experience in Lanfair. First, a man named Dr. Charles H. Duvall became inspired to build an orphanage for black children. A building was erected and a few black boys were brought out, but the experiment was short-lived.
Second, G. W. Harts and Howard Folke conceived the idea of a black community. They filed papers for a Harts Townsite for the advertised purpose of "bringing freedom and independence to a limited number of colored people."
They arranged for a post office called Dunbar which was established in 1912, within one month of when the Lanfair Post Office was established. In fact, strange as it may seem, the two post offices were within 200 yards of each other. It is said the Dunbar Post Office was for black people and the Lanfair Post Office for whites. One black person, who was a child during the homestead period, told me that at one point they received their mail addressed to Dunbar, California, at the Lanfair, California post office. So the two post offices must have become collocated. By 1914 the post office department must have figured out the redundancy since, after that date, there was just the Lanfair Post Office which lasted until 1927. Howard Folke had been the postmaster at the Dunbar Post Office.
Since the orphanage and the Harts townsite project faded early, and since a number of the black people that came out early did not stay, this has led to the conclusion on the part of some that the blacks did not stick with it and the movement failed. This conclusion ignores the third aspect of the black homesteading experience in Lanfair Valley -- the phase where individual families took up land on their own and successfully homesteaded. A close examination of the record shows the black families were among the most persistent and successful of Lanfair Valley homesteaders.
It is noteworthy that black homesteaders were among the very earliest to file homesteads in remote Lanfair Valley. Of the seventeen black people who ultimately proved up on their claims and obtained patents to the land, six filed claims and moved to the area in 1910, the first year of homesteading by anyone in Lanfair Valley.
That seventeen families stuck it out long enough to obtain patents is remarkable. At the present level of research into this subject, it is not possible to compare percentages between blacks and whites, but I will say that, having worked with this data in some detail, the success rate for blacks was as least as high as for whites if not higher.
The black Lanfair Valley homesteaders I have talked with were mostly children during the homestead period, although some were in their teens and hence could be expected to remember well. And others had stories of homesteading in Lanfair Valley told over and over again in their familiy circles.
In talking with people from that period (black and white) there is an almost categorical denial of any prejudice or discrimination between whites and blacks. An examination of the record shows that this is not true, but the intensity and level of racial discord was certainly less than was encountered in many places in the United States at that time.
During my oral history interviews of Lanfair Valley homesteaders I have questioned many people about this -- black and white. Following is the dialog with one lady (white) who was a girl during the teens and attended the integrated Lanfair School with the black children.
Question: You were in school with black children. Did you perceive discrimination?
Answer: No. They were kids to me. I didn't care whether they were pink, red, or white.
Question: Was there any discussion amongst the adults?
Answer: No, never heard a word. Never. Mr Jones [black man] used to help my dad plow. And my dad helped him plow. One time we'd gone on Saturday up to the railroad, to the Post Office with the team of mules, and while we were gone a flash flood came along. Well we had two washes. When we came back, we could not get across those washes because they were overflowing. Well we were stuck and here it was evening, you know. So we stayed all night at the Jones'.
I don't think they ever came to any of our dances. I don't remember any of them coming to the dances. But I'll say this much. I never heard anybody talking about their color.
No. I never heard anything like that. They were good people. The Hodnetts family, there were lots of kids in that family. But not all of them were at home. But I knew Mrs. Hodnett, they had a cow. And I'll always remember good old Mrs. Hodnett, she was a little bit of a thing. Sort of reddish haired and freckled faced doll. We'd come by on horseback from school, and she'd flag us down and give us a glass of buttermilk and a hot biscuit.
In spite of this kind of testimony -- which I consider to be honest but somewhat naive -- there is evidence of some discrimination. It will be noticed in the above quotations the person said "I don't think they ever came to any of our dances." There's a reason for this. I have a copy of the bylaws for the social organization in Lanfair Valley called the Yucca Club and under the heading of who is eligible for membership the bylaws stated clearly that a member could be "any white person in the valley." This is the club that organized the dances.
Also in interviewing black homesteaders (remembering they were children in the teens) they seemed to know little about the community picnics and pioneer celebrations held at Lanfair on the 4th of July and they did not attend them. That tells me that likely their parents did not feel welcome at those gatherings -- as they were specifically not welcome at the community dances each month.
So there was discrimination, but although discrimination and racial prejudice must be condemned wherever found and to whatever degree, it can be observed the climate seems to have been less repressive than in many parts of the United States at the time.
On the positive side, the years spent by black families in Lanfair were happy years. They are remembered fondly by people who were there and in stories that were passed down. Rainfall was heavy the first half of the teens. The fertile soil yielded crops with which homesteaders (black and white) could sustain themselves. The children made their own games and toys and played among the wonderland of Joshua trees. From where they lived east of Lanfair a half mile or more -- they could see the smoke of the train rising above the Joshuas and hear the whistle as the train came through twice a day -- once early in the morning from Goffs to Searchlight and later in the day back from Searchlight to Goffs. They had a fine school in Lanfair with efficient teachers and friendly students and parents. There were outings to magical places like Fort Piute and Piute Creek and occasional visits to Goffs and sometimes even into Needles. No black homesteaders owned wells, although some unsuccessful efforts were made to develop wells. Research to this point does not tell where all of them obtained water, but there is a specific statement that at least several families obtained their supply along the water line maintained out into the east part of the valley by the cattle company. The exact spot is known.
Seventeen black families stuck it out and obtained patent to their homesteads. Some of that land remains under the ownership of those families today. In one case the family paid taxes on the land through thick and thin for more than fifty years, yet nobody in the family had seen it in many years. One memorable day they stopped at Goffs hopeful of locating the homestead. We shut everything down, got in our vehicles, and off we went to Lanfair Valley. Soon, there at our feet was the scant remains of what was once a happy home. A few boards, glass shards, tin cans, a sturdy fence line still in place, and the roots of a proud family.
In writing this brief essay on the black homesteaders of Lanfair Valley we hope to stimulate interest in the subject and perhaps gain new leads for information. The trail has grown dim and there are many unanswered questions. We know very little about G. W. Harts, Charles H. Duvall, Howard Folke, and who was the post office at Dunbar named for. We have found descendants of some of the homesteaders, but certainly not all. As a reference for those who might help, here's the roll of the black homesteaders that have been identified who proved up on their homesteads and obtained patent to the land: Estella (Stella) Baker, William H. Carter (a civil war veteran), Nanie Mary Craig, Mathew Hodnett, Richard W. Hodnett, Ulysses Hodnett, William Hodnett, Stonewall Jackson, Anna Jones, John David Jones, John Massie, Henry Morton, John Richard Moulton, Eliza Louise (Hawthorne) Reynolds, Millie C. Sheppard, Lila A. Smith, Annie Taylor Widow of Thomas Taylor.
If you have information about any of these families, or any Lanfair Valley homesteaders, contact Dennis Casebier, Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association, Goffs Schoolhouse, 37198 Lanfair Road - G15, Essex, California 92332. Phone 760-733-4482. email firstname.lastname@example.org