The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Wild West Campaign Update: Exodusters!

In this week's session, the PCs were stunned to learn of a mass migration happening in Kansas.  About 20000 poor black farmers abandoned the south, coming mainly from Mississippi and Tennessee to farmstead in the west.

They were called the "exodusters" a portmanteau of "exodus" and "sodbuster" (the nickname for homestead farmers).  

The Exodusters were fleeing the south after the results of the last presidential election's compromise resulted in the ending of post-war Reconstruction. This meant that the Federal government's protection of the rights of former slaves was over, and southern Democrat state governments moved quickly to strip away the rights and the land of blacks. With the promise of land, the Exodusters traveled en masse to the west, going to Oklahoma, Colorado, and other places but especially to Kansas (the land of John Brown and probably the least racist state of the union in 1879), looking for new lives.

Unfortunately, most of the Exodusters were woefully low on resources and unprepared for the challenges they would face. And while Kansas may have been far more egalitarian than most parts, it wasn't free of racism.  When the citizens of Dodge city heard of tens of thousands of black settlers heading their way, their reactions were mixed at best.  It was generally agreed that measures needed to be taken to direct the newcomers away from town. Although, to be fair, it was at least as much of a logistical concern than a racial one (Dodge City already had a small black population which included at least a few prominent people, including John Tyler, who owned a well-regarded barber shop right on Front Street).  And the way the city fathers chose to go about this encouragement was not by threats or aggression but by charity aid and directing the newcomers to areas that still had plentiful homesteading plots.

It wasn't just Dodge that had a problem with the Exodusters, however.  The PCs were quite surprised when the county Sheriff (Bat Masterson) got a request for help from Nicodemus, a town founded and populated entirely by blacks.

Nicodemus had been founded about two years BEFORE the Exodusters came along, and was the first all-black town in the great plains. The settlers of Nicodemus were people with relatively good education and resources compared to the standard for blacks in the 19th century, including various successful businessmen and free men from Northern states with expertise in farming the type of land found in west Kansas.   And they did not want the Exodusters.  When Nicodemus had been first founded, they got help from the Ford County Sheriff (at that time Bat Masterson, with some help from Virgil and Wyatt Earp) to protect that town from hostile night-riders.  So they called on Bat Masterson to help them to stop the impoverished and unskilled Exodusters, some of whom had heard of Nicodemus, from coming in and overwhelming the community.

Masterson found himself in a bit of situation: on the one hand, he sympathized with the townsfolk's problem, and they were voters after all. On the other hand, there could be political consequences for him in Dodge. And on the other other hand, at least some of the 20000 Exodusters were going to end up being potential voters too.

So he did what he does best: passed the buck. He sent Crazy Miller and Jake Hale (the Mormon ex-gambler) to go negotiate the situation. They would be accompanied by Miller's employees, Other Miller and Ben Johnson, and by Kid Taylor, Jeff Young and Wyatt Earp in case there was trouble.

Shortly after their arrival, the town was threatened by the approach of 300 wagons full of Exodusters.  The townsfolk were adamant that they didn't want any of them there, but there were a large number of vacant homestead plots in the area, and technically, it would be in the Exoduster's legal right to stay.

Hale tried to negotiate with the settlers, hoping to direct them toward the hill country, which had been until recently Indian territory but was now available for settlement (even if the land wasn't nearly as good for farming as the Kansas plains). But the settlers were not willing to accept being rejected, particularly incensed at the notion of being turned away by what they considered their own people.   The lawmen found themselves in a very problematic situation, and with both sides armed and ill-tempered, it could have turned into a bloodbath.

What's more, the law was potentially on the Exoduster's side. If there were homestead plots available, and the Exodusters got there and made their claim on it, the lawmen would at least officially be required to defend their right against the people of Nicodemus, even though Masterson had sent them there to help the town.

Then Kid Taylor came up with an idea: he convinced Nicodemus' mayor to send anyone he could get to claim every available homestead plot. Thus, technically, they would have the right to the land and the Exodusters would be shut out of the area. The mayor quickly enacted the plan, making Kid Taylor very popular in town, which was uncomfortable for the notoriously racist Kid.

Miller and Hale, with a bit of help from Wyatt Earp, came up with a slightly more productive plan. They figured that if they could give an incentive for the Exodusters to go elsewhere, that might just avoid violence. And they remembered that Bat Masterson had just recently (thanks to the Royal Gorge rail war) made close connections to the local rail barons. They figured they could get Bat to set up potential jobs for the Exodusters working for the railway in Colorado. They telegraphed Bat, and he agreed (anything for a chance to show off).  The Exodusters were interested in this opportunity, having sure work waiting for them in Colorado, but they were so low on food and money that they didn't think they could make it from there to where the jobs were waiting for them.

The party remembered that on the way to Nicodemus they'd rode past a herd of wild cattle, probably strays from a previous cattle-drive that had managed to survive and thrive on the plains.  They figured if they could catch this herd it would at least partially solve the food problem. None of the PCs had any idea how to round up cattle, as none of them had worked as cowhands. But Ben Johnson had. He rounded up a few men in Nicodemus who had a bit of experience at ranches, and rode off to look for the herd.

Kid Taylor inadvertently helped too. The people of Nicodemus had been so grateful for his clever idea to cheat the Exodusters out of the local homesteads that they plied him with bourbon in celebration that night, and when he woke up (with a splitting hangover) the next morning, he discovered that in his drunken stupor he'd given away $100 to help the impoverished Exodusters. Needless to say, he was not happy about it, and became the butt of a great deal of mockery from the rest of the party.

A couple of days later, Johnson came back, with about 30 head of cattle for the Exodusters. Between that and Kid Taylor's generous donation, the settlers had what they needed (and then some) to go the rest of the way to Colorado and their waiting railway jobs.

The PCs left Nicodemus with the locals' sincere gratitude, having managed in the end to make everybody happy. And Ben Johnson decided to stay behind in Nicodemus and take up a vacant position as the town sheriff. Even Kid Taylor managed to get something for his trouble, he let the mayor of Nicodemus know that in the next election for Ford County Sheriff it was his plan to run against Bat Masterson, and the mayor promised he'd sweep the votes in Nicodemus.

In the end, between 4000-5000 of that first wave of Exodusters would end up settling in Kansas, many to great hardship, but with quite a few managing to succeed at this version of the American Dream. They would only be the first of many; between 1879 and 1889, Kansas would see a total of 29000 black settlers migrating (mostly) from the south to take up farmsteads and becoming a prominent population of this part of the West.


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Shell Diplomat + C&D's Crowley's Best

No comments:

Post a Comment