Two Legendary African American Homesteaders

An African American homestead couple stand in front of their home.

Of the almost 1,800 African Americans who lived in Montana in 1910, approximately 43 percent were women. Most lived in Helena, Butte, and Great Falls. A few, like Annie Morgan, Birdie Brown, and this unidentified Great Falls-area homesteader, pictured with her husband on their claim, looked to build a life for themselves on the agricultural frontier. Photograph by the Great Falls Photo View Company, Ken Robison Collection

Homesteading was hard work, but it offered single women a chance to become independent at a time when social mores made it difficult for women to be self-sufficient. Among the many single women who took this opportunity were two African American women who filed homestead claims and did well for themselves. Homesteading allowed Annie Morgan and Bertie Brown to become women of property, and each brought special skills to the communities in which they settled.

Nothing is known about Agnes “Annie” Morgan’s early life except that she was born in Maryland around 1844. By 1880, she was married, had come west, and was a domestic servant in the household of Capt. Myles Moylan and his wife, Lottie. The captain was stationed at Fort Meade, Dakota Territory, along with Frederick Benteen and other survivors of the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle at Little Bighorn. Morgan’s association with the Seventh Cavalry lends credence to the legend that she once had cooked for Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

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A Farm of Her Own

Grace Binks and Magaret Major pose outside a chicken house.

In 1911, thirty-nine-year-old Grace Binks (left) and twenty-nine-year-old Margaret Major (right) came to Sumatra, Montana (northwestern Rosebud County) as part of a group of Iowa homesteaders. The women stayed only a year, paying cash to “commute” their homesteads into purchased land. MHS Photo Archives PAc 92-62 p.19 #C

Historians estimate that up to 18 percent of homesteaders in Montana were unmarried women. Passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any twenty-one-year-old head of household the right to homestead federal land. Single, widowed, and divorced women fit this description, and they crossed the country to file homestead claims of 160 acres. After the turn of the century, when the Enlarged Homestead Act doubled the acreage to 320, even more women took up free land in Montana. While not all succeeded, those who did proved that women were up to the task. Gwenllian Evans was Montana’s first female homesteader. A widow from Wales, she emigrated to the United States in 1868. Her son, Morgan Evans, was Marcus Daly’s land agent and a well-known Deer Lodge valley rancher. In 1870, Gwenllian Evans filed on land that later became the town of Opportunity; she received her patent in 1872.  She was one of the territory’s first post mistresses and lived on her homestead until her death in 1892. Continue reading