First Dawn by Judith Miller is about the post-Civil War all-black pioneer settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas. It tells the story of a group of ill-prepared settlers who travel across the prairie from Topeka to Nicodemus, expecting to find a small, but somewhat established town, with at least a few amenities, only to arrive at a bare clearing along the northern fork of the Solomon River where they will have to scrape together their few resources to build shelter before winter comes–a much more hard-scrabble survival story than they had expected to find themselves in.

This started out as a fantastic addition to my reading challenge list for Kansas, despite the somewhat heavy-handed Christian preaching. (Character loses faith over the question of “why does God let bad things happen to good people,” and gradually is brought back to her faith, with bonus discussions of character redemption via charitable deeds.) However, the history and the landscape made up for the religious overtones–at least initially.

Along the group’s journey from Topeka to Nicodemus, there are some great descriptions of prairie landscapes.

As their small column of wagons continued westward, the bluegrass and bluestem were replaced by thick, deep-rooted buffalo grass, and the trees grew more scarce and scrubby–except for the cottonwoods that dotted the riverbanks and shaded the occasional creeks. Intermittently they would spot the purple blooms of prairie clover or the delicate blossoms of wild blue flax peeking out through the shifting buffalo grass.

Another highlight was the inclusion of Waconda Spring, called “the Great Spirit Spring” in the book. Here, Miller describes their first view of the area:

Beneath them lay a valley, a lush expanse of fertile-appearing land, with spans of rolling hills overlooking either side of the basin. Far above and to one side of the rolling hills, a magnificent outcropping of limestone rose at least three hundred feet above the valley floor.

Then, as the group gets closer, we get a little more:

Jarena stared off toward the rising mound. Water seemed to overflow from the top of the hill. It trickled downward in rivulets and then formed a stream that flowed into the river.

Apparently the water from the spring, in addition to being salt water, had a high concentration of calcium in it, and as it trickled down the hill to the river it deposited the calcium to make a large cone of travertine–like a cave flowstone formation on the surface, or like some of the formations at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone (although the water was not heated).

According to Wikipedia, around the time the Nicodemus group would have come through, an enterprising businessman built a bottling facility there and started selling the water as a health tonic, and in the mid-1880s a health spa was built as well. This health spa and hotel remained in operation until the Army Corps of Engineers built the Glen Elder Dam in the mid-1960s and bulldozed the hotel. By 1970 the area was covered by a reservoir.

The Nicodemus group’s general unpreparedness took me by surprise. The family of the main character, Jarena, was woefully short on supplies–so much so that they were already rationing their food before they even reached Topeka to start their wagon journey across the prairie. None of the settlers is bringing a plow; there are a few hand tools, and no seed is ever mentioned.

“No disrespect, but folks moving west generally come loaded with tools and supplies, even a couple cows and maybe some pigs and chickens. Didn’t Hill warn ya to bring more provisions?” Thomas shook his head. “Most of dese folks wouldn’ta had much to bring anyway.”

This state of affairs was pretty consistent throughout the whole group, and although Mr. Hill encourages them to buy more supplies before leaving Topeka, he does not enlighten them as to why he is uneasy about the situation or correct their misconception that they will be able to purchase supplies in Nicodemus itself, so they set off. (Not that they would have been able to buy much, as they had spent most of their life savings on the land itself and train tickets to Topeka.)

“Doesn’t appear you folks purchased many supplies,” Hill remarked.

“We got enough ta get us to Nicodemus,” Calvin replied. “Ain’t no need loading down the wagons with supplies when we can buy ’em once we get to our new home.”

Hill dug the toe of his boot into the dirt. “Might take us longer to get there than you’re expecting. I can wait a little longer if you want to make some final purchases. We’ll need to stop at the livery down the street for the other wagons. If you like, we could camp outside of town and depart in the morning.”

When I first read this, I found this incredulous–really? These settlers had not asked for more information about the current state of the settlement? The organizers really had not been forthcoming with them about what supplies they should bring? And the settlers really just accepted that without question?

Reading the Wikipedia page on Nicodemus, it appears that Miller’s account might be fairly accurate; the first group of settlers did not have appropriate supplies and equipment, though later groups did bring more. And the settlement did send out representatives seeking charity, even from the Osage.

Unfortunately for us as readers (and in terms of my challenge), once the group arrives in Nicodemus, most of the landscape descriptions stop, as does a lot of the historical story about their day to day survival. There is some great information about soddies and dugouts–two of the historical primitive homesteads the pioneers built in the area–and a few other bits here and there, but mostly the author drops the Nicodemus settlers in favor of the doctor’s family who move to Hill City in hopes of redeeming their two mostly-grown children Harvey and Macia.  And even that redemption is not narrated convincingly–the two seem to waffle back and forth between good-as-gold and spoiled-rotten, with no rhyme or reason.

There’s one scene in Hill City, where the doctor is conversing with several Kansas politicians who have come to see the plight of the Nicodemus settlers and decide whether or not to petition Congress for help. I thought this discussion was very well done and it seemed to more accurately show the mix of attitudes toward these settlers than some of the other interactions in the book.

“There’s no denying that the settlers in Nicodemus have a genuine need.”

“Oh, that fact goes without saying,” Senator Dwyer agreed. “None of us believes their request is unjustified.”

Senator Pomeroy shifted in his chair. “However, the fact remains that the governor and other members of the legislature have grave concerns over the tactics being employed to attract more coloreds to the state. Unless they have the proper resources to sustain themselves, they’ll become a burden upon the government.”

The men go on to agree that Mr. Hill lured the settlers to Nicodemus with false promises, but ultimately say that nothing can be done to change that and refuse to give the group any aid… Yes, you’re starving; no, it’s not your fault; but no, we won’t help you.

So, there are some wonderfully done bits like this, but then there’s the character descriptions–or rather, lack thereof. Now, if you write a book about an all-black pioneer settlement, obviously you’re going to have to deal with race. And Miller does… mostly. She sets up the doctor character as a northerner living in Kentucky (and how is it that he married into this southern family if he objects so strongly to slavery?), and there’s some decent discussion of the plight of the freed slaves working as sharecroppers in the years after the Civil War.

“… The Negroes are free. They can come and go as they please, the same as you and I.”

“Exactly my point, Margaret. We freed them to a dusty road with only the rags on their backs. How can they live unless they continue working for their same masters?”

“They’re paid wages and given a place to live.”

“Oh, Margaret, do pull off your blinders. Most of them live in the same old ramshackle dwellings they’ve always occupied, but now they must consider those hovels a part of their pay. The meager wage they’re paid is barely enough to buy food for their table.”

But while we get a pretty good feel for a few of the settlers and what kind of people they are, we can’t picture them in our imaginations, because there is really no physical description of any of them. We can, however hear them. The Nicodemus settlers have a lively accent that leaps off the page.

“This ol’ bridge don’t appear none too sturdy, and I never did figure out how to swim–ol’ Massa never would let us learn. He told us there was a mighty deep river we’d have to cross if we run off, and we’d drown fer sure. Umm, umm. Dat man was a liar on top of being mean as a mad dog. I searched and searched after I got my freedom–never did find no river near thereabouts. Course ol’ Massa got what he wanted. We was too afeard to run away.”

As someone who is interested in language and dialect, however, I noticed that the author made this dialect more a result of education than is, perhaps, accurate. From what I know about code-switching (switching back and forth between multiple languages or dialects), it has more to do with the situation and people involved than with education. In other words, while Jarena may have insisted on her sisters using “proper” English during their lessons and perhaps when the doctor or other white folks were around, it’s likely that she would have spoken more colloquially at least with her friends, and that Truth would have “reverted” to that dialect when she visited with her family. Instead, Jarena was shown as educated and therefore speaking proper English and constantly correcting her sisters.

I was more bothered by Miller’s lack of physical descriptions for… really any of the characters, white or black. A few characters are described as tall and/or broad-shouldered, and there are one or two comments about hair–this one is nicely done:

The hot summer breeze whipped at Mr. Hill’s straggly blond hair, the thin tufts flying in all directions, while her father’s wiry black curls remained motionless, totally unruffled by the wind.

Many of the African American characters are described as having “chocolate brown eyes,” but none of the characters’ skin tones are mentioned–except in general terms as “colored.” Now, perhaps Miller was trying to be “color-blind,” but after she worked so hard to render the dialect, I have a hard time accepting that excuse.


Especially since she worked in a character who was “passing.” The introduction of that character was so odd that it’s what actually made me realize what had been bugging me all along. There was absolutely nothing that indicated why the other (white) characters in the scene were trying so hard to convince the man not to settle in Nicodemus. No physical description at all. Obviously we are meant to assume he’s white, but our assumption has to come from the very fact that they are trying to convince him, even though for a while they won’t even tell him why. The point is that we, as readers, are not being shown what those characters see that causes them to react this way. And Miller had made a point all along to show the people in and around Ellis being extremely welcoming, fair, polite, etc. (read “non-racist”) to the Nicodemus settlers (overly so, I suspect). So, our only clue that the man is not what he seems is that the scene feels so weird, because she refuses to come right out and say that the man must actually have very fair skin and look white… even though that’s what “passing” is…

— Ok, end of SPOILER —

So, despite the way the focus shifted once the group arrived in Nicodemus, I think First Dawn by Judith Miller was a decent addition to my list for Kansas. I really wish she had kept the focus on the Nicodemus settlers, or perhaps dealt more with fallout (if any) to the people like Hill who misled them. There was a brief mention of the fact that they gathered buffalo bones to sell (they were ground up and sold as fertilizer), but more could have been done with that and many other aspects of their lives–“crops” were mentioned, but not many specifics. But the descriptions of Kansas along the journey were wonderful, especially Waconda Spring, and there was a lot of good historical information sprinkled in here and there.

First Dawn is apparently the first of a trilogy of books Miller wrote about Nicodemus and Hill City, but I’m not feeling very compelled to continue reading the series. She did a good job of piquing my interest, but I’d much rather find a different book that deals with Nicodemus or other settlements like it. Perhaps this one: Gabriel’s Story by David Anthony Durham (2001). It seems to deal more with the Exodusters than purposeful settlements like Nicodemus, and is obviously grittier than First Dawn. If I give it a go, I’ll write something up.

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