Charles and Hester Meehan

White middle aged man sits wearing suit and tie as black woman in dress rests hand on his shoulder.
Charles and Hester Freeman Meehan in Overton, Dawson County, Nebraska, 1898.

Catherine Meehan Blount

Quick Facts
Nebraska Homesteaders
Place of Birth:
Charles: Detroit, MI; Hester: Rondeau, Canada
Date of Birth:
Charles and Hester both born 1856
Place of Death:
Hester: Alliance, NE Charles: Alliance, NE
Date of Death:
Hester: June 3, 1923; Charles: September 15, 1935
Place of Burial:
Box Butte, Nebraska
Cemetery Name:
Alliance (Greenwood) Cemetery

Homestead Application 18602 was filed by Charles Meehan on February 8, 1907, for 640 acres of land in Brownlee, Cherry County, Nebraska. Final proof was accepted on April 22, 1914, and he was issued a Patent Certificate, Number 399807. He filed the application under the 1904 Kinkaid Act, an amendment to the Homestead Act of 1862.

Charles and Hester Freeman Meehan were an interracial couple from Canada. They met at the age of eight and were childhood sweethearts. In 1875 they were married in Raleigh Township, Ontario, an Underground Railroad endpoint and considered by many to be a mecca for people escaping enslavement.

Charles Meehan, of Jewish and German heritage, was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1856. His unwed birth parents quickly settled him in Canada with an Irish woman who raised him as her own. By age five, his Irish adopted mother married a man of African descent who lived in Ontario’s Elgin Settlement/Buxton Mission. Buxton was a planned black community established as a refuge for people fleeing enslavement. Charles was accepted into and nurtured by the community. Charles formed life-long friendships with many Black Canada-Nebraska homesteaders who settled in Dawson and Cherry counties.

Hester Catherine Freeman was a second-generation Canadian, born in 1856 in Rondeau, near Buxton. By age eight, Hester’s parents both died. She was taken in and raised by Thomas Brown and his wife, Margaret Walker Brown, in the Elgin Settlement. It was there that Charles and Hester met as children, fell in love, and started a family.

Charles and Hester both attended school in Buxton. The settlement was renowned for its emphasis on education. Its schools were considered some of the best in the county. The Meehan’s, along with other black Canada-Nebraska homesteaders, placed a high premium on education.

Between 1879 and 1884, members of the Robinson, Guilds, Green, Emanuel, Riley, Hatter, Small, and Walker families relocated to Nebraska, filing homestead petitions in Dawson County. When a group accosted Hester during a racist encounter in Chatham, the Meehan family decided to follow their neighbors across the border to Nebraska. The decision was monumental.

From its territorial beginnings in the mid-1850s until 1963, interracial marriage was illegal in Nebraska. By 1911 a statute was enacted making marriages between whites and people with one-quarter or more Negro blood void. The risk taken by Charles and Hester is a testament to the severity of Hester’s attack. It also sheds light on the magnitude of their faith in their Buxton friends and neighbors. They hid in plain sight among people with whom they had decades of shared living experiences.

Charles and Hester arrived in Overton with three young children between the ages of four and nine. Between 1885 and 1900, seven more children were added to the family, though four died in infancy. The Meehan’s purchased two parcels of land in Dawson County. Under the 1820 Act of Congress to sell public land, Charles purchased 156.51 acres for $391. Certificate No. 4767 was issued on December 12, 1890. Hester acquired an additional tract of land in 1895 from a private party. Unfortunately, the plots were not adjacent. In 1942, Ed Meehan described the Overton “home place” as “the old Tom Shaw place 2 miles north and 1 ½ miles east of Overton, to the S.W. corner of Old Shaw ½ section.”

Between 1902 and 1907, the Meehan family and several other Canada-Nebraska black homesteaders left Overton, Nebraska, for Cherry County. They settled about ten miles northwest of Brownlee. Brownlee served as their post office until 1915 when the DeWitty post office was established. A year later, the post office was renamed Audacious by the new postmaster, Dennis Meehan.

The Meehan’s and other black homesteaders were drawn to Cherry County because of the opportunity to expand both individual and family holdings. Instead of the 160 acres allowed under the Homestead Act of 1862, the Kinkaid Act of 1904 allowed homesteaders to claim 640 acres.

Charles and his oldest sons filed homestead claims when the family relocated to Cherry County. Dennis Meehan filed for and proved 637.61 acres on March 9, 1914 (Patent No. 390815). Ed Meehan filed for and proved 634.44 acres on February 13, 1915 (Patent No. 457884). Thus, together the Meehan family filed homestead claims and final proof on 1,912 acres of land in Cherry County by 1914.

During the family’s first year in Cherry County, the youngest Meehan daughters, Rose and Gertie, and the youngest son, Bill, lived at home. In November of 1907, Rose married Charles Speese and left to join his family in Westerville, Nebraska. Daughter Gertie left the Meehan homestead in 1913 when she married fellow homesteader Maurice Brown.

Despite the amount of land available, youngest son Bill expressed his discouragement with farming in the Nebraska Sandhills. Through a poem written in 1914, he lamented that it was “no use to farm in these sand hills, where the wind blows a gale all the year, and the droughts wither up all the grain fields, we stick just because we are here.” Bill remained with his parents until they left Cherry County in 1923.

Between 1907 and 1914, Charles and Hester made several improvements to the property. They constructed a sod house. It boasted a kitchen, living room, and three bedrooms. The inside was plastered and had board floors, making cleaning easier. The homestead included a stable, store, henhouse, hog pens, and corrals. Thirty-three acres were under cultivation with “general” crops and hay with grazing for their stock. In addition, 540 forest trees, 16 fruit trees, and small fruit bushes were planted, earning the homestead the name of Meehan Grove.

When Charles filed final proof in Valentine, Nebraska for his Brownlee homestead, his Canadian friends and fellow homesteaders, Joshua Emanual and Albert Riley, provided testimony of final proof. Witness affidavits were signed by each of them and by William Crawford and George Brown, also from the Canadian group.

Charles and Hester were ready to retire and leave the Nebraska homestead in 1923. They planned to relocate to Illinois, where their oldest daughter and two of Hester’s sisters lived. Before departure, Hester traveled to Alliance in Box Butte County to visit sons Ed and Den, who had already left Cherry County. Hester died in her sleep in Alliance on June 3, 1923. Charles followed her on September 15, 1935. They are both buried at Alliance (Greenwood) Cemetery in Box Butte, Nebraska.

On March 11, 1965, a legal notice appeared in the Valentine newspaper announcing the intent of the surviving Meehan children to sell the remaining forty acres of Charles’s DeWitty homestead land. Charles set forty acres aside for any of his children who “fell on hard times and needed a place to stay.” By 1971 all the Meehan children passed away.

Pictured are Charles and Hester Freeman Meehan with their children and the eleven oldest of forty-four grandchildren. This picture is in front of their sod house in DeWitty/Audacious, Cherry County, Nebraska, in 1913.
Pictured are Charles and Hester Freeman Meehan with their children and the eleven oldest of forty-four grandchildren. This picture is in front of their sod house in DeWitty/Audacious, Cherry County, Nebraska, in 1913.

Photo Credit: Catherine Meehan Blount

~ Contributed by Catherine Meehan Blount

Catherine Meehan Blount is the youngest of forty-four grandchildren born to Charles and Hester Meehan. She is an avid family historian who has spent almost fifty years preserving family letters and photographs, researching the history of the Meehan and extended families, and sharing the family story. Catherine has compiled and published her father’s poetry in a book entitled, Portrait of a Janitor, An African American in the Early 20th Century Nebraska Sandhills. She has also published a book about her maternal ancestry entitled Remnants of Forgotten Folk, The Sammons-Handsor Cemetery. The Nebraska State Genealogical Society invited her to submit and published her article about the African descended Canadian-Nebraska homesteaders. In addition, she worked with other DeWitty descendants, the Nebraska State Historical Society, and author Stew Magnuson to have the community of DeWitty commemorated with a historical road marker. Catherine also appears in two Nebraska Stories segments about the DeWitty Settlement.

Patent Details - BLM GLO Records

Homestead National Historical Park

Last updated: September 13, 2023