JETMORE – It seemed, at first, that Eliza Bradshaw’s life was long buried beneath her tombstone in the town cemetery – which just marks her birth and death.
Crystal Bradshaw knew her distant grandmother was born into slavery. She knew Eliza was an exoduster who came to Hodgeman County with her family and 100 others in search of a life free of racism and poverty after the Civil War. On the sparsely populated, windswept prairie, they began building a small community they called Morton City.
But when Crystal was tasked to research her family history for one of her high school classes at Hodgeman County High School, she found few answers.
“A lot of people in my high school class knew about their family members but not many in my family knew where the Bradshaw side came from,” said Crystal, 21, now a junior at the University of Kansas.
For the past five years, Crystal has been combing newspaper articles and research papers to learn more about her family’s past. She compiled her information into her first nonfiction novel – “Eliza – A Generational Journey,” which she self-published this fall.
She saved her money from her three jobs to publish 50 of the 133-page books. Crystal works as a resident assistant in a college dorm and as a communications specialist and office manager for The Project on the History of Black Writing – part of KU’s English Department. She also earns money as a writer.
In the book, Crystal preserves the highs and lows of Eliza’s life journey – which parallels a harsh time in history.
Eliza was born a slave, growing up in poverty in a one-room cabin with no windows. At age 7 she was sold to another planter. At 17, she was sold again to a cruel slave owner. There were beatings. There were sorrows.
And, even when freed, Eliza and her family faced more challenges because of their race and their new found freedom.
Crystal was shocked when she began delving into Eliza’s story, but was also disappointed that it had nearly faded away as the years went by.
“How do you let this rich history just slip away?” Crystal asked, adding. “That is why I didn’t want to just compile my research. That is why I wanted to write a book to preserve it so future Bradshaws can go and see where they came from.”
Crystal chronicles her five-great grandmother’s story in Eliza’s own voice and dialect.
“It’s vernacular,” she said, but added, “My family doesn’t speak like that anymore.”
However, she said, “I could hear a narration going on my head – as I was typing it down on my computer. It was almost like I could hear Eliza’s voice.”
Eliza was born on a Kentucky plantation in 1827. Information written by Eliza’s granddaughter Mattie, who was born in Kansas in the late 1880s, suggests that Eliza’s father was white. Her father was possibly the plantation owner, but she never knew him. Moreover, the last time Eliza saw her mother was at age 7 – right before she was sold to another plantation owner.
“At this plantation she was treated as a human being, for her mistress was good and even kind to her. She pitied the sad-faced looking little girl, therefore she would not let her go into the fields to work, but taught her to do the sewing. Grandma was a good pupil and learned to sew well. This she never regretted, for by means of this trade she earned enough to support her family in later days,” wrote Mattie Bradshaw, whose story was published in “Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains” in 2003.
But at 17, Eliza’s owner, Mr. Lewis, sold her to pay a debt.
“Her new master was one of the most unprincipled, degraded and demon-like beings that ever bore the name of man. Her mistress was cruel and hateful. Grandma soon learned what slavery meant,” Mattie wrote.
As was custom at the time, her new owners “began to think of finding her a husband.” It was three months after being sold that Eliza married Lewis.
Crystal used Mattie’s information, along with what she found in newspaper articles, to weave Eliza’s story into a narrative, which tells of beatings and being finally freed after 40 years of slavery.
Once freed, Eliza and her husband took the name Bradshaw, according to footnotes by Emporia State University Professor Sam Dicks, who edited the Mattie Bradshaw document. Bradshaw was the name of slave owners who treated their slaves well.
Crystal said it was around 1878 when the family joined a group of exodusters led by Thomas Moore to Kansas, settling in Hodgeman County. In 1879, they began to build Morton City.
At the peak of the settlement there was about 100 people. Morton City included a church, three stone houses, nine sod houses, and the remaining dwellings were dugouts, according to a paper written by K-State student Theodore Brown – Crystal’s cousin – in 2010.
But pioneers’ efforts were short lived, said Mary Ford, secretary/treasurer for the Haun Museum in Jetmore. By 1880, most of the settlers were gone – moving to surrounding communities.
“They came to farm,” she said, but added they came amid a bad drought and with little equipment. “The weather was severe. They had no means of taking care of themselves.”
Crystal said some even died. That included Eliza’s husband, Lewis, and their two daughters. Thomas Moore’s wife, Mattie, couldn’t produce enough milk to nurse her baby, and it died.
Now, 134 years later, Crystal Bradshaw and her extended family are the last remaining link in Hodgeman County to the exodusters who tried to make a life here.
Eliza stuck it out in Hodgeman County, Crystal said.
“I could never figure out why she decided to stay,” Crystal said. “So many people left. By 1880, there was only Grandma Eliza and her children and one other African American, Lafayette Green.”
Her children were stone masons, and Crystal figures Eliza earned a living from sewing and cooking.
There are some lasting remnants of the Morton City settlement, said the historical museum’s Ford. Many, like Eliza’s sons, were stone masons and helped build the stone buildings in town, including the present-day bank building and the Haun Museum. A stone building once the home of Thomas Moore remains, but is crumbling. Gravestones, including Eliza’s, are in the cemetery. Eliza died in 1913.
But Morton City, formerly located east of Jetmore – then called Buckner – is gone.
”They were all wooden homes,” Ford said. “None had basements.”
Most lived in canvas dugouts, she said, noting that Crystal’s grandfather, Wilburn Bradshaw, had taken a group to the site and showed them where they would have been located.
For years, Wilburn farmed the land his ancestors homesteaded, Crystal said. Her father and mother, Matthew and Monica, farm, as well.
Her parents are proud of their daughter’s work, said her mother, Monica, adding Crystal is humble about the book.
“As a parent, I’m happy, proud and excited. Being an author is one of her dreams,” Monica Bradshaw said, adding that when Crystal told she and her husband of her book plan, “We told her to go for it. We teach all our children to follow their dreams.”
“She did this all on her own,” she said. “She motivates and drives herself.”
Eliza was the big motivation, Crystal said. She recalls the first time she found Mattie Bradshaw’s article, which told much of Eliza’s story.
“I did start crying a bit because our family has fought through so much,” she said.
Even with her husband dead, her children dying, Eliza never gave up, Crystal said.
“I honestly saw Eliza as a motivation to keep going to my dream, to keep pursuing ... to not let anyone stop me.”