By CRISTINA JANNEY
In September 1878, freed slaves from Kentucky disembarked from the train in Ellis and made their way on foot 35 miles across the prairie to their new home in Nicodemus.
Over the Labor Day weekend, re-enactors — descendants of those original settlers — made that same journey through chest-high prairie grass in the hot late-summer heat for a documentary filmed on the Ellis Trail.
Angela Bates, Nicodemus descendant and historian, wrote and directed the filming of "Ellis Trail to Nicodemus, The End of the Journey to the Promise Land.” Nick Abt of Wichita was the videographer for the project.
“I had already seen it in my mind,” Bates said of the script, “and then when I came out on the landscape, it became real. … To participate and see it physically happen was surreal.”
Bates said she hopes the documentary, which will also include scenes filmed with re-enactors in Kentucky and Ellis, interviews with Nicodemus descendants and historical photos, will ultimately be aired on PBS.
“I wanted to focus on the people traveling from Ellis to Nicodemus, but I wanted to focus on the family that came over with that first group in 1878 and the lady that was pregnant at the time,” Bates said.
This woman, Emma Williams, would give birth to the first child born in Nicodemus, Henry, and ultimately Emma would be the matriarch of most of the descendants to live in the community, including Bates.
Emma came to Nicodemus with her parents, Tom and Zerena Johnson and her adult sibling Henry and Ella. Emma was eight months pregnant when she made the trek across the Ellis Trail.
Her husband, Charles Williams, sent her ahead with her parents and siblings, promising to meet Emma in Nicodemus in the spring. As a symbol of this promise, Charles gave Emma a yellow rose to carry with her on her journey.
Emma was afraid she wouldn't see her husband again, which was expressed in the documentary script. Charles did join his wife the following spring in Nicodemus where they established and grew their family.
The rose that Emma carried from Kentucky across the Kansas prairie was dried and pressed into a Bible and handed down through the generations. Although the Nicodemus Historical Society is not aware of the rose’s whereabouts at this time, Bates said she had seen the rose as a younger woman.
Bates said she tried to capture the contrast between the lush Kentucky landscape from which the settlers came to the dry plains of northwest Kansas.
“I tried to capture the emotion,” Bates said. … “what it was like to be a former slave and now they’re free and now they are going to the West. They’re going to homestead. They’re going to have free land. They are going to have land they can call their own.”
A pivotal scene in the documentary is when the settlers reach Nicodemus. The landscape was barren. The settlers had to build their community up from the dirt.
“What I hope people will get out of this is to understand the trials and tribulations and the visions that the people had and what it took for them to make their vision a reality,” Bates said.
“It’s one thing to endure slavery and now you’re emancipated. Now what are you going to do? If you stay in the South, you’re dealing with serious Jim Crow. If you move to the West, you can get some free government land.
Bates said her ancestors had a strong faith in God, and they had to believe their lives were going to be better in Kansas.
Both Bates and Abt said they encountered challenges in filming in the rough, hot prairie environment. The crew only had two days to shoot on location with the re-enactors.
Bates said the re-enactors were excited to participate in the project but were not used to the rough terrain. One of the children fell into a badger hole, but she was unhurt
Bates and LeRoy Walz, local property owner, were instrumental in finding the path of the Ellis Trail, including finding wagon ruts that are still visible today.
Bates and the Walz family have helped coordinate tours at key locations along the trail, and the Nicodemus Historical Society has assisted in placing historical markers at several sites along the trail, including at the site of the Walz family homestead.
A portion of the limestone home built by the Walz family is still visible on the site. Historical accounts indicate the Nicodemus settlers stopped at the homestead for water on their trek to Nicodemus.
Many members of the extended Walz family traveled to Trego County for the filming and helped support the crew. LeRoy stabled the horses for the wagon teams. LeRoy and his cousin, Albert, both have cameos in the film.
In such a divided nation, Bates pointed to the cooperation between the descendant of Nicodemus and the white descendants from the Walz family who worked together on this project.
“Look at what we are doing right here, today,” she said. “You have 70 some people here depicting this story with wagons. You’ve got cowboys, and you’ve got wagons, and you’ve got people who own all of this equipment. They’re white, and they’re ecstatic and said they where so honored to be a part of this. …
“It’s not just our history, it’s everybody’s history.”
Funding for this project has come from several sources including the National Trust for Public Lands and the National Parks Foundation. Bates is applying for more grants to help fund the completion of the project. Abt offered his services for free.
Abt said the project will not be completed until winter of next year. He said he would like to see the film featured at film festivals and on PBS.
Abt’s wife has connections to the exoduster movement, which were the African Americans who migrated from states along the Mississippi River to Kansas starting in about 1879. He said that connections sparked his interest in the Nicodemus film.
“It’s an amazing piece of history," Abt said. ... “The adversities they faced while they were out there were truly incredible.
“Being able to be out there and being able to film it where they were. They actually walked right through where we filmed in the heat at the same time of year they were there. You get a really good idea and an appreciation for how hard it was.”
Abt has been making films since 2012. Some of his other credits include: “Nico Hernandez: Road to the Olympics,” “Exploration Kansas," “Medicine Hills,” as well as a feature on New Jerusalem State Park for the Nature Conservancy.