Friday, December 21, 2012

The Unfinished Story of Negro Town

From an 1824 map of the Delaware District. The 1817 Treaty of Fort Meigs ceded the surrounding territory to the US government-- allowing men like Captain William Oliver to carve out land for Toledo and other cities.

I was studying a detailed 1815 map of Ohio when I came across a strange settlement called Negro Town a few miles north of Upper Sandusky, in what was then still the Wyandot tribal lands. This settlement is connected with the story of John Stewart, an African American missionary who founded the first church in Upper Sandusky around 1816.  Between-the-Logs, a Wyandot leader, gave this account of Stewart's career in their community:

Our fathers had religion of their own. They served God and were happy. That was before the White Man came. They worshipped with feasts and sacrifices, dances and rattles. They did what they thought was right. Our parents wished us to do good and they used to make us do good, and would sometimes correct us for doing evil. But a great while ago the French sent us a book by the Roman Priest and we listened to him. . . . We did what he told us. . . . At last he went away. Then we returned to our fathers' religion again. But then the Seneca prophet came and he said that he had talked to the Great Spirit, and he was told what the Indian ought to do. We listened to him and many followed him. But we found that he told us not to do things and then he did those things himself. So we were deceived. . . . Again we took up the religion of our fathers. But then the Shawnee prophet arose. We heard him and some of us followed him for awhile, but we had been de ceived so often that we watched him very closely, and soon found that he was like all the rest so we left him also.

Then there was war between our fathers and the President and King George. . . . By the time the war was over we were all scattered and many killed and died. Our chiefs thought to get the nation together again. Then the Black Man, Stewart, our brother here (pointed to Stewart) came to us and told us he was sent by the Great Spirit to tell us the true and good way. But we thought he was like all the rest-that he too wanted to cheat us and get our money and land from us. He told us of our sins and that drinking was ruining us and that the Great Spirit was angry with us. He said that we must leave off these things. But we treated him ill and gave him little to eat, and trampled on him and were jealous of him for a whole year. Then we attended his meeting in the council house. We could find no fault with him. The Great Spirit came upon us so that all cried aloud. Some clapped their hands, some ran away, and some were angry. We held our meetings all night, sometimes singing, sometimes praying. By now we were convinced that God had sent him to us. Stewart is a good man.

Stewart married an African American woman named Polly, though I have not found out whether she was a resident of the Wyandot lands or a newcomer like him. He had contracted tuberculosis earlier, having a severe bout in 1815, and finally succumbed to it in 1823. Stewart was remembered by later Methodist missionaries and his connection to the Wyandot church is enshrined on historical markers. Negro Town, however, has faded from the maps and from history itself.

On the original plats it appears to be very close to the site of the 1782 skirmish at "Battle Island" which ended so badly for Colonel William Crawford. If the current marker site for Battle Island is reasonably correct, then the site of Negro Town is somewhere on the Sandusky river near the Indian Mill, which I have dealt with in other posts.

However, my case files on the subject remain open. Negro Town poses a lot of questions to the historian: what were Native American attitudes towards slaves or runaways they captured or encountered in their lands? What did the government's Indian Agents think about a group like this settling openly outside of white territory?

Most strikingly, the main military road to the lake was built right in the vicinity of Negro Town in 1813 and remained a primary route long after the cessation of operations in 1815. The village that had been safely ensconced in Indian country was now exposed to travelers and settlers moving north into lands that were open to white purchase after the 1817 Treaty of Fort Meigs. What effect could this have had on a community with so many people living under a quasi legal status?

Alexander Bourne's 1815 map of Ohio. Bourne served during the campaign of 1813 as an adjutant for Mill's Ohio Regiment and fought at Fort Meigs.

Screenshot of the miniscule entry for Negro Town. From this it looks to be just north of the site of Crawford's defeat in 1782, not to be confused with the site of Crawford's burning on the Tymochtee Creek.