Black Settlers in the Driftless
March/April 2021 © Big River Magazine
Black people have a history in the Upper Midwest as long as that of Euro-American settlers, and they built communities in rural areas that we now think of as historically White.
Long before the large migration north in the early 20th century, they came here as slaves, fur traders, miners, freed people and Civil War veterans. Black settlers founded at least three farming communities in the Driftless Area in the 1800s: Pleasant Ridge in Grant County, Wis.; Cheyenne Valley in Vernon County, Wis.; and Equal Rights in Jo Daviess County, Ill.
Before the Civil War, slavery was illegal in the Upper Midwest, but that didn't stop prominent White citizens from slaveholding, including Henry Dodge, the first governor of Wisconsin Territory, which included what later became Iowa and Minnesota.
Both Grant County and Jo Daviess County recorded slave sales. Dred Scott’s time as a slave in ostensibly “free” territory at Rock Island, Ill., and with his wife Harriet at Minnesota’s Fort Snelling formed the basis of his family’s unsuccessful suit for freedom.
In 1840, Paul Jones, a slave in Sinsinawa, Wis., unsuccessfully sued his owner, George Wallace Jones, for wages. Jones, like Dodge, later became a U.S. senator.
Pleasant Ridge, Wis.
Pleasant Ridge was founded by freed Virginia slaves who came north to the booming lead district in 1848. Brothers Charles and Isaac Shepard initially accompanied their former owner’s nephew north, worked for him several years, then bought 200 acres, which they farmed with their wives Caroline and Sarah and families. Charles and others walked to Prairie du Chien to sign up for Civil War service. He died at Vicksburg.
Another early Pleasant Ridge settler, Thomas Greene, escaped to freedom with his family by train, following two unsuccessful attempts. He used the $700 he’d earned as a slave to buy farmland in Grant County. He also fought for the Union.
After the war, their community continued to grow. Eventually, the Black farmers — particularly the Shepard, Greene and Grimes families — owned about 700 acres, and the area attracted White farmers as well.
Historians don’t all agree about how well Pleasant Ridge’s Black residents got along with their White neighbors. There was certainly some integration, supported by photos of Black and White children standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of their school.
The Grant County Historical Society in Lancaster, Wis., has scores of Pleasant Ridge photos, documents, portraits, children’s toys and even a wedding dress replica, much of it donated by Olive Greene Lewis. Lewis, who died in 1959, was one of the last residents of Pleasant Ridge.
Pleasant Ridge children and grandchildren left rural Beetown, and many found educational success elsewhere. Sarah Greene graduated in 1899 from Western College in Macon, Mo. Dr. Howard Shepard became a dentist in 1923.
Clayborn Benson of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society emphasized the “gifts that they brought to that area” in southwest Wisconsin.
“These were educated, smart, intelligent, good farmers, who were raising their families,” he said. “They were good people, and they lived their lives that way.”
All that remains of the community is the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery, on Slab Town Road, west of Lancaster. An interpretive sign on Highway 35 commemorates the settlement.
Cheyenne Valley, Wis.
The descendants of another Black farming community in Wisconsin tell a tale of multiracial cooperation, where race lines blurred and changed over time.
Cheyenne Valley, near Hillsboro, was Wisconsin’s largest rural Black community of the 1800s, starting with settlers like Wesley Barton and Mycajah and Morning Revels. Some of the Black pioneers came from multiracial Native American heritage. Immigrants, including Bohemians and Norwegians, joined them in the valley.
Descendants emphasize that Cheyenne Valley was multiracial. It had several integrated cemeteries and schools. Census records indicate that race in Cheyenne Valley was mutable, determined by personal identify or perhaps a census-taker’s whim. In successive censuses, individual valley residents went from being classified as “mulatto” to Native American, from Black to White, from “mulatto” to Black, or from “mulatto” to Black to White.
“It’s just that the U.S. decided to lump people together according to color, and that means a lot of people lost their true heritage,” explained historian Kevin Alderson at a Driftless Dialogue recorded by University of Wisconsin Extension. “It’s not that anybody’s ashamed of anything, but a lot of that history got lost.”
The Cheyenne Settlers Heritage Foundation aims to bring the valley’s history to light. They hold regular meetings in Hillsboro, and reunions attract several hundred people, who come from as far away as Louisiana, New York, California and Texas.
Diane Revels is a direct descendant of Mycajah and Morning Revels, as was her husband. They grew up only a few miles apart. “I think that’s why my husband and I got along so good,” she said. “We were raised the same way.”
Revels and her daughter traveled to North Carolina to trace the family’s roots, from Waccamaw and other Native American groups, to Georgia, then Indiana and Wisconsin. The society today is like the valley then, as she describes it. Most people are related or already know each other, and newcomers fit in well.
The 2020 reunion was cancelled due to the pandemic, but visitors can still take a driving tour of the valley. A park in the town of Forest honors Cheyenne Valley’s heritage, and this spring a gazebo will be built there using round-barn elements.
Cheyenne Valley’s best-known son, Alga or Algie Shivers, designed many of the round barns that give Vernon County the largest concentration of such structures in the country.
In an archived Driftless Dialogue, a lecture series at the Kickapoo Valley Preserve, descendants told stories of learning to drive a tractor and milk at age 6, of Algie’s ingenious engineering, of getting pulled inside to play music when they were supposed to be going to the store.
“Folks like Algie had integrated schools, an integrated church, integrated sports teams,” said Alderson. “He did not face segregation until he went into World War I, which at that time had segregated units.”
He served in the Army, 365th Infantry Regiment, “buffalo” division, an African-American unit, named for the original “buffalo soldiers,” the 10th Calvary Regiment, an African-American unit that fought in the Civil War.
In the Army, he drove one of the earliest Harley Davidson motorcycles, delivering messages as well as transporting officers in a sidecar.
Alderson tells the story of Algie walking into a bar in Chicago and overhearing patrons insulting him in Bohemian. He answered in Bohemian, offering to buy them a beer. The patrons left. They couldn’t understand that they had just met a Black American Bohemian.
Algie and his wife Flora helped raise Barb Stanek.
“We didn’t even realize that it was different, and of course we didn’t know a lot of the stories about their growing up,” said Stanek, who is also a Revels descendant. “Algie and Otis Arms were the last two Black families in the valley.”
Algie was prosperous, well-educated and ingenuous, speaking at least three languages — he learned French during the war — and inventing a pump system that brought running water to the farmstead long before it was commonplace.
“I don’t think they grew up wanting for much, but he knew there was people out there who didn’t have a lot of stuff,” Stanek recalled.
When he visited someone, he always brought a bag of groceries or a gift.
Stanek said that life in the valley demanded cooperation.
“If somebody needed help, it didn’t matter who you were or what color you were,” she said. “Everybody chipped in and helped. If somebody from outside saw that, it probably looked a little strange.”
While descendants tell stories of harmony in the valley, the threat of racism was just over the hill, so to speak. Vernon County had an active Ku Klux Klan chapter in the 1920s that included ministers and community leaders, and was led by Viroqua’s mayor.
Otis Arms told a historian in 1968 that the KKK threatened his brother during its 1920s peak. He warned Klansmen that a second visit would be met with violence, and the local Klan went back to their usual activity: burning crosses near Catholic homes.
Equal Rights, Ill.
Less is known about the small Black community of Equal Rights, in rural Jo Daviess County. Preachers Henry Smith and Walter Baker bought land south of Warren after facing diminishing economic prospects in Galena, Ill., after the lead boom ended in the 1860s.
Equal Rights was also well-situated between two other churches of their integrated Primitive Baptist faith. Equal Rights residents were farmers and manufactured lime. They had an integrated schoolhouse, though one oral history indicates a fight broke out as a result, writes Marty Wild in an African Diaspora Archaeology Network publication.
What was once Equal Rights is now mostly farm fields. The former school is now a home.
On a timbered slope are the remnants of the small-scale lime works: slag heaps where nothing will grow, some melted glass and fragments of crockery.#
Sara Millhouse is news editor of Big River.
March-April 2021 Copyright © Big River Magazine