Ed. note: They’re an important part of the region’s history, yet few outside of local historians and those involved in museums know that northern Michigan was home to African-American pioneers during and after the Civil War era.
Author Kathleen Stocking, herself the daughter of area pioneers, writes about two of the most prominent African-American families who helped settle the areas of Benzie County in what now is known as the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
In 1877, Levi Johnson and his wife, Anna, paid $125 for 40 acres looking east-northeast above Glen Lake. The grantor on the deed is listed as Peter Nauibawi in Leelanau County’s earliest book of land transactions, but the actual deed lists the Northern Ohio Transit Company (aka Northern Transit Company or NTC) as the grantor. The NTC, which owned a 24-vessel fleet, presumably cut the timber on the Johnson land and transported the lumber.
Assuming the Johnsons’ 40 acres had already been timbered-off by the NTC, the Johnsons showed good timing in terms of when they came to Glen Lake. Twenty years earlier, they would have had to cut the trees themselves with an ax and carry in their supplies — probably on their backs since horses were hard to buy in the early years on the frontier.
According to Ray Welch, scion of another Glen Lake pioneer family, the Johnson family was hard-working and respectable. By the standards of the day, the Johnsons were apparently already well-off when they arrived: they had money for travel, land, tools, building supplies and animals.
The Johnson home, according to Dave Taghon at the Empire Museum, would have been at the top of what is now Welch Road off M-109, in the area where the first National Park Service headquarters were located. The house was moved in the 1920s, Taghon said, after the Johnsons were no longer there, to the Breithaupt Farm down the slope, closer to Glen Lake.