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.
The Johnsons’ sturdy home was conveniently located, an hour’s walk to Empire in the south. In the opposite direction, they were an hour’s walk to the sawmill and tram line at Glen Lake, where people could ride the flat cars to and from Glen Haven. The Johnson home would also have been about an hour’s walk from the Brotherton School near North Bar Lake, according to Taghon, attended by their children, Leon, Faith, Hope and Charity.
An anti-slavery state, Michigan had integrated schools. There were 7,200 rural, one-room schoolhouses scattered over the state, the idea being that every child should be within an hour’s walk of education. Two other African-American families lived in the area that is now in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — the Hall and the Skinner families, according to Taghon — and some of these children may have also attended the Brotherton School on Voice Road.
The social climate
What was the racial climate in the area at the time? Northwestern Michigan would have been, relatively speaking, a safe haven for an African-American pioneer family. A group of abolitionists who had established a racially integrated academy in Benzonia were from Oberlin, Ohio; Oberlin was known as “the town that started the Civil War” because of the abolitionists’ willingness to risk their lives to help runaway slaves. There were also several abolitionists in prominent positions in the area, including the county clerk in Traverse City, the founder of the Traverse City weekly newspaper and two ministers to the Indians in Northport and Old Mission. The accountant at the Empire Lumber Company, Edward Voice, for whom Voice Road is named, was from one of these abolitionist families.
We know from the oral histories recorded in “Some Other Day in Empire,” that there are nine black people buried in Maple Grove cemetery on M-109. An indication of the racial mores of the day is that the African Americans were buried in the cemetery and the Native Americans out behind it, according to Frank Fradd, who gently objected — not to the inclusion of the blacks but to the exclusion of the Indians; one of the Indians had been his friend.
Four years after the Johnsons arrived at Glen Lake, they had saved enough money to buy a second 40-acre-parcel for which they paid $150, according to court records. This time the county register of deeds was their neighbor, John Dorsey.
To provide an idea of how quickly the face of America was changing, Dorsey is a good case in point. His family had escaped the famine in Ireland, and Dorsey was a Glen Lake homesteader and Civil War veteran. In 1851, at 19, Dorsey sailed into Glen Haven on his own sloop. He lived in the Indian camp there, made barrels so they could ship salted fish to Chicago, and became fluent in their language. Chicago, the fasted-growing city in history, had expanded from a handful of huts in the 1830s to a city of 1.9 million by 1900, in part with the help of northern Michigan’s fish and timber.
Anna Johnson, according to Taghon, was a midwife. The neighbors called her “Auntie,” an old-fashioned term of respect for a woman who was not literally a family member, but accepted as an extension of family.
The Davis family
Sometime in 1862, while the Civil War raged all around them, the family of William and Mildred Davis made their way from Ohio to Michigan to claim 160 acres under the Homestead Act just signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
The mode of travel was by water and the footpaths of the Indians. Anyone who came would have needed a woodsman’s skills: well-honed abilities to use an ax, hunt, fish and forage for wild food.
Homesteading, by any measure, was not easy. Rebecca Burlend, an English woman and her husband and two children, who came to homestead in Illinois, to a community with supply stores and neighbors, said she and her husband took one look at each other and burst into tears.
Benzie homesteader William Davis was reportedly African on his mother’s side and Scots-Irish on his father’s. He met his wife, Mildred Brand, in Pennsylvania. According to a descendant, Mildred had been born in Virginia, the progeny of a man from Scotland and one of his female slaves. Mildred, according to family lore, had straight, long black hair down past her waist, a penchant for smoking a clay pipe, and may have been part-Indian, as DNA tests for two family members would seem to corroborate.
This intrepid couple had six children by the time they arrived in northern Michigan. They went on to have three more, and would take in as many as 16 children: black, white, Native American and everything in between. One, Rose, found in a gunny sack at the side of the road, would later become their son Joseph’s third wife after his first two died.
Joseph Brand Davis was 23 when he arrived in Benzie County and he also homesteaded 160 acres. In the days when getting supplies from Traverse City meant a week-long trek on foot, Joseph made arrangements with pioneers along the route to stay the night with them and, in exchange, would bring them supplies on his return trip.
The large Davis family was typical of many American pioneers: brave, family-oriented, hard-working. They were the classical “pillars of the community,” giving land for a church and a cemetery. Several male offspring served in the U.S. military. Verna (Worden) Murphy, an 82-year-old Davis descendant, attended high school in Honor. Now living in Virginia, she describes her childhood as pleasant.
“We were the taxi,” she said. “If someone needed to go to the doctor we could take them.”
She says she did not look black, but people knew her origins.
“I never experienced any prejudice,” she recalled, “maybe a little jealousy because we had a little more than some of our neighbors.”
Shelley Murphy, Verna’s daughter, who provided information for this article, still comes back to the Benzie Area Historical Society — Davis family records and photos for this article were made available, courtesy of the historical society — to update her family’s pioneer history.
An ardent genealogist whose emails always end with the signature, “Know your roots, they are long and strong,” she has worked to document family lore in order to make sure descendants know their history.
Background information for this article came from the Traverse City Record-Eagle’s, “Northern Michigan and the Civil War” by Loraine Anderson; “Heritage of Provemont” by Vonda Belanger; “History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians,” by Andrew Blackbird; “Waiting for the Morning Train” and “Michigan” by Bruce Catton; “A True Picture of Emigration” by Rebecca Burlend; “Love Stories from the Underground Railroad” and “Freedom by Any Means” by Betty DeRamus; “De Tocqueville in America,” the 1938 Johns Hopkins University edition; “Some Other Day in Empire,” oral histories compiled in the 1970s by the Empire Heritage Society; “Enoch ‘Knuck’ Harris: A Biography in Progress” by Thomas Edsall, Carl Lightfoot, and Lorle Porter published by The Ohio Genealogical Society; “Summer on the Lakes” by Margaret Fuller in 1843; “Black Indians, a Hidden Heritage” by William Loren Katz; “Ties That Bind – The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom” by Tia Miles; “The Negro in the Making of America” by Benjamin Quarles; “Grand Traverse – The Civil War Era” by John Mitchell; “The Black Gauntlet – A Tale of Plantation Life in South Carolin,” by Mary Howard Schoolcraft; “American Tapestry – The Story of Black, White, Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama,” by Rachel Swarns; “Live, Labor, Love – The History of a Multiracial Family in Connecticut 1700-1900” by Alene Jackson Smith and Adeline Jackson Tucker; “Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” by Clarence Walker; “Free Frank – a Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier” by Juliet E. K. Walker; “Sleeping Bear – Yesterday and Today” by George Weeks.
Special thanks to Dave Taghon at the Empire Museum for his unstinting assistance. The Empire Area Heritage Group, through the work of many dedicated volunteers over the years, received an award for excellence in 2012 from the State of Michigan Historical Society.