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Hamilton County

African American rural settlements documented: 1

Although there were small populations of African Americans in the western parts of Hamilton County, the Roberts Settlement was the only rural settlement documented for this project. The book, Southern Seed, Northern Soil by Stephen Vincent exhaustively documents the community. The website Roberts Settlement http://www.robertssettlement.org/ gives a good overview of the community’s origins:

“In July 1835, African-American pioneers Hansel Roberts, Elijah Roberts, and Micajah Walden journeyed to the federal government’s land office in Indianapolis to purchase homesteads in northern Hamilton County, thirty miles to the north. Their claims had been intentionally chosen to be within several miles of Quakers, a group known to be accepting and supportive of free blacks. In October 1835, the men brought their families to their wilderness claims and settled permanently, thereby establishing a farm community later known as Roberts Settlement. By 1840 the neighborhood included about 10 families and 900 acres of land.”

The Roberts kindred were a group of mixed race people with free status who initially emigrated from eastern North Carolina to “The Beech,” a community in Rush County, Indiana.

The 1840s and 1850s were the “golden era” of the settlement. By the 1870s, the community was thriving with some three hundred residents distributed over almost 2,000 acres. By 1900, however, Roberts Settlement was subject to the same pressures that affected Indiana’s other rural communities–decreasing opportunities on the farm and increasing opportunities for education and employment in towns and cities. Vincent notes that “less than half a dozen families remained by the mid 1920s .  The legacy of Roberts Settlement is alive in a strong family association that organizes an annual homecoming on July 4. The church is the focus of the event. Author Vincent and Roberts descendants have produced a short documentary and are attempting to expand the film to reach broader audiences.

Hamilton County Historian, David Heighway noted the early presence in the county of a fur trader of African descent. Pete Smith frequented an area known as Horseshoe Prairie and provided assistance to pioneer settlers as early as 1819. Heighway confirmed that settlement of African Americans in Hamilton County was concentrated in the western townships in association with Quakers and other residents who held strong anti-slavery views including white settlements like Baker’s Corner and Boxley, as well as significant African American populations in towns like Westfield and Noblesville. In addition to the Roberts surname, other family names include Gilliam, Holbert, McDuffey, Tootle, Watkins, Walden, Hurley, Winburn, Sweat and McCowan.

Bibliography

“Indiana’s African American Settlements” Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center. Accessed June 20, 2014.

Boyd, Gregory, A., Family Maps of Hamilton County, Indiana. Norman, OK: Arphax, 2009.

Hamilton County Interim Report. Indianapolis: Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, 1992.

Roberts Settlement. Accessed June 20, 2014.

Thornbrough, Emma Lou. The Negro in Indiana before 1900: a Study of a Minority. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Aggregate Amount of Each Description of Persons within District of Indiana,” 1: 352. Sixth Census of the United States, 1840. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Office, 1841.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Population of Civil Divisions Less Than Counties; Table III—State of Indiana,” 1: 124. Ninth Census of the United States, 1870. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1872.

Vincent, Stephen A.  Southern Seed, Northern Soil. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.

By Georgia Cravey, June 21, 2014