African American rural settlements documented: 1
Southern Seed, Northern Soil by Stephen Vincent exhaustively documents the Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County, Indiana. As part of his study, Vincent examines the development and history of Beech settlement, a rural African American community in Rush County. Economics, shifting racial restrictions, and religious beliefs prompted an exodus from the Old South.
Among these early emigrants were groups of free people of color who moved from Eastern North Carolina (Halifax and North Hampton counties) and Virginia (Greensville County). Seeking a better future in the West, some migrants settled first in Ohio. In time they had opportunity to purchase cheap government land in Rush County, Indiana.
Rush County’s Ripley Township was a Quaker haven that drew these early settlers to the area. The 1830 Census records fourteen black households (ninety-one individuals). After having farmed two seasons, Willis Roberts determined to remain at the Beech and in the fall of 1830 purchased a 160 acre farm. Some six months later Willis Roberts’ cousin, Anthony Roberts, entered a claim for 80 acres. Within the year Ann Jones, Macklin Jeffries, and Walker Jeffries joined the ranks of property owners. Vincent concludes that Beech Settlement was a “bustling rural community” by mid decade with most of the township’s 400 black residents arriving by 1835.
Vincent also reports that other settlers arrived at Beech Settlement from western Ohio between 1830 and 1833 (Watkins, Brooks, Tootle) and southern Indiana (Bobson, Moss). A small number accompanied Quakers migrating from the Old South (Cary, Lassiter, Winslow). Beech Settlement experienced an influx of settlers directly from eastern North Carolina as well. Newcomers faced diminished opportunities to acquire cheap land. By the 1860s and 1870s, older residents began to retire from farming or died and their lands passed into the hands of other owners. Although the amount of acreage in the hands of black landowners decreased between the years 1870 to 1900, in many cases the original pioneers bequeathed their land to younger generations. In addition to the surnames mentioned above, there are records of names that include Jeffries, Roberts, Archey, Hill, Walden, and Winburn.
The Beech Settlement was a hub of connections to many of the other rural communities. Beech resident Archibald McGowan/McGowan purchased acreage in Randolph County (Greenvville) and Henry County (Trails Grove). Some of his children attended Union Literary Institute in Randolph County. The sons of William Trail of Trails Grove traveled to Beech for social reasons (Benjamin Trail married a Beech resident, Ethainda Wadkins) and for reasons of employment. For example, a Trail son was hired as a school teacher at Beech. As land prices in Ripley Township rose, some residents of Beech Settlement moved on to communities such as the Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County or other destinations. For example, Hugh Bobson sold his 40-acre Beech homestead and bought 80 acres in Hancock County. Some free black families began to seek land in other locales such as Hamilton County, Indiana’s Roberts Settlement.
The Rush County Interim Report inventories a number of significant structures in present day Ripley Township including Mt Pleasant Beech Church constructed ca 1840 at CR 725 West and the Walker Jeffries homestead constructed ca 1850 at CR 800 North. Descendants of the settlement host an annual homecoming which includes a church service at the site at the end August.
Boyd, Gregory, A., Family Maps of Rush County, Indiana. Norman, OK: Arphax, 2010.
Carter, Lawrence. Notebooks, F0562. William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. [Collection Guide online]
History of Rush County, Indiana, from the Earliest Time to the Present with Biographical Sketches, Notes, etc. Chicago: Brant & Fuller, 1888.
“Indiana’s African American Settlements” Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center. Accessed June 20, 2014.
Newby, Thomas. Reminiscences of Thomas T. Newby. Carthage, IN: [n.p.], 1916.
Rush County Interim Report. Indianapolis: Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, 1993.
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, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Weaver, Thomas P. “Life and Works.” Free African Americans (Nineteenth Century Photos, Part 4: The Weaver Settlement). Accessed June 20, 2014.
By Georgia Cravey, June 23, 2014