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Washington County

African American rural settlements documented: 3

Washington County was established in 1814. As early as 1803 and typical of the time, “squatters” anticipating territorial expansion began migrating to the area. By 1810, roughly 250 people had settled.  It’s unclear how many people of color were among or in addition to this number.  The manner in which one, John Williams, arrived is uncertain. But along the way, he befriended Quakers. They had begun arriving in 1808. The same year, a teen named Harry Mingo entered a 60-year indentured service agreement with slaveholder Henry Twyman.  Thus, Twyman complied with Indiana law, which stipulated all enslaved peoples (including the boy and others Twyman had brought with him from Kentucky) be “freed.” Mingo would periodically take Twyman to court, charging mistreatment. In 1816, fearing a return to Kentucky and enslavement, he enlisted the aid of friends and escaped to Canada. (See Centennial History of Washington County by Steve Warder.)

Negro Registers and census data confirm a growing number of blacks trickling into the county between 1820 and 1850.  Some were lone domestics or farm hands living with the family they served.  Many chose the various African American enclaves that were built close together—often unnamed.  In comparison to the white community, their overall numbers were few but grew dur-ing this period. Ultimately African Americans would reside in over half of this rural county’s 13 townships. For census data, it appears that most lived either in the city of Salem or rural com-munities in Washington, Posey or Howard Townships. County revenue and deed records suggest these three unnamed, black pioneer settlements in Washington County were largely agrarian and robust. Property ownership was common. Entrepreneurs paid taxes, helped build churches and established cemeteries. At the zenith of black residency, Rev. Hiram Revels and his brother, Wil-lis, were active in the local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) community, which built two day schools for black children.  (Sons of free black parents and born in North Carolina, the Revel brothers lived in Washington County for decades before seeking their fortunes elsewhere.  Hiram moved to Mississippi where he became the first African American Senator to serve in the U.S. Congress.)  By any standard of the day, John Williams became wealthy—owning 160 acres of profitable farmland. Businessman Alexander White established a “whites only hotel” in Salem, purchased numerous plats in “Hay’s Addition” and the plot in Howard Township, where an AME church once stood.  

As the black community had grown, so had anti-black hostility. White was considered Salem’s “last colored resident” when he was murdered in 1867.  His wealth inexplicably gone, he was doing odd jobs around town.  Though retaining his wealth, Williams died similarly—presumably at the hand of white assailants. [No one was convicted for either crime. William’s murderer(s) were unknown.  White’s murder was witnessed as he and others were leaving church. One assailant fled the town and avoided arrest.  The other was tried but not convicted. See Reclaiming African Heritage in Salem, Indiana by Coy Robbins.]  Washington County enumerated 252 blacks in the 1850 census, but by 1870 the number had dwindled to 18.  For the next century, the county’s population census recorded single digits for black residents.

With threats, violence and aggressive “colonization” campaigns, the 1850s ushered in tremendous pressures on Washington County’s African Americans. The successful crusade to drive African Americans away was followed by decades of erasing away any sign they had ever been there.  What had made the settlement communities—its properties, institutions and cemeteries were consumed, looted or otherwise destroyed. 

During the 1980s, the Washington Co. Cemetery Association erected markers recognizing sites where “Negro People” had been buried or there had been an “African American Community.” Thus, black pioneers were honored but remained blanketed in anonymity.  The one exception stands on the site of what was once the Salem African Methodist Episcopal Church and cemetery:  “SITE OF BLACK AFRICAN AMERICAN METHODIST CHURCH John Williams established a fund for the education of Negroes which is still awarding scholarships to Negro students. He died in 1863 and is buried here.”  The Washington County settlements, cemeteries and schools that Williams, White and many others helped establish and those that merit further investigation are listed below.

Cemeteries

African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery (where John Williams is buried) Salem, Washington, Indiana  

African-American Cemetery Becks Mill, Washington, Indiana

 

Bibliography 

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records,  Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 0014 – 1820.  Crawford, Delaware, Dubois, Harrison, Jennings, Knox, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen, Perry, Scott, Switzerland, Vanderburgh, Vigo, Wabash, Washington. Accessed on August 22, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 0031 – 1830.  Orange, Henry, Tippecanoe, Greene, Bartholo-mew, Carroll, Knox, Washington, and Daviess Counties) Accessed on August 22, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 0097 – 1840.  Wabash, Warrick, Warren, Washington. Accessed on August 22, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 00149 – 1850.  Washington, Warrick Counties. Accessed on August 22, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 00306 – 1860.  Washington County. Accessed on August 23, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 00306 – 1870.  Washington County. Accessed on August 23, 2014.

Bureau of the United States Census, National Archives & Records, Indiana Federal Population Census Schedules, Volume: Reel 00306 – 1880.  Washington County. Accessed on August 23, 2014.

Goodspeed, Weston. History of Lawrence, Orange and Washington Counties Indiana. Chicago: Goodspeed Bros. & Co., 1884. Accessed on July 13, 2014.

Gresham, John M. Biographical and Historical Souvenir for the Counties of Clark, Crawford, Harrison, Floyd, Jefferson, Jennings, Scott, and Washington, Indiana. Chicago: Chicago Printing Co. 1889.  

Robbins, Coy R. Reclaiming African Heritage at Salem, Indiana. Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 1995. 

Thornbrough, Emma L. The Negro in Indiana: A Study of a Minority. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Bureau. 1957. 

Trueblood, Lillie D. The Story of John Williams, Colored. Indiana Magazine of History, June 1934. Accessed on July 27, 2014.

Warder, Steven W. Centennial History of Washington County, Indiana its people, industries and institutions: with biographical sketches of representative citizens and genealogical records of many of the old families. Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen., 1916.

By Martina Nichols Kunnecke, August 27, 2014