In celebration of Black History Month, local historian and author, William O. Smith, shared Decatur County’s participation in the Underground Railroad with the Daily News.
Smith explained that the overall consensus of Decatur County was abysmally anti-black in the 19th century.
Indiana settlers were immigrating from “breeder states” such as Kentucky and Virginia, where the “overstock children” of slaves on small farms were still being sold — these were the same slave owners moving to Indiana and Decatur County.
Indiana also passed several laws which made the message clear that free blacks were not welcome in the Hoosier State.
Article Thirteen in the Indiana constitution, 1851, outlined that employers of blacks would be fined, and that free blacks were to leave the state. The article persisted for nearly 30 years.
Even the “Decatur County” Anti-slavery Society would have been more accurately the “Kingston” Anti-Slavery Society, according to William O. Smith. The abolitionists were primarily centralized in Kingston. Smith said that Greensburg had no role in helping fugitive escapees because a major trade road, “old Michigan road,” was active at night (The Anti-slavery Society should not be confused with the Colonization Society of 1850, said Smith, which wanted to fund sending blacks “back to Africa”.).
That isn’t to say there weren’t dedicated abolitionists.
The 1838 minutes of the Anti-Slavery Society described the death of Reverend P. Lovejoy, who was murdered in Alton for speaking and printing against slavery.
Quakers were also not the leaders in the Indiana underground, said Smith, but Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians.
The prominent Decatur County Snelling settlement would also play its important role in helping fugitives escape to Canada.
Despite Indiana not being a slave state during the time of Snelling’s prominence, whites were still obligated to return the escaped “property” or else face prosecution for assisting an escaped slave.
Fugitives also faced the threat of slave hunters, which became a lucrative business of bounty-hunting for freemen and fugitives alike. Fugitives were not truly free until they crossed into Canada.
Regardless of the odds, the Snelling settlement, Miles Meadows, and the Donnell, Hamilton, McCoy and other white families would assist between 125 to 320 or more slaves escape persecution.
The estimation of 320, said Smith, would have taken place over a 30-year period. Against the 100,010 slaves who fled to Canada, 320 is an incredibly small number.
The Snelling settlement was a unique entity until Article Thirteen was passed.
Smith said Indiana historians have dismissed the Snelling settlement as a community of escaped refugees. Smith’s research into Decatur County archives presents a different story.
In 1823 a black pioneer settler, Joseph Snelling, traveled from Kentucky and was among the first Decatur County settlers. He purchased 58 acres of land from the United States government and settled with seven or eight children (but no apparent wife) in Fugit Township, east of Clarksburg.
By 1850, the settlement would grow to 270 residents, crossing the Decatur-Franklin County line to Buena Vista. Eight black people would be listed as property owners, and of the 170 residents on the Decatur County side in the Snelling settlment, 65 were born in Decatur County.
Those who were not land owners would pay property taxes on wagons, cattle, and horses.
A colony of refugees would not be listed as land owners and tax payers, said Smith.
Another fact Smith uncovered was that in 1845, a black woman named Jane Speed owned 80 acres of land — a remarkable achievement considering not only her race but also her gender.
The Snelling settlement would disintegrate after Article Thirteen came into being. The article demanded that black residents evacuate the state, so the settlement honored the new constitutional law.
Black history in Decatur County is invariably centered on white abolitionists. There are not many black first-hand accounts of the Decatur County Underground Railroad, according to Smith, and the vast majority of Smith’s discoveries come from records manned by wealthy white land owners.
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Contact: Tess Rowing 812-663-3111 x7004