O Pioneers: African-American settlers on Glen Lake


BlackPioneers-Johnson Family (A)By Kathleen Stocking
Sun contributor

Stocking’s account of African-American settlers on Glen Lake first appeared in the Glen Arbor Sun in 2013. On Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans at the end of the Civil War, we honor Black settlers in Leelanau County.

In 1877, Levi Johnson and his wife, Anna, paid $125 for 40 acres looking east over 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 Transit Company (NTC) as the grantor. The NTC, which owned a 24-vessel fleet to ship lumber, had no further use for the land after removing the timber. This site, protected from the prevailing northwest winds by Shauger Hill, has a dramatic view of Glen Lake.

The Johnsons showed good timing in terms of when they came to Glen Lake. Twenty years earlier and they would have had to cut the trees and carry in their supplies. In 1877 they could have come by steamer from Chicago to Glen Haven in 30 hours, paying $7 a person, a fare which represented a common laborer’s two-week wages.

According to Ray Welch, scion of another Glen Lake pioneer family, the Johnson family was hardworking and respectable. By the standards of the day the Johnsons were already well off when they arrived: they had money for travel, land, tools, building supplies and animals. Empire was a thriving lumber town and had goods available and so even though the Johnsons would have brought many things with them, they probably purchased larger items, such as farming equipment and animals, after they arrived.

BlackPioneers-Aral School (C)The Johnson’s well-built home (later moved, which is how we know it was well-built) would have been at the top of what is now Welch Road off M-109, in the area where in the 1970s the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had its headquarters, according to Dave Taghon, director of the Empire Museum. The Johnson home was located an hour’s walk to Empire and an hour’s walk to the Glen Lake Mill Pond where people could ride the flat cars to Glen Haven. The homestead was a 10-minute walk from the Wickham and Springdale Schools and an hour’s walk from the Brotherton School on Voice Road.

We know the Johnson children — Leon, Faith, Hope and Charity — attended the Brotherton School some of the time, perhaps when the other schools were closed, since they appear in one of the school’s photos. There were at least two other African-American families in the area, the Hall family and the Skinner family, and photos show some of these children also sometimes attended the Brotherton School as well as the Morgan School on Esch Road and the Aral School at Otter Creek.

The historical and human significance of the presence of the Johnsons and other African-American families in the Empire and Glen Lake area cannot be overestimated. To be there they would have had to deal with all the exigencies of frontier life, mainly the constant hard work and the ability to maintain good cheer and endure isolation. In addition, to get there in the first place, they would’ve had to have survived slavery, including the physical brutality and the trauma of family members being sold. They would have needed to be diplomatic enough to circumvent the laws that made it illegal for slaves to learn to read, write or own property in order to acquire the skills and the goods they’d need if they were later to escape. They would have needed money to purchase their own freedom; if they planned to run away, they would have needed money to buy things needed for a long journey. Even if they succeeded in all of that, they would then have needed to then traverse several hundred miles of a landscape dotted with bounty hunters since before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 even manumitted slaves who carried all the proper documents could be robbed of their freedom papers and sold back into slavery.

BlackPioneers-Brotherton School (B)Michigan was a good place to come. From the beginning it was an anti-slavery state and had integrated schools; in the early years it had the highest education budget of any state in the union. There were 7,200 one-room schoolhouses scattered over the state, the idea being that every child should be within an hour’s walk of a chance to learn.

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, a Civil War veteran whose homestead was down the hill on Little Glen Lake. Anna Johnson, according to Taghon, was a midwife. Mrs. Dorsey was also a midwife and the two women certainly knew each other and may have worked together.

Taghon says all the neighbors called Mrs. Johnson, “Auntie,” an old-fashioned term of respect for a woman who was not literally a family member, but accepted as an extension of family. Mark Twain, writing about relations between whites and blacks in the 1850s in Missouri, writes, “All the Negros were friends of ours, and with those of our own age we were in effect comrades. I say in effect, using the phrase as a modification. We were comrades and yet not comrades; color and condition imposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of and rendered complete fusion impossible.”

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. The accountant at the Empire Lumber Company, Edward Voice, for whom Voice Road is named, was from one of these abolitionist families and his father-in-law, Reverend George Smith, a missionary to the Indians in Northport, was also an abolitionist.

Historian Bruce Catton of Benzonia, awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on the Civil War and who was founding editor of American Heritage, writes in his book, Michigan, about an 1800s black family in Boyne City, Zachariah and Mary Morgan, who founded the brick yard. “The Morgans were examples of complete individualism operating against a background of total unity,” Catton writes. “They survived and prospered by their own efforts, which were prodigious, beating the enormous racial handicap simply by acting as if it did not exist; yet, as pioneers, they got help from others, gave it in return, and helped create something that would not have come into being if many diverse people had not happily worked together.” When Mrs. Morgan died in 1951 the entire town shut down for her funeral. Because black people were not allowed to read or write until after the Civil War, the accounts of their frontier life are not as prevalent as those of whites, but they do exist and are now coming to light.

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.

There were several African-American families in the area during this time. There was a black man whose last name was Smith who ran the ferry at Fouche’s Landing on South Lake Leelanau, according to a book by Ed Littel of Leland. There are oral history accounts of African-American families in the Cedar-Isadore area. The Benzie Area Historical Society has many photos of African-American families. Some of these families were prosperous and of mixed ancestry, according to Benzie historical records. One of the women in the Baty family, according to Benzie’s Davis family genealogist, Shelley Murphy, performed at the White House for President Lincoln; this woman and other members of her family may have been free of slavery for generations. The State of Michigan has many archival photos of students in the area’s one-room schoolhouses and some of those students are of African-American descent.

The Empire Museum has a photo of Levi and Anna Johnson and two of their children in a horse-drawn doctor’s buggy. The photo shows a young, handsome family. They are well-to-do, judging by their clothing and the above-standard quality of the buggy and the horse. Levi Johnson is wearing a traditional man’s flat cap, sitting next to his beautiful wife who is holding their newborn infant; their son, dressed in a fine suit of clothes and a soft cap like his father’s, is looking away from the camera.

More accounts and archival photos are coming to light all the time about America’s black pioneers in the Midwest. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History in collaboration with the National Museum of American History presented exhibits in 2013 and 2014 on the historical context of African-American pioneer families. These exhibits were accompanied by a series of public programs and lectures exploring the social and political currents that shaped modern America. The Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History received several large bequests and opened new exhibits in 2015.

Kathleen Stocking is author of the acclaimed book, Letters from the Leelanau (University of Michigan Press, 1990) and The Long Arc of the Universe.