Christine Schwerin, Michigan History MagazineLook00
Dr. Michael Nassaney (Photo courtesy Associated Press)
Spring has come to rural Michigan, and farmers are tilling their fields. Occasionally, these farmers come across fragments of history. Over the course of many decades, a few farmers in Vandalia (Cass County) noticed an abundance of logs, dishes, bricks and glass. Historian Sondra Mose-Ursery had heard stories about a runaway slave community that purportedly existed in Vandalia in the early to mid 1800s. Could these bits and pieces be the remains of that community?
Sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, Mose-Ursery talked with Dr. Michelle S. Johnson. At the time, Johnson was the coordinator of the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission. She contacted Western Michigan University anthropology professor Dr. Michael Nassaney. In 2002, Nassaney led a project to determine whether the Vandalia farmland was the site of the runaway slave community known as Young’s Prairie. That summer, a WMU team uncovered over 1,000 nineteenth-century artifacts and identified twelve cabin sites. (The photo above shows Nassaney in 2005 with a broken piece of pottery from the site.)
Those artifacts, along with census records, interviews and other sources, helped researchers confirm local stories. A community of Quakers and free blacks did indeed offer plots of land in Vandalia to runaway slaves in exchange for help clearing the land. The former slaves built cabins, farmed the land and kept whatever money they made. As an extra layer of protection, their cabins never showed up on any maps, and only a few of their names were recorded. We may never know the whole story of their hardships (certainly there were many). Nonetheless, Michiganians can feel proud that they found refuge in our fair state.
Click on Freedom Trail Lesson Plans to learn more about the Underground Railroad in Michigan. These lesson plans include a narrative overview, biographies of escaped slaves and transcripts of archival documents.