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Invisible in Plain Sight

Self-Determination Strategies of Free Blacks in the Old Northwest


Jill E. Rowe

The Land Act of 1820 made it possible for settlers to begin to populate the West and added to the confiscation of land from Native Americans. Former landowners – a mix of Native American, African and European ancestry – migrated to the northern frontier and founded at least thirty well-defined free black communities between 1820 and 1850 in the Old Northwest, becoming an important safe haven and beacon of freedom.

Its notoriety and size grew as slaves often migrated to these locations after they were granted emancipation in the wills of slave owners who purchased land in the area for them to settle on. The newly free people found sanctuary as these communities were also rumored to shelter runaway slaves in their role as active participants in the Underground Railroad Movement.

However, the prosperity of blacks living in these villages angered some of the local whites – many of whom were migrating at the same time and were connected to local law officials and politicians. Archival documents reveal continued acts of terrorism perpetuated against blacks which heightened the importance of the strength of the communities they founded – specifically schools, churches, businesses, and intergenerational family structures – in providing a unified front that allowed them to bond and thrive in an environment that was not always conducive to their survival.

Invisible in Plain Sight: Self-Determination Strategies of Free Blacks in the Old Northwest provides a rare detailed examination of an often overlooked piece of the American tapestry. It is perfect reading for history classes in high school and college, as well as for history enthusiasts looking for something new.

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Chapter 2. The Virginia Confederacy of Indians


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In the collective memory, the founding of the United States began with the Mayflower Pilgrims landing in Plymouth Harbor in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.1 In reality, the colonization of America commenced on May 14, 1607 with Jamestown, the first successful English settlement on the North American mainland in the colony of Virginia.2 If we begin the story with the arrival of the Pilgrims, the narrative suggests an egalitarian arrangement between the English settlers and the indigenous people. On the other hand, if we start with the arrival of English settlers in Virginia a different account emerges. In the second rendering, an ideological clash with the indigenous people emerges from the onset. Cosmological differences regarding the use of the available land led to the exploitation of indigenous people by representatives of the British Commonwealth and, after the American Revolution, the emerging government.

The Virginia Indian Confederation—also known as the Virginia Algonquians or the Powhatan Confederacy—existed in the wetlands of Eastern Virginia and Western Maryland prior to the establishment of the Virginia Colony at Jamestown by British settlers in 1607.3 Chief Powhatan controlled six tribes in the area, specifically the Powhatan, the Arrohatek, the Appamattuck, the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi, and the Chiskiak. By the ← 6 | 7 → time the British arrived, he dominated over thirty tribes.4 From the beginning of the founding of the colony, ideological differences existed between the tobacco farmers’ conceptualizations of land use...

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