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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 11. Western Expansion


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Simultaneously, the United States government was vastly acquiring land in a period dominated by western expansion. The government was constantly in negotiations and warfare with Native American Nations who inhabited locations they desired. In 1744, commissioners from Virginia negotiated the Treaty of Lancaster in which the Six Nations of the Iroquois deeded to Virginia all of the land that comprises what is now West Virginia.1 The Virginians claimed that the deal covered much more territory—all the land extending to the Mississippi River. That was not the Six Nations’ understanding of what they had sold, and they drafted a subsequent treaty, the Treaty of Logstown,2 to clarify the matter.

Western expansion also included territory that would become Alabama and Mississippi. Virginia’s landholding gentry patented land in these areas and were stockholders in land holding companies.3 For example, James Madison and Andrew Jackson were stockholders in the Cypress Land Company.4 After the Treaty of Lancaster secured western lands, Colonel Thomas Cresap helped form and became an agent for the Ohio Company.5 The company’s purpose was to sell land and settle the Ohio territory.

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