The Underground Railroad in Myaamionki

A while ago, an interesting blog post brought my attention to a fascinating and, at least to me, new aspect of Myaamia history: the Underground Railroad in Indian Country. 

I admit, I had never considered that the flight north to freedom for the formerly enslaved required movement through Myaamionki ‘Miami Territory.’ When I think about the  “antebellum” period, the narrative leads towards the American Civil War in 1861-1865. The “antebellum” (pre-Civil War) story is typically considered in white and black.

On the other hand, when I consider the “pre-removal” period of Myaamia history, I frame this in terms of Myaamia land dispossession and eventual removal to Kansas in 1846. This is a story I typically consider in red and white. 

The eminent historian Gary Nash reminded us decades ago that the colonization of America requires us to view red, white, and black on the same canvas. Simply put, the history of Black folks in Myaamia communities does not easily fit into my conceptions of Miami, or African American, history. But that’s not because they were absent from Myaamia life.

The above-mentioned blog post, by Detroit Mercy historian Roy Finkenbine, pushed me to read the autobiography of Rev. Jermain Loguen. (Finkenbine is an expert in African American history and offers compelling reasons of his own for why this topic is dimly recognized; I recommend it.) In 1835, Jermain Loguen and John Farney escaped their enslavement in Tennessee and traveled through central Indiana and eventually to Detroit and Canada. Loguen’s account was published as an autobiography in 1859. Like some who had escaped the dehumanization of enslavement, he became an abolitionist. He used his pen to put a human face on the horrors of antebellum chattel slavery. Wilbur Siebert’s map of Underground Railroad routes indicates some going through Myaamia territory—perhaps his source was simply Loguen, but it suggests that many freedom seekers moved through the region. Loguen traveled the Underground Railroad through Myaamionki.

Myaamia Reservations imposed on inset of Wilbur Siebert's "Underground Routes to Canada, showing the lines of travel of fugitive slaves" (1898).
Myaamia Reservations imposed on inset of Wilbur Siebert’s “Underground Routes to Canada, showing the lines of travel of fugitive slaves” (1898). Map drawn by Cam Shriver.

Loguen tells us his course in fairly general terms—after all, he had never been in Indiana before. Loguen and Farney departed Indianapolis and, on the advice of a free black conductor there named Mr. Overrals (James Overall), walked to a “Quaker Settlement” (probably Westfield or Kirklin, Indiana) and entered what he considered Indian Country. “After half a day’s travel, they passed beyond white men’s log houses and clearings, into wild nature, where now and then, the Indians had mangled the forest and built their cabins.” Some time later, the refugees arrived at Logansport. Loguen and his colleague were traveling through the western part of the Great Reserve, or that portion that was just ceded in the 1834 treaty, in the area that would eventually organize into Cass and Howard Counties.

Aside from a general route, what does Loguen tell us in his brief time in Myaamionki in that winter of 1835-36? First, he includes popular stereotypes, including assuming that Native families lived in “wilderness” (a term which is always in the eye of the beholder). We might also ask why Loguen characterizes these “Indians” as inhospitable. Is this a trope? Were Miamis understandably wary around these two travelers through their territory? We don’t know. Loguen is telling a story, and his point is that his flight towards freedom was a dangerous one. Loguen includes the comparison that many whites in the region were “less reliable than the savages.”

Portrait of Bishop Jermain Wesley Loguen
Bishop Jermain Wesley Loguen, 1835, Oil on canvas. Howard University Gallery of Art. Wikimedia commons.

Aside from those “traveling through” Myaamionki, Loguen also does not know, or indicate, the complicated and long-term intimacies between Myaamia people and African-descended people–those not “traveling through” but staying with Miami folks. At the time Loguen passed through Myaamionki, the village of Šiipaakana ‘Deaf Man’ and Mahkoonsihkwa ‘Frances Slocum’ on the Mississinewa River included a family with African heritage. 

Jermain Loguen trekked north at the same time as Aahsansanka ‘George Hunt.’

In 1835, the same year that Loguen walked through Myaamionki on his journey toward freedom, the seventeen-year-old Myaamia person called George Hunt abruptly left his studies at Kentucky’s Choctaw Academy. He fled with an Anishinaabe man named John Jones. They were joined by two African American enslaved teenagers, Cornelia Parthena and a young woman dubbed “Miss Chinn.” Newspapers spread a story that this was an “elopement” headed to Canada. On their way north from Kentucky, Aahsansanka ‘George Hunt’ and Miss Chinn posed as a couple, with Jones and Parthena acting as their servants. We might assume that George had a lighter complexion–his father was a settler from Massachusetts–to explain their invented roles on the journey. But the group was apprehended in Medina, Ohio.

The site of their arrest is odd. Were they going to Canada, as newspapers asserted? It would have been more direct to go to Detroit, but Medina is near Cleveland. Why did the Native men not go to their home communities farther to the west? Aahsansanka did not leave us his thoughts on this episode. He might have had a romantic or sexual relationship with Miss Chinn—he and Jones actually helped her flee again—but he eventually married into the Godfroy family. He served as an interpreter for Myaamia families in the 1830s, when most did not speak English. Listed on the removal list in 1846, his marriage to Louisa Godfroy allowed him to remain in the Peru-area Myaamia community as his nation migrated west to Kansas.

Deaf Man's Village watercolor by George Winter
Šiipaakana Minooteeni. This Myaamia hamlet included Myaamia people with Miami, European, and African ancestry. Deaf Man’s Village, watercolor by George Winter. Image courtesy Tippecanoe County Historical Society.

Indeed, from about the 1720s to the present, African-descended people have lived with, and frequently became, Myaamia. For example, in the 1780s-90s, Miamis captured dozens of Afro-Kentuckians south of the Kaanseenseepiiwi ‘Ohio River.’ Some of those people were ransomed or sold in Detroit, and others remained in Myaamia communities. And Myaamia families had a longer history with Indigenous and colonial forms of unfreedom, including as traffickers and traders of both Native and African-descended bondspeople.

Loguen and Hunt both fled. Each turned north, joined by a small group of fellow freedom-seekers. Loguen fled the lash in Tennessee; Hunt fled a boarding school in Kentucky. Loguen was black; Hunt was apparently light-complected enough to move through Ohio until his capture. Both sought Canada–perhaps. Each escaped, mobility providing hope for a future with more choices.

Below is the Reverend Jermain Loguen’s narrative of his travels through Myaamionki. Loguen’s purpose is revealed in his aside about the winter storm they endure: “It was a terribly severe night, but not half so terrible as many they suffered anticipating outrages from their masters. They looked forward to daylight, and a refuge from the cold storm. But no day dawns for the slave, nor is it looked for. It is all night–night forever.” 

In the excerpt, Loguen (using the third person) recalls his experience in the Great Miami Reserve, south of the Wabash River, at a time of year when Miami and Potawatomi families were dispersed through the territory in winter camps:

Occasionally, they met one or more Indians, to whom they bowed civilly, and received a half human response, which Indians, and those only who are familiar with them, understand.

        The natives were a proud and stalwart tribe, dressed in their own costume, often ornamented with wampum and feathers, and generally armed with knives, or bows and arrows or rifles. Coming suddenly on them, as they did sometimes, the fugitives were startled by their ominous umph and imposing savageness. But after traveling among them and experiencing their harmlessness, they were quite disarmed of apprehension on their account.

        The only annoyance from the Indians was their occasional lack of hospitality. For though generally they did not refuse them food and shelter, they sometimes did refuse them. Occasionally, too, they met white hunters in the woods, less reliable than the savages. These hunters told them to look out for wild boars, panthers, bears and wolves, especially the former monster beast, which they hunted with caution and peril. Not without cause, they feared to start up these terrible animals. They often saw their tracks, but if they came near the boars, they knew it not.

        We said the Indians sometimes refused to entertain them–but not always did they accept a denial. One time, when night came on and they were thus refused, having provided for their horses, they lay down among their enemies in the wigwam, and slept on the watch, in contempt of them. As a general thing, they were received kindly, by night and day, and fed freely on the wild meats and indescribable dishes prepared for Indian palates.

        In the middle of this great solitude, while treading their Indian path, at the close of an intensely cold day, as they hoped to a hospitable shelter, they began to feel the symptoms of one of those tremendous storms, which, at the north, make winter awful, sometimes, but which they knew nothing about. The wind grew louder and louder, and swelled into an appalling howl. The darkening atmosphere, filled with innumerable snow flakes, increasing the force of the hurricane, which scattered tops of trees around them, and occasionally tore them up by the roots and layed them with a horrible crash by their side.

        To them, their case was strange, remediless and frightful. Their path was entirely obliterated by the tempest, and the pale snow light was about all they could see. In this dilemma, they gave the reins to their jaded horses, and trusted them to find a way to a house or barn among the Indians, while they whipped their arms and hands upon their bodies to repel the frost. But the eyes of the horses, scarcely less than the eyes of the young men, were blinded by the snow, and they were all alike helpless. They floundered among the trees, to the peril of the riders, and came at last to a field of bushes and small trees, that skirted the foot of a mountain or hill, at their left. This mountain, or hill, lay between them and the tempest, and broke its force–but in doing so, made it moan the louder and bellow its hollow thunder over their heads.

        Here they dismounted, and allowed their horses to browse among the bushes, while they greedily devoured a portion of frozen provisions that they took from their saddle-bags, and then, by whipping their bodies as aforesaid, and other exercise, they kept off sleep and frost till morning. When morning came, most joyfully did they welcome it–not on their own account alone, but in regard to their poor horses, that needed rest and refreshment more than they. It was a terribly severe night, but not half so terrible as many they suffered anticipating outrages from their masters. They looked forward to daylight, and a refuge from the cold storm. But no day dawns for the slave, nor is it looked for. It is all night–night forever.

        The earth was covered by a great depth of snow, which was unbroken by the track of man or beast. And still the storm raged, and the sky overhead resembled a crumbling snow-bank. The travellers were now lost, without a path to a human dwelling, or a star to show the point of the compass. But they could see–and from the growth of small timber inferred they were not far from Indian dwellings, and determined not to re-plunge into the woods, until they explored the brush-fields for an Indian’s home.

        They wallowed though the snow but a short distance ere they came upon cleared ground and a cabin; and they were kindly received and comfortably entertained in Indian fashion. It so happened that one of the natives talked bad English well enough to be understood by them, and acted the part of an interpreter. When the Indians found they had been lost in the woods, and in the storm all night, they (especially the women) expressed great surprise and sympathy. In justice to women, they, too, testified with a celebrated traveller, that in their extremity, they were sometimes repelled by white men and red men, but never by women, whether white or red. Woman, whatever her education or circumstances, represents the affectional element of humanity, and ultimates its uses in forms of kindness and love.

        The horses were kindly sheltered and fed, as well as themselves, by these children of nature. But the wind continued to pile the huge drifts around their dwelling, and strip the great trees of their branches, or tear them up by the roots, and fell them with a noise louder than the tempest. They were therefore kindly detained twenty-four hours,–the time the storm continued,–and slept a double sleep, nourished by the bread and care of these sympathizing people.

        The winds went down, and the sun rose clear again upon the snow-clad wilderness. But there were no paths, and the natives were slow to make them. The young men, therefore, were obliged to break their own track through the blind openings, pointed out to them, and it was a day or two before they found a firm road to travel on.

Eventually they arrived among the white settlers, on the northern borders of the wilderness. (326-332)

They had arrived in Logansport, Indiana.

What else did you notice? Do you know of other sources about the Underground Railroad in Myaamionki?

One Comment Add yours

  1. stevehinds says:

    The language describing the Miami makes subtle yet more empathic changes the longer they are on the trail. Interesting read, thank you.

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