Students research African American mining history

May 10, 2017
Mine Cave
Students researching in Southwest Wisconsin Room
headstone rubbing

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Did you know that lead mining in the Driftless Region is part of why Wisconsin became a state by 1848? Or that dozens of free and enslaved African Americans were among those mining for and refining lead? Many people, even those living in southwest Wisconsin, may not realize that African American lead miners working between 1827 and 1890 formed a vital part of Wisconsin’s origins.

To learn more, five University of Wisconsin-Platteville history students are conducting hands-on, archival research in the university’s Southwest Wisconsin Room and investigation in the field to discover the many important contributions of African American lead miners in the Driftless Region between 1827-1890.

Student researchers are enrolled in Individual Research in History: African American Lead Miners, 1829-1890, taught by Dr. Eugene Tesdahl, assistant professor of history at UW-Platteville. Students include Tori Kosobucki, a senior history major from Stevens Point, Wisconsin; Deja Roberson, a junior history major from Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Winnie Redfearn, a junior history major from Hazel Green, Wisconsin; Simone Rand, a freshman general engineering major from Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Liz Larrison, a junior history major from Hampton, Illinois. 

The research project is a community partnership between UW-Platteville and the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums in Platteville, spurred by initial research on African American lead miners that Kosobucki conducted during an internship at the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums in summer 2016. Last fall, a request from Diana Bolander, director of the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums, led to the formation of the course, whose aim is to offer students hands-on education, meet the needs of the Platteville community and demonstrate the importance of the Platteville museums along with the core of the Wisconsin Idea: bringing information to the people.

Since January, students have carefully examined hundreds of archival manuscript documents. They have studied and analyzed manumission papers – documents that freed slaves. Their study also includes major 19th-century lead mining and smelting operations between Potosi, Platteville, Shullsburg, Mineral Point and Dodgeville, in Wisconsin.

Students learned that between the 1820s and the 1870s, slaveholders like George W. Jones brought free and enslaved African Americans to Wisconsin, many of them to mine and smelt lead. They also learned that in 1827, Henry Dodge, the first territorial governor of Wisconsin, brought five enslaved individuals – Lear, Joe, Tom, Jim and Toby – with him from Missouri to what would become Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Dodge manumitted these slaves in 1838, and from the manuscripts in the archives, it is clear that these five individuals took the surname Dodge by the 1840s. This was a common practice among the formerly enslaved during the late 19th century, for a host of reasons.

“The legacy of lead in the Driftless Region still makes it into Wisconsin history texts, yet few know that more than a dozen lead miners were African American,” Tesdahl said. “Figures like James D. Williams came to mine lead by choice in the 1860s, but others like Lear, Joe, Tom, Jim and Toby were brought to Wisconsin under the yoke of slavery.”

As students examined manumission papers and other documents in the Southwest Wisconsin Room, they relied on the historical knowledge and expertise of Tesdahl and Bolander as well as Stephanie Saager-Bourret, curator of the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums; James Hibbard, university archivist; and Patricia Ballweg, genealogical specialist of the Southwest Wisconsin Room.

“The joy I receive from this project is seeing the students’ reactions to using actual manuscripts,” Hibbard said. “This research not only enriches the students’ understanding of history, but also helps them see that they, too, can broaden our knowledge of the past.”

Bolander said the research is essential to the museums being able to tell a more inclusive and complete story about the history of mining in Southwest Wisconsin. “We talk a little bit about African American lead miners on our tours of the Bevans Lead Mine, but don’t have many details,” she said. “Being able to show images of the miners, call them by name and tell their personal stories will bring this part of history alive for our visitors.”

Kosobucki and Larrison are researching the Paul Jones vs. George W. Jones court case in which a man named Paul Jones sued George W. Jones, his former master, for compensation. While the trial – held in Lancaster, Wisconsin from 1839-40 – did not result in any wage compensation, it delivered Paul Jones his freedom. Like most, Jones continued to work in the lead fields as a free laborer after his emancipation.

“This case is interesting because it displays a person of color, Paul Jones, taking a stand against injustices in the 19th century,” Kosobucki said. In addition, Kosobucki said the research is helping prepare her for her future career as a lawyer by showing how judges made their decisions in the 19th century.

Larrison said the language in the court case surprised her because it stated that Paul was ‘under the employ’ of Mr. George Jones. “The truth is that Paul was not under George's employ; he was his slave and he wasn’t receiving any salary for his work during that time,” she said. She noted that someday, she hopes to do collections management and archival work, so being able to work with primary documents has been extremely helpful.

“I am very grateful I had the chance to be a part of this research,” Roberson said. “I was very pleased and intrigued to learn that African Americans had so much involvement in a significant part of Wisconsin history.” She said that as a history major, experience in conducting research will be helpful to her future endeavors.

Redfearn noted that she is learning many things she did not know about the history of African American lead miners in the 19th century. “While we were doing our research, I was surprised to learn that slaves had been brought to the area through Hazel Green and Dodgeville,” she said. “It was something that I just did not know.”

Conducting the research also had its challenges. Rand said the most challenging part of the research was connecting their findings – continuously reading through various documents, attempting to connect one fact to the other. “Conducting this research was a great experience and it made me think about the history behind the names of landmarks and places,” said Rand.

In April, students went beyond the archives to visit the 1845 Bevans Lead Mine in Platteville, which gave them a greater appreciation of what African American lead miners like Williams and Dodge endured. They also gained an understanding of the complexity of the mining legacy of the Driftless Region, finding that lead mining in Wisconsin from the 1820s to the 1890s was not a Cornish story alone.

Later that month, student researchers travelled to Carmel Cemetery near Mineral Point, Wisconsin, to document the grave marker of former slave James D. Williams, who died in 1903. At the end of the Civil War, Williams had come to Wisconsin with Captain Daniel Moore of the 11th Wisconsin infantry to mine for lead. The students discovered that James D. Williams’ gravestone has a unique engraving on it about his enslavement: “Born A slave in Virginia, made free by President Lincoln’s Proclamation.”

Tesdahl said he often tells his students that it is their job as historians to uncover the story of the past complete with uncomfortable truths. “We do not always get to tell the stories we wish to tell,” Tesdahl said. “We must tell the stories that need telling. This is especially gratifying, as figures like James Williams, Lear Dodge or Paul Jones were never permitted to tell their stories themselves.”

As part of the course, students will work with Mining & Rollo Jamison Museum staff members to create an exhibit design and permanent exhibit that illustrates the significant contributions of African American lead miners in southwest Wisconsin at the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums. The exhibit will be completed by July and installed at the museum.

Tesdahl, Bolander, and student researchers will present their research findings at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s 2017 Historic Preservation Annual Conference Oct 20-21 at the La Crosse Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, Communications Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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