African Americans in the Lead Mining District
The African American Lead Miners in Wisconsin exhibit was developed in partnership with the University of Wisconsin – Platteville History 4720 Course in 2017 led by Dr. Eugene R. H. Tesdahl. The Mining History Association recognized the importance of the exhibit by presenting the Museums with the 2019 Beselme-Orrell Mining Heritage Award at its 2019 annual conference in Marquette, Michigan.
This online version of the exhibit was made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
African American Lead Miners in Wisconsin
Lead mining in the Driftless Region transformed Wisconsin into a territory and then a state by 1848. Ho-Chunk, Meskwaki, Sauk, and other native peoples occasionally mined lead ore prior to French exploration. Indigenous leaders worked with French Canadian prospectors by the late eighteenth century. By 1827, a lead rush engulfed the Driftless Region of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. This economic boom increased American settlement of Southwest Wisconsin and neighboring Iowa and Illinois. Among the early lead miners were an estimated 100 free and enslaved African Americans. The story of how Black lead miners helped build the region is an essential story for the state of Wisconsin.
Enslaved People in Wisconsin? Was Race-Based Bondage Legal?
The 1787 Northwest Ordinance allowed for the creation of five new states. The Northwest Ordinance forbade the enslavement of people in the newly opened regions. Lax enforcement ensured race-based bondage remained in Wisconsin. Free and enslaved African Americans made vital contributions to early Wisconsin despite flawed legislation and practice.
The lead boom of 1827 to 1849 brought over 100 African Americans and thousands of European Americans to the region. Prominent settlers such as Henry Dodge (Dodgeville), John Rountree (Platteville), and George W. Jones (Sinsinawa) came to the region in the 1820’s to mine and process lead. They brought with them, as a part of their family units, enslaved men and women.
The Prairie du Chien Indian Agent, Joseph Street, complained to William Clark in 1828 that Dodge’s illegal settlement and mining would upset the delicate diplomacy of the fur trade, especially amongst the Ho-Chunk nation. He stated that:
“With two negro men in one place he (Henry Dodge) raises about 2,000pounds (of lead) per day.”
The amount of money that white settlers could make quickly allowed them to force First Nations peoples off their lands.
Walker’s Appeal, 1829
David Walker wrote these words as part of his now famous antislavery pamphlet entitled Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, To the Coloured Citizens of the World…published in Boston, Massachusetts in 1829. Antislavery publications like with were common at the time.
Walker was a free black haberdasher, born to a free mother and an enslaved father. His incendiary arguments against slavery drew from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. By 1830, this polarizing publication circulated widely, causing great alarm among white owners of enslaved people.
Enslaving farmers and mine owners forced African Americans held in bondage to migrate into new territories and states. Their labors opened the way into the trans-Mississippi West. Such individuals also provided labor in the fur trade, mining, and farming in Wisconsin.
“…I must observe to my brethren that at the close of the first Revolution in this country, with Great Britain, there were but thirteen States in the Union, now there are twenty four, most of which are slave-holding States, and
the whites are dragging us around in chains and handcuffs, to their new States and Territories to work their mines and farms,
To enrich them and their children – and millions of them believing firmly that we being a little darker than they, were made by our Creator to be an inheritance to them and their children forever
– the same as a parcel of brutes.”
The mines David Walker refers to in this quote are largely Georgian gold mines, but Walker’s words condemned the use of enslaved people in all mining operations. Even though the chains were probably figurative in the case of most people held in bondage in Wisconsin, they were enslaved, nonetheless.
The Emancipation of Toby, Tom, Lear, Jim, and Joe
Henry Dodge, who became the first territorial governor of Wisconsin came to the area in 1827 from Missouri. He illegally brought five enslaved individuals with him named Toby, Tom, Lear, Jim, and Joe. Some worked at Dodge’s furnace and mines in and round Dodgeville. Dodge had promised to free Toby, Tom, Lear, Jim, and Joe if they worked for him for six months. Instead, Dodge held them in captivity for another eleven years despite the prohibition of slaveholding in the region. The five were finally freed on April 11, 1838.
Excerpts from the manumission papers of Tom, Jim, Joe, Lear, and Toby. Note that the five did not sign their names, but instead each wrote an “X.” Images courtesy of the Southwest Wisconsin Room at the University of Wisconsin – Platteville.
The Paul Jones Lawsuit
In the early nineteenth century, several enslaved people in the territory sued for their freedom. By 1840, most African Americans in the region were free as a result of self-purchase and bargain-based emancipations and freedom suites; of the estimated 196 blacks in Wisconsin Territory, only 11 were enslaved. By 1857 the Dred Scott case would grab national attention over this issue. Paul Jones, an enslaved lead worker in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, made suing for one’s freedom an issue in Wisconsin’s lead industry. He sued his owner George W. Jones for $1133 for “trespassing on promise,” not paying him for his labor in a free territory. The trial took place in Grant County Court from 1839 to 1840. Paul Jones lost this case and continued to work for his enslaver’s benefit. Jones was emancipated in 1842. His suit, however, highlighted the ineffectiveness of the prohibition against slavery in the Northwest Territories and galvanized those settlers who opposed enslavement.
Left: The subpoena called witnesses to the trial. Right: The jury’s final decision. Images courtesy of the Southwest Wisconsin Room at the University of Wisconsin – Platteville.
Not just Enslaved Men
African American women, including Lear Dodge, were among the black laborers in Wisconsin during the lead rush. It is unclear whether Lear worked as a domestic servant in Dodge’s household or if she poured 70-pound pigs of lead.
America Jenkins of Pleasant Ridge
American Jenkins was enslaved in Grant County, Wisconsin, during the lead boom. Jenkins was freed in 1838 by George W. Jones, the same man who refused to pay Paul Jones for his labor in 1839. She eventually moved to Lancaster, where she worked for many years as a free domestic worker. America Jenkins then became a prominent member of Pleasant Ridge.
The Charles and Caroline Shepard family helped establish the free black settlement of Pleasant Ridge near Lancaster, Wisconsin, in 1850. Some who later located to Pleasant Ridge and the free black community at Galena, Illinois, had worked in lead-related industries.
James D. Williams and His Mine
Not all black lead miners in Southwest Wisconsin came against their will. One example is James D. Williams. He arrived at the Pecatonica Welsh Settlement north of Platteville in the late 1860s. Williams lived near the family of Edward Jones, whom he met while serving in the Civil War. Williams established his own lead diggings and farm which he worked for decades. His 1903 obituary it states that he was “highly esteemed by his acquaintances.”
African American lead miners in Wisconsin faced prejudice on a daily basis. James Williams’ diggings was legally known as the “Nigger Jim Mine” and was listed as such on United States Geological Survey maps as recently as 1961. James Williams left no record of how he felt about the racial slur before he died in 1903.
The term negro was considered the acceptable term for black Americans at the time, but a racial epithet grew as a disparaging term during the Jim Crow era. Its use sadly continues today, though the presence of the offensive term on most maps is a relic of the past. The name of the mine in this case draws attention to James D. Williams, and others like him: Black, miners, and Wisconsinites.
Learn More: History of African Americans in Wisconsin and Beyond
Black History of Wisconsin
- Black History in Wisconsin at the Wisconsin Historical Society: wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS502
- Doris H. Platt, “The Restless Pioneers,” Badger History: Wisconsin Negroes XXII, Number 2 (November 1968): 42-49.
- Christy Clark-Pujara, “Contested: Black Suffrage in Early Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History4 (Summer 2017): 21-27
- Jaclyn N. Schultz, “In Search of Northern Freedom: Black History in Milwaukee and Southern Ontario, 1834-1864,” Wisconsin Magazine of History5 (Autumn 2017): 42-53
- Zachary Cooper, Black Settlers in Rural Wisconsin (Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977) (Available at the Platteville Public Library)
David Walker & His Appeal
- David Walker Memorial Project: http://www.davidwalkermemorial.org/resources/primary-documents\
- The full text of Walker’s Appeal: http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/walker.html
Primary Document Research of African American Lead Miners In Wisconsin Exhibit
- Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov
- Wisconsin Historical Society: https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/
- Southwest Wisconsin Room at the Karrmann Library, University of Wisconsin-Platteville: https://www.uwplatt.edu/library/southwest-wisconsin-room
- Paul Jones Papers
- Henry Dodge Papers
- Census Records for Southwest Wisconsin
- Iowa County Historical Society: http://iowacountyhistoricalsociety.org/
- Grant County Historical Society: http://grantcountyhistory.org/
Other Books & Sites of Interest
- PBS Africans in Americas Website and Teacher Bank: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2932.htm
- Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003). (Available from the Southwest Wisconsin Library System)
- Ho-Chunk Treaties and Treaty Rights: https://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-105.html
- The Treaty of Prairie du Chien, 1825: https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1620
- The Northwest Ordinance: https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/northwest.html
- Dread Scott Foundation: http://www.thedredscottfoundation.org/dshf/
Special gratitude goes to:
- Dr. Eugene R.H. Tesdahl, Associate Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, for coordinating this project.
- University of Wisconsin-Platteville students Simone Rand, Tori Kosobucki, Deja Roberson, Liz Larrison, and Winnie Redfearn for researching this exhibit and uncovering untold stories.
- The Southwest Wisconsin Room, University of Wisconsin – Platteville, especially James Hibbard and Pat Ballweg, for guiding manuscript research.
- Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Dr. Frank King, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies, UW-Platteville; and Tracey Roberts, History Senior Lecturer Emerita, UW-Platteville, for your invaluable commentary and consultation.
- Dr. Melissa Gormley, LAE Dean at University of Wisconsin-Platteville for her support of the project.
- Diana Bolander, former Museum Director of The Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums.
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