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, and revised in 2023. 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.

A lead miner and a stack of 13 lead “pigs” is prominently featured on the Wisconsin State Seal, designed in 1848.
A lead miner and a stack of 13 lead “pigs” is prominently featured on the Wisconsin State Seal, designed in 1848.

African American Lead Miners in Wisconsin

Ho-Chunk, Meskwaki, Sauk, and other Native peoples have stewarded the land known as the Driftless Region since time out of memory. Native people often mined lead ore for ceremony and trade prior to French exploration. Indigenous leaders worked with French Canadian prospectors by the late eighteenth century. British and Americans followed. By 1827, a lead rush engulfed the Driftless Region of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. This economic boom increased American settlement of what is now southwest Wisconsin and neighboring Iowa and Illinois. Lead mining transformed the Driftless Region during the nineteenth century. It directly led to Wisconsin becoming a free territory in 1836 and then a free state by 1848. Nearly 100 free and enslaved African Americans worked in this lead boom. The story of how Black lead miners helped build the region is an essential Wisconsin story that includes tribal sovereignty, illegal slavery, and Black entrepreneurialism.


Enslaved People in Wisconsin? Was Race-Based Bondage Legal?

The 1787 Northwest Ordinance ignored tribal sovereignty and created the American Midwest. The law 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 households, enslaved men and women.

The lands annexed by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 include what we now call Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of northeast Minnesota.
The lands annexed by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 include what we now call Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of northeast Minnesota.

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. Street’s concerns were not heeded. The U.S. Army forced the Ho-Chunk Nation out of Wisconsin, though these efforts never fully succeeded. Ironically, Street illegally enslaved a woman named Patsy at Prairie du Chien at the very moment he criticized Dodge as an enslaver.

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 this grew more common by 1829.

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.

Enslavers who owned mines or farms 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.

Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble. To the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, 1830, image courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-63775.
Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble. To the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, 1830, image courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-63775.

“…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 Walker mentioned are largely gold mines in Georgia, but Walker’s words condemned the use of enslaved people in all mining operations including those in Wisconsin lead mines.  Such critiques eventually grew in the region. Most enslaved Blacks gained their freedom by 1842 but many former enslavers coerced many Black Americans to sign indentured servitude contracts.

The Emancipation of Toby, Tom, Lear, Jim, and Joe

Henry Dodge came to free Michigan Territory in 1827 from Missouri. He founded a town that would bear his name, Dodgeville. He illegally brought five enslaved individuals with him named Toby, Tom, Lear, Jim, and Joe. They largely worked at Dodge’s furnace and mines in and around Dodgeville.  Dodge promised to free Toby, Tom, Lear, Jim, and Joe if they worked for him for a short time in the free territory. 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. This was nearly two years after Henry Dodge was elected the first governor of free Wisconsin Territory.

manumission record 1

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.

manumission record 3
manumission record 2

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, bargain-based emancipations, and freedom suits. Of the estimated 196 blacks in Wisconsin Territory, only 11 were enslaved by 1840. By 1857, the Dred Scott case would grab national attention.

Paul Jones, an enslaved lead worker in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, made suing for one’s freedom an issue in Wisconsin’s lead industry.  Paul Jones gained his freedom, but he sued his owner George W. Jones for $1133 for “trespassing on a 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. His suit, however, highlighted the ineffectiveness of the prohibition against slavery in the Northwest Territories and galvanized those settlers who opposed enslavement.

Paul Jones 1
Paul Jones 2

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. Most enslaved Black women in the region worked as domestic servants. This included Rachel and Maria, enslaved by John Rountree in Platteville and America Jenkins who had been enslaved in Potosi. Some enslaved women like Lear Dodge also worked in lead mining and smelting operations, even pouring 70-pound pigs of lead.

John Rountree illegally purchased two people from James Stephenson in Galena, Illinois, for the sum of $330 on May 20, 1830. A deed book from Jo Daviess County, Illinois, describes the illegal but transparent deal: “A negro girl (a mulatto) aged nineteen years named Maria—no father with her Son ward a Boy aged Eighteen months and named Felix.” Rountree already claimed ownership over a woman named Rachel by 1830. Rachel was officially declared a free woman by 1842, but Rachel continued to live with the Rountree’s until her death in 1854.

Rachel chose to live with and work for those whom had enslaved her rather than risk working for others.  She is buried in the Rountree family plot under a simple grave marker at Hillside Cemetery in Platteville. “R.” is all that marks her simple limestone marker. Stones of the enslaved or formerly enslaved did not always include a birth date, death date, or family name. Nonetheless, Rachel’s stone is particularly stark. This stone, restored in 2019, reminds viewers of a dynamic woman, the turmoil she endured enslaved in a free territory, and the years she worked as a free Wisconsinite.

America Jenkins of Pleasant Ridge

American Jenkins was enslaved in Grant County, Wisconsin, during the lead boom. 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 five miles west of Lancaster, Wisconsin, in 1850.  Some who later located to Pleasant Ridge and the free black community at Galena, Illinois, also worked previously in lead-related industries.

Portrait of America Jenkins.  Ambrotype, circa 1857.  Grant County Historical Society, Lancaster, Wisconsin
Portrait of America Jenkins. Ambrotype, circa 1857. Grant County Historical Society, Lancaster, Wisconsin

Black Entrepreneurs: William Maxwell and James D. Williams

Not all black lead miners in southwest Wisconsin came against their will. William Maxwell, often termed “Black Bill,” offers an early example of the Black entrepreneurial spirit in the Driftless lead rush. By 1840 Maxwell had arrived in Platteville. In 1841 William Maxwell owned his own lead diggings often called the “Black Bill Diggings,” or the “Negro Range.”

James Goodhue recorded mining output. He noted that John Rountree’s operation yielded 3,000,000 pounds of lead ore compared to only 50,000 pounds from the “Negro Range.” Goodhue qualified that “Black Bill’s” claim yielded 7,000 pounds. Despite the small output from Black miners like William Maxwell, his operation of his mine demonstrated a complex reality in the Driftless. Maxwell lived life as a free mine owner. Like most miners and residents of Platteville at that time, Maxwell secured his diggings from the original lease holder, John Rountree. It is hard to say what this relationship reveals, though it was certainly complex. Maxwell succeeded in the lead industry at a time when not everyone did.

James D. Williams worked as a Black entrepreneur in lead mining after the Civil War. Williams served in the Union army in a USCT (US Colored Troops) unit at the Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi in the summer of 1863. It was there he met Wisconsinites from the Pecatonica Welsh Settlement north of Platteville. Williams would come to Pecatonica by 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 “N*****Jim Mine.”  The United States Geological Survey map of 1961 continued to use this racial slur.  James Williams left no record of how he felt about the derogatory term before he died in 1903.

The term “negro” was considered the acceptable 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.

James Williams, courtesy of the Iowa County Historical Society.
James Williams, courtesy of the Iowa County Historical Society.


African American history is entwined with the history of the lead industry in Wisconsin. Free and enslaved Black people were some of the first, other than Ho-Chunks, Mekskwakis, and Saukis, to live in the Driftless Region. Their efforts contributed to the very founding of the place called Wisconsin. Their legacy as Black, miners, and Wisconsinites remains significant still today.

Learn More: History of African Americans in Wisconsin and Beyond

Black History of Wisconsin

  • Mary Elise Antoine, Enslaved, Indentured, and Free: Five Black Women on the Upper Mississippi, 1800-1850 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2022).
  • Eugene R.H. Tesdahl, “Lead, Slavery, and Black Personhood in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History (Summer 2019): 17-27.
  • Black History in Wisconsin at the Wisconsin Historical Society:
  • 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
  • Robert Humphries, “‘YN EU HIAITH EU HUNAIN’ / ‘In Their Own Language’: The Settlement and Assimilation of the Welsh in Iowa County, Wisconsin, 1840–1920” (Master’s thesis, University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, 2012).
  • Zachary Cooper, Black Settlers in Rural Wisconsin (Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977).

David Walker & His Appeal

Primary Document Research of African American Lead Miners In Wisconsin Exhibit

Other Books & Sites of Interest

Thank you!

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 (2015-2018).
  • Erik Flesch, Museum Director of The Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums (2018-present).
Prof. Tesdahl and Team

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