Doraville Whitney was the
first Black settler in Isabella County in 1860. The first documentation of
an African-American settler in Mecosta County Michigan was James Guy.
His deed was signed by Abraham Lincoln. He obtained 160 acres in Wheatland
Township on May 30, 1861. Lloyd & Margaret Guy were the first
Black settlers in Montcalm County in 1861. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed each
settler 160 acres in Michigan. By 1873 African-Americans owned
1,392 acres in the three counties of Isabella, Mecosta and Montcalm.
In the 1860's most of the land in Remus was owned by the Old Settlers.
Folktales in Michigan
Richard M. Dorson
Publishers 1956 (Reprinted 1974)
Negro Folktales in Michigan
written by Richard M. Dorson, sketches Black farming communities and
settlements in Southwestern, Western and Central Michigan. These
folktales are written by people in Benton Harbor, Calvin, Covert, Idlewild, Inkster, and
Mecosta, Michigan. Before the Civil War free Black men drifted into parts
of Michigan along with captive slaves who had fled through the Underground
Railroad. Dorson described the people in his book as strange—the
descendants of Negro pioneers. They were caught between cultures, thin of
body, yellow in color, some could easily pass for white, and several
showed discomfiture at any questions about their past. Beyond the family
traditions, there were no visible links with Southern Negro culture. As
Dorson’s conversation within each group as he interviewed them turned to
ghost stories, the people of these communities matched eerie experiences
sending an unnatural scare. To Dorson it was a fragmentary survival of
the olden lore or Negro folktales. These Negro country folk believed in
hoodoo, spirits, and the literal word of the Bible, whose store of marvels
were continually cited to underpin their own wondrous tales.
Folktales are stories giving people a way
to share culture, history and values. The art of the folktale is to adapt
the traditional theme to particular circumstances. Most African-American
folktales are about power relations. This is also true of every tale told
by other ethnic and cultural groups. There are similarities between
African folktales and folktales of Black American experience. The link
between the two cultures provides a means for generating pride and
positive attitudes in people. The African link to the Black American
folktale is an example of how a culture has survived time and distance.
Dorson’s friend Russell Kirk told him about the little-known Negro settlement around Mecosta.
He goes on to write that the
village of Mecosta lies in west-central Michigan in the heart of the
cutover stump country. Negro landowners are scattered through Mecosta and
neighboring townships, Remus, Millbrook and Blanchard. His task in
reaching these outlying families has happily simplified through Russell’s
connections. Russel's uncle, the township supervisor of Mecosta, took
him directly to Herschel Cross, a historically-minded member of a pioneer
Negro clan. Silvery-haired and handsome, Herschel talked fluently on
crops and farm problems. In the course of their visit he happened to
mention a sister, Mertz Tate, who held a Ph.D. from Radcliffe, had
published three solid books on international law, won a Fulbright
Fellowship to India, lectured at the Sorbonne, and served on a UNESCO
Committee. Yet she had been born and raised among these desolate sand
Two lines of ox-team Negro homesteaders
converged on Mecosta in the 1870’s. One came from Ohio, where freedmen
congregated after leaving the lower south, the other from southern
Ontario, the destination of fugitive slaves who would return to the US
after the Thirteenth Amendment. The younger generations abandoned their
farm homes for city careers and return annually for the great family
gatherings or the traditional Old Settlers Reunion.
John Berry: Born in Mecosta in 1921.
He is the grandson of a fugitive slave Isaac Berry and nephew of Katy
The Death Car –
At the annual Old Settlers
Day at Mecosta, I delivered a
talk on folklore, couched in general terms, without any
specific reference to Negro tales. It occurred to me to give, as an
example of a widely believed modern city legend, the story of the “Death
Car,” several versions of which turned up each year in my folklore
classes. In every instance, an automobile had been sold at a reduced
price because its owner had died at the wheel, and the smell of death
would not be removed. To my surprise, that evening at a local dance,
strapping John Berry, grandson of the fugitive slave Isaac, pulled me
aside and said: “You got that story wrong." "It happened right
here, you know.” He and his pals, including Clifford Cross who
bought the “Death Car,” gave me the first authenticated account of the
phantom tale ever to come my way.
A white fellow from around here, named
Demings, committed suicide in his car back in 1938. He had a 1929 Model-A
Ford, painted all over with birds and fish. It would catch your eye right
away. He was going with a girl who didn’t care much for him, Nellie
Boyers, and it seems they had a fight when he took her on a date to the
Ionia State Fair. When he came back, he pulled off the road into the
brush stuck a gas hose onto the tailpipe, tuned the motor on and sniffed
the other end of the hose. He must have prepared for it because he had
the cracks under the seat and on the floorboards all chinked up with
concrete to keep the gas from escaping. He killed himself in August, and
no one found him till October in the hunting season. A guide kept going
out to that spot where Demings had parked. He’d see the car and say, “That
fellow’s always hunting when I am.” Finally, he took a close-up look and
smelled the body.
A used car dealer in Remus sold the car
at a reduced price to Clifford Cross. Cliff did everything possible to
get the smell out. He upholstered it, fumigated it, but nothing worked,
and in the middle of winter he would have to drive around with the window
wide open. I said one time, “If I’m going to freeze to death driving with
you, I’d rather be out on my feet,” and I got out.
Another time a little white dog crawled
inside while Cliff was getting gas and started to bark from the back seat
after he drove off. Cliff thought it was the dead man’s ghost, and he
stopped that car and shot out like the Devil was after him. Finally he
give up trying to get the smell out and turned the car in for junk (p 99).
Katy Pointer lived in
Mecosta. She was born near Windsor, Canada in 1864 five years after
her father, Isaac Berry, ran away from his master in Missouri. He
was born in Garrett County, Kentucky in 1811. The Berry’s migrated
to Mecosta from Canada by covered wagon in 1877. Katy outlived
her husband, who came to Mecosta from Ohio.
The Escape of Isaac Berry -
by Katy Pointer
father was a slave born in Kentucky. When his master died, his slaves
were divided out among his children. My grandmother and all of her
children fell to one of the girls, who married James Pratt from Missouri
and went there with her slaves, near St Louis. My father, Isaac Berry,
ran away when he was 27 in 1859.
Jim Pratt was a poor man and a gambler, and he would hire out his slaves.
But it was the understanding that Mrs. Pratt’s slaves wasn’t ever to be
whipped. My father farmed with the other slaves; one of his sisters
cooked in the big house, the other cooked for the slaves. They had to cut
all the nice meat off the ham and give the bones to the slaves—hog heads
things like that, hambone, and cornbread—it was hearty food of course.
The white folks had biscuits, but not the slaves. I can remember my
father telling this to illustrate how different our life was to his.
Someone had given my father a little colt, and Mrs. Pratt said he could
raise it himself. It was a natural “racker”—that’s the way horses were
taught to run. Everybody rode horseback down there. Jim Pratt sold the
“racker” to pay a gambling debt. Then Mrs. Pratt called my father aside
and told him, “I’m afraid Mr. Pratt will sell you too one day, down the
river, and if you can run away, and think you can get away, you have my
permission to go.”
father was a great hunter for deer and wild turkeys, and he sold them to a
lady in St. Louis who kept a hotel. She gave him a dollar and a half for
a deer saddle, and then the rest of the deer he took back to Jim Pratt’s
folks to help feed the slaves. That way he saved up money enough to buy
is food when he ran away. He had a friend, Albert Campbell, a free
colored youngster, in Quincy, Illinois, who arranged to help him get
across the Mississippi River by boat.
A white man had taught my father to play on the violin.
He’d play “The Devil’s Dream” and things like that—the colored people was
great for dancing—and often when he went to play at the dance he wouldn’t
be back until Monday morning early. And there was nothing said so
long as he got back in time. So he told Jim Pratt he was going to
play at the dance and left the farm Saturday night. He got a colored
man to ride with him to the place where Albert Campbell would meet him
with the boat. When he reached the Mississippi, which was quite a
ways from the farm, the water was so high over the bank the boat couldn’t
get to him though he could see their light, and they could see his light.
hid in the brush along the river away from the landing, walked Saturday
night and Sunday, without anything to eat. Then a white man came
along in a boat with his wife and two children, a boy and a girl. They
were coming down the Mississippi. My father told them that he was
Quincy and had to
get across and offered them a five-dollar gold piece. That a lot of
money then. It was the wife who said, “Let’s carry him across or
he’ll lose his job; we can wait for breakfast.” He helped row the
boat across to Quincy. They’d had sent the bloodhounds after him, if
he hadn’t crossed the river.
on the railroad and started walking. There was a $500 dollar reward for
him dead or alive. Someone left a newspaper on the seat on the train when
my mother come later on and she seen it. Jim Pratt followed him too,
clear to Detroit. He came to a little country store and waited until kind
of late, then pulled his hat down over his face and went in and bought a
loaf of bread and some cheese—or sometimes only crackers. You see he
didn’t know how he’d have to be saving of his money.
walked along the tracks and hid in the daylight. Only once in all the
time did he step in the daylight to wash and shave in a little river and
two white men stopped and asked him where he was going and where he was
form. He told them he was going to Michigan City, and that he would sell
his life dear, though they was two against one. You see he was afraid;
he’d been afraid all of his life. He laid out his razor—it was a long
blade with a handle—and his revolver. And they said they wasn’t going to
walked to Ypsilanti on the railroad. His shoes was all wore out, and his
socks, and his feet got all swelled up, and his legs all swelled up.
Sometimes when I think about it I want to cry, a human being getting
treated that way. When he got to Ypsilanti he met a colored man going to
work; he had his dinner pail with him. And he asked my father, “Are you a
runaway slave?” And my father said, “It’s none of your business what I
am.” He was wore out with people asking him questions. The other man
said, “I can see from your shoes that you’ve come a long way. You see
that house up the railroad a ways—that’s where I live. You go there and
tell my wife to give you breakfast, and then you go to bed and stay there
till I come home. I’ll be home at six o’clock.” So he went on to the
house, and the old lady took care of him, and he went to bed and slept all
day—he said his feet and legs were so sore. He was walking three weeks.
That night the house couldn’t hold all the colored people that came
there. And they gave him carpet slippers and socks and took up a
collection and gave him quite a lot of money. In the morning one old
fellow took him down to the railroad and said, “You get a ticket for
Detroit, and when you get there take a ferry to Canada, just about a mile
across the lake, and then you’ll be under the lion’s paw.”
he got to Windsor, he looked up Aunt Celia Flenoy, a little black woman
who was Albert Campbell’s aunt. She got him a room with a colored man,
and he got work on the street, at fifty cents a day. “I’m a free man
now,” he said (pp 88-9).
Will Todd: Lives
in Bloomfield Township east of Remus, where he was born. He is 71 years
old. His father was a slave in Missouri, who escaped to Canada after the
Civil War and moved to Mecosta along with Isaac Berry in 1877.
Will Todd is reputed to be Remus'
most successful Negro farmer. He
looked like anything but a man of business: short and stumpy, with a
mouth of crooked teeth, reddish cheeks, a small mustache, and a rhythmic
twang voice. He too had heard his dad tell of slave degradations.
Once his father had to lick off with his tongue manure splashed on a white
horse. He must have heard other matters also. Standing under a
grove at the Old Settlers Picnic, he twanged animatedly about his own
powers as a blood stopper and described occult healers in the vicinity who
had mysteriously cured him and his kinfolk of painful ailments.
Clearly Will, though Michigan born had breathed in much of the plantation
culture (pp 88-9).
Blood Stopping (Will Todd)
Blood Stopping—I can stop
the blood. An old man, just about ready to leave, Charlie Barr, gave me
the prayer. He lost his power right after. I seen him use it on a horse
bursting with blood; he dried her up, without touching her.
George Whitney's cow had
its toenail just about off, and she was bleeding bad. When I heard about,
it asked for a Bible, and went out to see the cow. A young fellow out
there was laughing when he seen me come with the Bible. He asked me if I
wanted the cow, and I said no. He stopped laughing when the blood stopped
Joe Hiles came out to my
place, six miles from Remus, to get a doctor for his nephew. (I was the
only one around had a car.) His nephew had the measles and was bleeding
to death. I told him, "No, if the boy is bleeding like you said, he'll be
dead before we can get him to the doctor." I asked Joe his nephew's name
and treated him. Then we drove out there, pretty near a mile. The boy
was lying in bed with a bunch of rags this high, but he wasn't bleeding no
more. We asked Joe's sister when the blood stopped. She said, "Just
about the time I got out to your place."
You got to have their name
in full and know where they're bleeding before you can treat them. He
was bleeding in the lung. The funny thing was, three of us treated him,
me, my wife and George Norman who was at the house when Joe came. And
none of us knew the other was treating. Each thought he'd stopped the
There's lot of people can
do that, you see. You just treats, and the Lord heals (p 153).
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There are "Old Settlers"
who came from Canada via "The Underground Railroad." It was the
most dramatic nonviolent protest against slavery in the United States
that began in the Colonial Era and reached its peak between 1830 and
1865. An estimated 30,000 to 100,000 slaves
used the "railroad" to get to Canada; many others escaped to Mexico,
the Caribbean, and Europe.