February is the month of love. Who loves local history? This month we also recognize our nation’s African-American history and heritage. Independence abounds with matchless and awe-inspiring, true-life stories of African-Americans dating back to the early 1800s.
York was the earliest known black man to migrate this far west. He was William Clark’s servant from boyhood, left to Clark in his father’s will. York participated as a full member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which traveled upriver in 1804 and passed the territory that would become Jackson County in 1826. Despite his involvement on the historic American journey, York endured a sad destiny, according to Larry Morris in his book, “The Fate of the Corps.”
By the 1820s, French- and European-American settlers migrating to Jackson County brought their African-American slaves. Annette Curtis is author of a valuable study and index, “Jackson County in Black and White,” that included comparisons from U.S. Census statistics. Here is a generalized recap of Jackson County’s cosmopolitan population in the decennial Census:
• In 1830, there were 2,630 white residents, 193 slaves and no free blacks.
• 1840 – 6,245 whites, six free blacks and 1,361 slaves.
• 1850 – 10,990 whites, 41 free blacks and 2,969 slaves.
• 1860 – 18,882 whites, 70 free blacks and 3,944 slaves, who were emancipated in 3,944.
• 1870 – 48,810 whites and 5,223 blacks.
Discovering specific details about early free blacks and slaves is difficult – and sometimes impossible – because of incomplete or total lack of historical records. The Midwest African American Genealogical Interest Coalition (M.A.G.I.C.) is a local group that assists family historians with African roots.
Undeniably, descendants of former Jackson County slaves live locally today, but who are they? A small percentage of former slaves has been studied thus far. The most prominent, early, African American Independence citizens have been documented, and are represented in a new brochure produced by the city’s Tourism Department. The “African American Walking Tour” provides residents and visitors an opportunity to glimpse the history and heritage of the Independence black community.
Sam Shepard, when a slave of the Jackson County pioneer James Shepherd, helped to build in 1827 the first Jackson County Courthouse out of logs. He fathered children and was said to have lived past 100 years old. Imagine the number of descendants who could trace their ancestry to Sam.
Many – but not all slaves – assumed the surname of a former master when emancipated in 1865. Sam only slightly altered the spelling of his surname. Jackson County pioneer Adam Fisher’s slave, Emily Fisher, became a well-known businesswoman on the Independence Square. The Fisher homestead and slave structures survive today as a private residence in eastern Independence, a truly unique landmark!
Hiram Young, former slave of George Young, saved and bought his own freedom. He then outfitted with quality ox bows thousands embarking on the trails leading west out of Independence. A school and city park are named in his honor.
Black churches in Independence proudly boast 100-year-old congregations. Still, significant segments of the past are lost to time, including a once segregated neighborhood, The Neck, that was obliterated during urban renewal of the 1960s and is today McCoy Park.
With these few instances in mind, think of the myriad life stories yet to be shared. Perhaps Black History Month may also become a “call to duty” encouraging each of us to record personal stories for posterity? Remember the Jackson County Historical Society as a repository.
David W. Jackson is archives and education director of the Jackson County Historical Society.