Students uncover local forgotten history
POPE COUNTY, IL- You never know what you’ll find once you start digging for answers. Deep in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois, students and archaeologists have been working on an excavation project. They’re learning about the freed slaves who settled in Southern Illinois in the 1840s.
Miller Grove was established by freed African American slaves. Students from the Southern Illinois University Archaeology Field School and U.S Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service are now learning about the community.
The history of Miller Grove runs deep in the Shawnee National Forest. Abby Miller and her family were among the 24 freed slaves from Tennessee who tamed the forest and settled here. Although the Miller Grove Community may not exist anymore, SIU student Noah Gammage said they left behind plenty of artifacts.
“When they [archaeologists] first came out here, they were able to find these sites pretty easily just from people talking about them through generations long after Miller Grove ceased to exist. The idea that we can find physical history through oral history is pretty neat,” said Gammage.
The students are excavating what used to be Abby Miller’s home. Shawnee National Forest Heritage Program Manager Mary McCorvie said some of the artifacts may have links to the underground railroad. “We found general service buttons, meaning somebody here was in the U.S. color troops during the civil war, laying down his life for freedom,” McCorvie explained.
“As slaves, they would have been used to hand-me-downs. Clothing, pots and pans, dishes, and broken stuff that the family gave them. Here, they are actually on their own and making a living on their own and making choices. So when we find a button, that belongs on a shirt or dress that they actually picked out for themselves,” said McCorvie.
She hopes this project will inspire others to explore the forest and the rich history of Southern Illinois. “It’s vital for them to learn this kind of thing. They had no idea of the ramifications of slavery and the impact it had on family, women, and just everyone who had been enslaved during that time,” said McCorvie.
“I think it’s really interesting that they settled so close to the border in such a dangerous area, but worked together as a community to help people move along the underground railroad,” said Gammage.
You will eventually see some of the artifacts in Illinois State History Museum in Springfield.
The students will finish up their excavation of Miller Grove on Friday.