The story of Miller Grove, a small community of freed African-Americans who settled in Pope County in 1844, is slowly coming into focus through the work of the US Forest Service and students from the SIU Center for Archaeological Investigations.
According to CAI Director Mark Wagner, there are silences in history that can only be filled in through the excavation of their remains, and Miller Grove is one of those communities.
The vestiges of the Miller Grove community now lie deep within the Shawnee Forest about 20 miles from Vienna, off a path leading from a county road that can best be called a trace.
This summer, the SIU Center for Archaeological Investigations hosted its annual field school at the site. Wagner, along with about a dozen students, is in the process of sifting through layers of soil to uncover relics from this once thriving rural settlement.
Wagner said the silence surrounding Miller Grove may have been self-imposed.
“Communities get silenced for different reasons, but the people out here appear to have silenced themselves, partially because they were involved in the Underground Railroad,” he said.
Wagner said the only direct proof they have of this is in the oral history collected from the descendants of the original community members. Those descendants live all over the U.S., and traveled to the site during 2004 and 2005 to share recollections and stories passed down through their families.
Today, the only physical remains of the community are more than 100 graves, and a series of home sites, now reduced to rubble and barely distinguishable from the natural variables of the landscape.
Shawnee National Forest Heritage Program Manager Mary McCorvie said the community settled in such a remote location intentionally.
“The community is surrounded by branches of Hayes Creek, so it is surrounded by water on three sides," McCorvie said. "This means there is only one way in, and you know who is coming and going.”
Wagner said this was important because in the 1840s and 1850s in Southern Illinois, leading up to the Civil War, slave catchers were common in the region, and it was not unheard of for freed slaves to be kidnapped under the pretense that they were runaway slaves.
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Artifacts uncovered at the site, specifically a Union Army General Service button and a Union Army Revolver, showed McCorvie and Wagner that someone living in the community had been in the “Colored Troops” during the war, but that they could not tie it to a specific family in the settlement.
McCorvie said the community was founded by Harrison Miller, his wife Lucinda, and their three children, who traveled to the woodlands of Pope County from a Tennessee plantation.
In order to settle in the region, the former enslaved family was required to provide documents proving their freedom, and pay a bond of $1,000 to insure they would not become wards of the state.
During the 1840s and 1850s, the area where the Millers bought property and established a farm became the destination for other emancipated families from south-central Tennessee, who also bought land nearby.
As the community expanded, three additional families joined the Millers — the Dabbs, the Singletons and the Sydes. Together they built homesteads, a church and a school.
Wagner said in all likelihood the Miller Grove community did participate in the Underground Railroad. Oral histories suggest that Crow Knob, a sandstone bluff that overlooks the community to the south, was used to light signal fires to point freedom seekers to Millers Grove.
Additionally, Sand Cave, located a few miles west of Crow Knob and north of Miller Grove, appears in stories and local myths as a place to hide runaway slaves. “It all makes sense in the bigger picture of what’s going on,” Wagner said.
Wagner said free communities were in the region near the Ohio River’s division between the slave states of the south and the free states of the north, and the Ohio River became an important boundary line after 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted.
McCorvie said her fascination with the excavation came in the form of the small things found there — a button, pieces of pottery and food remains.
“These things represent the first things these people ever got to own," she said. "They represent the first choices someone ever made for themselves as an adult. That button, those dishes, what to eat and wear, these were all chosen for them until the time they were manumitted.
"These small relics are really very big symbols of freedom.”