The Bone and Sinew of the Land

America's Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality


By Anna-Lisa Cox

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The long-hidden stories of America’s black pioneers, the frontier they settled, and their fight for the heart of the nation

When black settlers Keziah and Charles Grier started clearing their frontier land in 1818, they couldn’t know that they were part of the nation’s earliest struggle for equality; they were just looking to build a better life. But within a few years, the Griers would become early Underground Railroad conductors, joining with fellow pioneers and other allies to confront the growing tyranny of bondage and injustice.

The Bone and Sinew of the Land tells the Griers’ story and the stories of many others like them: the lost history of the nation’s first Great Migration. In building hundreds of settlements on the frontier, these black pioneers were making a stand for equality and freedom. Their new home, the Northwest Territory — the wild region that would become present-day Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin — was the first territory to ban slavery and have equal voting rights for all men. Though forgotten today, in their own time the successes of these pioneers made them the targets of racist backlash. Political and even armed battles soon ensued, tearing apart families and communities long before the Civil War. This groundbreaking work of research reveals America’s forgotten frontier, where these settlers were inspired by the belief that all men are created equal and a brighter future was possible.

Named one of Smithsonian’s Best History Books of 2018


African American Farming Settlements in the Northwest Territory States, 1800–18601

[No asterisk] = Settlement with at least one African American farmer owning less than two hundred acres or with property valued at less than $2,000

* = Settlement with at least one African American farmer owning two hundred acres or more or worth $2,000 or more

** = Settlement with at least one African American farmer owning four hundred acres or more or worth $4,000 or more

*** = Settlement with at least one African American farmer owning 1,000 acres or more or with property worth $10,000 or more


1 Painesville, Lake County

2 Bloomfield, Trumbull County

3 Mesopotamia, Trumbull County

4 Farmington, Trumbull County

5 Youngstown, Mahoning County

6 Austintown, Mahoning County

7 Goshen, Mahoning County

8 Smith, Mahoning County*

9 Knox, Columbiana County

10 Lexington, Stark County

11 Atwater, Portage County

12 Charlestown, Portage County

13 Ravenna, Portage County

14 Stow, Summit County

15 Bainbridge, Geauga County*

16 Independence, Cuyahoga County*

17 Middleburgh, Cuyahoga County

18 Grafton, Lorain County

19 Russia, Lorain County

20 Brownhelm, Lorain County**

21 Fitchville, Huron County

22 Sharon, Richland County

23 Greenfield, Huron County**

24 Perkins, Erie County

25 Sandusky, Sandusky County

26 Tiffin, Seneca County

27 Seneca, Seneca County*

28 Big Spring, Seneca County

29 Crawford, Wyandot County

30 Delaware, Hancock County

31 Perry, Allen County*

32 Bath, Allen County

33 Washington, Paulding County

34 Willshire, Van Wert County

35 Centre, Mercer County

36 Jefferson/Macon, Mercer County*

37 Butler, Mercer County

38 Granville, Mercer County

39 Carthagena, Mercer County

40 St. Marys, Auglaize County

41 Moulton, Auglaize County

42 Washington, Auglaize County

43 Van Buren, Shelby County*

44 Lake, Logan County

45 Jefferson, Logan County*

46 Perry, Logan County***

47 Monroe, Logan County

48 Thompson, Delaware County

49 Concord, Delaware County**

50 Perry, Franklin County**

51 Radnor, Delaware County

52 Peru, Morrow County

53 Harmony, Morrow County*

54 Washington, Morrow County*

55 Morris, Knox County

56 South Bloomfield, Morrow County

57 Hilliar, Knox County

58 Mount Vernon, Knox County

59 Virginia, Coshocton County

60 Cadiz, Harrison County

61 Mount Pleasant, Jefferson County*

62 Meigs, Muskingum County**

63 Roxbury, Washington County

64 Wayne, Pickaway County

65 Urbana, Champaign County

66 Spring Creek, Miami County

67 Washington, Miami County

68 German, Darke County***

69 Concord, Miami County

70 Union, Miami County

71 Xenia, Greene County

72 Sugar Creek, Greene County*

73 Wayne, Warren County*

74 Union, Warren County**

75 Caesar’s Creek, Greene County

76 Perry, Fayette County

77 Greenfield, Highland County

78 Fairfield, Highland County***

79 Hansbrough Settlement, Liberty, Highland County

80 Paint, Highland County

81 Concord, Highland County

82 Eagle, Brown County

83 Pebble, Pike County*

84 Chillicothe, Ross County

85 Jackson, Pike County**

86 Seal, Pike County

87 Liberty, Jackson County

88 Jackson, Jackson County

89 Franklin, Jackson County

90 Lick, Jackson County

91 Berlin Crossroads, Milton, Jackson County**

92 Huntington, Gallia County

93 Raccoon, Gallia County

94 Poke Patch, Lawrence/Gallia Counties

95 Decatur, Lawrence County


96 Huggart Settlement, Union, St. Joseph County

97 Smith, Whitely County**

98 Blue Creek, Adams County

99 Mill, Grant County

100 Union, Grant County Union

101 Weaver Settlement, Liberty, Grant County

102 Greene, Grant County

103 Clay, Howard County*

104 Ervin, Howard County*

105 District 9, Carroll County

106 Honey Creek, Clinton County

107 Roberts Settlement, Jackson, Hamilton County***

108 Adams, Hamilton County

109 Marion, Boone County

110 Walnut, Montgomery County

111 Center, Marion County*

112 Warren, Marion County

113 Franklin, Marion County

114 Sugar Creek, Hancock County**

115 Brandywine, Hancock County

116 Vernon, Hancock County

117 Worth, Hancock County

118 Jackson, Hancock County

119 Ripley, Rush County***

120 Greensboro, Henry County*

121 Harrison, Henry County

122 Dudley, Henry County*

123 Jefferson, Wayne County

124 Blue River, Henry County

125 Stoney Creek, Henry County**

126 Cabin Creek Settlement, Randolph County**

127 Snow Hill, Randolph County

128 Greensfork, Randolph County*

129 Franklin, Wayne County**

130 New Garden, Wayne County

131 Wayne Township, Wayne County*

132 Clay, Wayne County**

133 Connersville, Fayette County*

134 Union, Rush County***

135 Laurel, Franklin County

136 Posey, Franklin County

137 Salt Creek, Franklin County

138 Fugit, Decatur County

139 Columbus, Bartholomew County

140 Washington, Brown County

141 Washington, Morgan County**

142 Washington, Owen County

143 Grayson/Marion, Owen County

144 Lost Creek, Vigo County**

145 Nevins, Vigo County

146 Raccoon, Parke County**

147 District 85, Parke County

148 Otter Creek, Vigo County

149 Harrison, Vigo County

150 Honey Creek, Vigo County

151 Underwood Settlement, Linton, Vigo County**

152 Busseron, Knox County*

153 Washington, Daviess County**

154 District 61, Knox County

155 Patoka, Gibson County*

156 Montgomery, Gibson County*

157 Black, Posey County*

158 Union, Vanderburgh County

159 Knight, Vanderburgh County

160 Patoka, DuBois County

161 Perry, Lawrence County

162 Marion, Lawrence County*

163 Orleans, Orange County

164 Orangeville, Orange County

165 Paoli, Orange County

166 Stampers Creek, Orange County

167 Southeast, Orange County

168 Harrison Township, Harrison County

169 Franklin, Floyd County*

170 New Albany, Floyd County**

171 Jeffersonville, Clark County

172 Charlestown, Clark County

173 Silver Creek, Clark County

174 Lafayette, Floyd County

175 Wood, Clark County

176 Washington, Washington County**

177 Driftwood, Jackson County

178 Jackson, Jackson County

179 Redding, Jackson County

180 Spencer, Jennings County

181 Geneva, Jennings County***

182 Vernon, Jennings County

183 Lancaster, Jefferson County

184 Smyrna, Jefferson County

185 Republican, Jefferson County

186 Hanover, Jefferson County**

187 York, Switzerland County**


188 East and West Galena, Jo Daviess County

189 Wheeling, Cook County

190 Maine, Cook County

191 District 32, Iroquois County

192 New Albany, Coles County

193 Grandview and Embarrass, Edgar County**

194 Darwin, Clark County

195 Newton, Jasper County

196 Pinkstaff, Lawrence County*

197 “Not Stated,” Wabash County

198 “Not Stated,” Edwards County

199 Wabash, Gallatin County

200 Shawnee, Gallatin County

201 Cane Creek, Gallatin County

202 Equality, Gallatin County

203 Curran, Saline County*

204 Eagle, Gallatin County

205 Monroe, Saline County

206 “Not Stated,” Hardin County*

207 Miller Grove, in the Shawnee Hills, Pope County

208 “Not Stated,” Pulaski County

209 District 2, Union County**

210 District 2, Johnson County

211 Stonefort, Saline County

212 Township 8/“Not Stated,” Williamson County

213 Township 8, Jackson County

214 T6S R5W, Randolph County

215 T4S R5W, Randolph County

216 T6S R7W, Randolph County

217 T6S R8W, Randolph County

218 Prairie du Rocher, Randolph County

219 Mitchie, Monroe County

220 New Design, Monroe County

221 Turkey Hill, St. Clair County*

222 Lebanon, St. Clair County

223 Ridge Prairie, St. Clair County

224 Centreville, St. Clair County

225 American Bottom, St. Clair County

226 T3N R10W, Madison County

227 T3N R7W, Madison County

228 T4N R7W, Madison County

229 T4N R9W, Madison County*

230 T5N R9W, Madison County

231 Rocky Fork Settlement, Godfrey, Madison County

232 “Not Stated,” Bond County

233 Southwest of District 22, Montgomery County

234 “Not Stated,” Macoupin County*

235 Between Macoupin and Apple Creeks, Greene County

236 Hadley, Pike County**

237 T1S R3W, Brown County

238 Buena Vista, Schuyler County

239 Hickory, Fulton County

240 “Not Stated,” Tazewell County

241 T11 N4E, Knox County*

242 T11 N1E, Knox County

243 “Not Stated,” Hancock County


244 Peshtigo, Oconto County

245 Shawano, Shawano County

246 Richmond, Shawano County

247 Freedom, Outagamie County

248 Neenah, Winnebago County

249 Rushford, Winnebago County

250 Brothertown, Calumet County*

251 Stockbridge, Calumet County

252 Stantonville, Chilton/Calumet Counties*

253 Charlestown, Calumet County

254 Hubbard, Dodge County**

255 Waukesha, Waukesha County*

256 Caledonia, Racine County**

257 Norway, Racine County*

258 Eagle, Waukesha County

259 Dunkirk, Dane County*

260 Plymouth, Rock County

261 Avon, Rock County

262 Beetown, Grant County

263 Prairie du Chien, Crawford County

264 Willow, Richland County

265 Washington, Sauk County

266 Westfield, Sauk County

267 Fort Winnebago, Columbia County

268 Woodland, Sauk County

269 Forest, Bad Ax County

270 Adrian, Monroe County

271 Newark Valley, Adams County*

272 Plainfield, Waushara County

273 El Paso, Pierce County

274 Trimbelle, Pierce County


275 St. Clair Ward 1, St. Clair County

276 Burtchville, St. Clair County

277 North Branch, Lapeer County

278 Lapeer, Lapeer County

279 Burton, Genessee County*

280 Wheatfield, Ingham County

281 Vevay, Ingham County*

282 Unadilla, Livingston County*

283 Hamburg, Livingston County

284 Royal Oak, Oakland County*

285 Springwells, Wayne County

286 Romulus, Wayne County

287 Canton, Wayne County*

288 Superior, Washtenaw County

289 Pittsfield, Washtenaw County**

290 York, Washtenaw County**

291 Manchester, Washtenaw County

292 Woodstock, Lenawee County

293 Somerset, Hillsdale County

294 Rollin, Lenawee County

295 Amboy, Hillsdale County

296 Ovid, Branch County

297 Fawn River, St. Joseph County**

298 Sherman, St. Joseph County

299 Lockport, St. Joseph County

300 Porter, Cass County*

301 Howard, Cass County**

302 Niles, Berrien County*

303 Sodus, Berrien County

304 Pipestone, Berrien County

305 Decatur, Van Buren County

306 Volinia, Cass County

307 Penn, Cass County**

308 Calvin, Cass County**

309 Newberg, Cass County

310 Marcellus, Cass County

311 Porter, Van Buren County**

312 Lafayette, Van Buren County*

313 Lawrence, Van Buren County

314 Arlington, Van Buren County*

315 Waverly, Van Buren County

316 Almena, Van Buren County*

317 Cheshire, Allegan County

318 Pine Grove, Van Buren County

319 Alamo, Kalamazoo County

320 Oshtemo, Kalamazoo County**

321 Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County

322 Brady, Kalamazoo County

323 Fredonia, Calhoun County*

324 Emmett, Calhoun County

325 Lee, Calhoun County*

326 Barry, Barry County

327 Hope, Barry County

328 Fulton, Gratiot County

329 Fairplain, Montcalm County

330 Otisco, Ionia County

331 Paris, Kent County*

332 Gaines, Kent County*

333 Byron, Kent County

334 Spring Lake, Ottawa County

335 Ravenna, Muskegon County

336 Bridgeton, Newaygo County

337 White River, Muskegon County

338 Ontonagon, Ontonagon County

Author’s Note

At the front of this book is a map of a reality that no one thought existed, of a population that most have considered impossible—a population of successful African American pioneers integrating America’s first free frontier.1

The territory on this map became part of the United States in the revolutionary days of the early republic, and it was truly revolutionary, for this is the Northwest Territory—the largest piece of land in the New World to be set aside as free of slavery and to offer equal voting rights to American men regardless of the color of their skin. Before California or Texas, before Wyoming or Oregon, this territory was known as the Great West, a region of tremendous importance that shaped the nation before the Civil War. The pioneers featured in this book grew their farms and families on the frontier while also keeping alive the dream that had given birth to their new homes and their new nation, a dream of a country where all men are created equal and there could be liberty and justice for all.

The map reveals the activities inspired by this dream, but it is limited in a few ways. It does not represent all African Americans in the Northwest Territory states, only African American farming settlements, so none of the many African American urban entrepreneurs are shown. And even in the rural areas, it excludes all the African American businesspeople who were not property-owning farmers, such as blacksmiths, general store owners, and mill owners.

My definition of a successful landowning African American entrepreneurial farm is based on the following criterion: a man of any skin color owning at least two hundred acres of property would have been eligible to run for office based on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Having that much acreage would represent considerable economic success: Loren Schweninger points out in Black Property Owners in the South, by the mid-1800s a farmer with property worth between $2,000 and $5,000 was in the top 13 percent of wealthy landowners in the United States at that time, regardless of skin color. Many of these settlements included farmers with such wealth, and some were even wealthier.

What’s more, the number of landowning African American farming settlements on this map is conservative, and so is the value of the farms. African American farming families often did not want themselves or their farms counted on federal documents before the Civil War. This is unsurprising given the anti-immigration laws, the fugitive slave laws, and the unjust taxation policies in these states. The first African American lawyer in Ohio would not allow the federal census to record the value of his large and successful Ohio farm in the 1850s; it is recorded only in local land deeds and tax records.2

Because of settlement patterns, I drew information about Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois farms primarily from the 1850 federal census, while Michigan and Wisconsin data came from the 1860 federal census. Although some of these settlements had disappeared by 1860 and others only existed for a decade, they are still counted, for they had an impact both on the African American farmers themselves and on the white pioneers moving in and around them. Each of these pioneer farming families and each of these settlements testifies to the truth that people of African descent had the ability, courage, and perseverance to rise in America. This is the story of their rising and what happened when they rose.


Boston, Massachusetts, 1853

William Lloyd Garrison left Boston in early October 1853 to travel to the Great West. He headed first to Albany, New York, where he would catch a train that would take him hundreds of miles west. By 1853 Garrison was one of the most widely recognized and revolutionary white abolitionists of his day, and he had been publishing his newspaper, the Liberator, in Boston for over twenty years, filling its pages with reports from the region he was now on his way to visit.1

The Great West, the Northwest territories, the frontier. Today these words conjure up images of the Rocky Mountains or the wild ranges of Texas. But the “Great West” was the name commonly given to the first territory created by the new nation of the United States, in 1787. Most of this region would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin in the first half of the 1800s. Maps from the early nineteenth century show the nation ending at the Mississippi River, as if that waterway were a cliff at the end of the world.

And even as the nation expanded, this image of the Northwest Territory stayed strong in the minds of many Americans.

In 1853, Garrison did not plan on visiting all five of those states, just Ohio and Michigan. He was not getting any younger, and the new train lines now connecting the East Coast to Michigan and Ohio made travel there much easier. But he also had to be careful to visit what he deemed the safest parts of the Old Northwest Territory states. He knew of vicious attacks against abolitionists in some of these regions—he had reported on them in his newspaper for years. Of course, Boston was not exactly safe either. In the 1830s Garrison had nearly been tarred and feathered as well as lynched in his hometown of Boston. And tarring and feathering continued to be a favored means among pro-slavery men of torturing those struggling against the tyrannies of bondage and prejudice, even in the Northwest Territory states.2

Garrison wrote accounts of his journey soon after returning. He wrote of traveling around Michigan and Ohio, speaking to crowds large and small, of being barred from speaking halls in Detroit and almost attacked there. He wrote of his meetings with white and black abolitionists, as well as their enemies. He wrote with good humor of the time a young white man on a train platform in Ohio had warned him that an antislavery meeting was to be held in the area and “the nigger man from Boston was going to be there,” referring to Garrison himself. Garrison wrote, “This was really a very fine compliment, and I was as much gratified as amused by it.”3

But he devoted his first article upon his return, when his memory was freshest, to certain facts about the region that moved him and gave him hope:

Is it not on the American soil that the “Great Debate, the Conflict of the Ages,” is to be settled… as to the equality of the human race—human brotherhood—the value of man as man? Settled, not as an abstract theory, but by a practical recognition of the world-reconciling fact; settled, not with mountains or oceans intervening, but with people of every clime and race standing side by side, grouped together in one common locality, literally neighbors, daily looking each other in the face, and continually interchanging the kindnesses and courtesies of civilized life!4

As Garrison wrote about “people of every clime and race standing side by side” as neighbors, he was not envisioning some grand imagined experiment, some ideal future; he was describing a reality that he knew existed across most of the Great West. He was writing about a population in that region that most historians today do not know existed. But it did.

At the very time when the United States was forming itself, when the young nation was opening its first free frontier, there was a pioneering movement so massive and successful that it changed the legal and social landscape of our country. This movement consisted of free people of African descent.

Long before the Great Migration of the twentieth century, there had been another Great Migration, one that spanned the first half of the nineteenth century. This was a migration, in wagon trains and on foot, of tens of thousands of African American pioneers who became some of the earliest settlers of the Great West. Most of these pioneers had not come to cities; instead, they had flung themselves at the wildest edges of the frontier. Highly visible, assertive, and brave, they scattered themselves across the land in hundreds of farming settlements.

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  • "Tracing the free black families who settled the nation's first frontier, the great Northwest Territory, Anna-Lisa Cox convincingly shows that African American history has always been interwoven with the pioneer experience in America. At the same time, she reveals the blurred, often dangerous lines between freedom and bondage even in the territories that the Founding Fathers established from the beginning to be beyond the reach of America's original sin: slavery. In introducing us to the Grier and Lyle families, among others for whom land was the dream, Cox uncovers a rich history that may surprise even those most devoted to the study of African American history. The Bone and Sinew of the Land is a revelation of primary historical research that is written with the beauty and empathic powers of a novel."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
  • "The journey of America's Black pioneers is a story that remains unknown to Americans like the frontiers they settled. Starting in the earliest days of the republic, these brave men and women built new lives far away from the White enslavers who doubted them, threatened them, and attacked them. This groundbreaking work of research is a beautifully written testament to their bold courage, to their trailblazing strength."—Ibram X. Kendi, New York Times bestselling authorof Stamped from the Beginning
  • "Through ingenious research and a generous sensibility, Anna-Lisa Cox captures the hidden stories of African American farmers who fought for equality and justice against virulent white supremacy. Her heartfelt, lyrical narrative brings the bones and sinews of black frontier families back to life, showing how their idealistic struggles helped to shape the Midwest, and the nation."—Peter H. Wood, author of Black Majority and Strange New Land
  • "The Bone and Sinew of the Land unearths and shines a light on a crucial but untold African American and American history that parallels and complicates the well-known story of the Underground Railroad. Cox convincingly reframes the symbolic importance of American pioneers by proving how free black families and communities were shaping their own destinies in America's first frontier of the nineteenth century. Free black people were creating and framing their own destinies across a wide geography through a deep connection to land ownership and politics. This work will not only influence scholarship. It should also deeply shape public history and public conversations from local historic houses to sites to national institutions."—Paul Gardullo, curator, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History andCulture
  • "In this engrossing narrative, historian Cox restores attention to the role of African-Americans in shaping both the frontier and early- to mid-19th-century American political life... Cox's book tells a story worth recovering, and it will interest anyone wanting to learn more about the lives of free black Americans before the Civil War."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Recent scholarship on the history of slavery, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism has expanded well beyond the bounds of the South, and Cox has made an excellent contribution with her latest book... A must-read for gaining a deeper understanding of the history of racism in the Midwest, particularly present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin."—Library Journal
  • "Cox provides a moving and necessary corrective to American pioneer history." Booklist
  • "The Bone and Sinew of the Land explores how black settlers, many of them slaves who had bought their freedom, settled in what is now the Midwest and established thriving farm communities that were threatened by violence and injustice."—Columbus Dispatch
  • "Today, evidence of the pioneering African-American presence exists only here and there in place names, still-functioning churches and local lore. The Bone and Sinew of the Land takes a step toward remembering it."—BookPage
  • "The Bone and Sinew of the Landis a valuable contribution toward understanding the complex history of race in America."—Shepherd Express

On Sale
Jun 12, 2018
Page Count
304 pages

Anna-Lisa Cox

About the Author

Anna-Lisa Cox is the author of A Stronger Kinship: One Town’s Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith, and an award-winning historian. Currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, she also recently helped create two historical exhibits based on her original research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, including one on black pioneers.

Learn more about this author