Miller Grove was a community founded northwest of Golconda in 1844 by a small group of free African Americans from Tennessee. In addition to farmsteads, the settlement had a cemetery and a building for a school and church. The community was named for the Miller family, who had been freed by Andrew Miller and his sister Matilda. Other families from Tennessee and some of their old masters later joined the rural community. During the 1840s, 68 people were emancipated by the Dabbs, Millers, Sides, and Singletons.
The earliest wedding celebrated at Miller Grove was between Edward Dabbs and Dolly Sides in 1848. In 1849, Charles and Clarissa Dabbs became the first to purchase public domain land, 160 acres, in Pope County. Many residents added to their land holdings over time, and their children continued farming in the same area.
Archaeological evidence, geographical features, and local history suggest that Miller Grove also served as a way-station for the Underground Railroad. Crow Knob, a sandstone ridgetop on the north edge of the Miller Grove community may have been used as a lookout point. Sand Cave, a nearby rock shelter, is reported to have served as a hiding place for escaping slaves. Correspondence between American Missionary Association ministers James Madison West and James Scott Davis allude to abolitionist activities in the area. James West lived near the Miller Grove community, visiting often, spending the night with Henry Sides, distributing Bibles, and documenting contributions to the “Canada Refugee Fund”. In 1857, he praised residents who became recipients of antislavery literature as “messengers who seem to be doing a work that would otherwise be hard to accomplish”. The recovery of lead type from one of the Miller Grove homesteads suggests that there was a printing press within the community that could have been used to print abolitionist literature or forge freedom papers.
Other archaeological evidence depicts everyday life. Artifacts recovered from Abby Miller’s house include part of a pistol, a bottle, a doll leg, a horse harness hook, broken plates, and a piece of slate board. Bits of ceramic vessels recovered from Miller Grove reflect material choices that had become possible for African American women when they gained their freedom and joined the Miller Grove community.
Women could earn extra income from cottage industries, and public records document how their businesses grew over time. The 1860 agricultural census recorded that Belzora Williams and her daughters made 50 pounds of butter, whereas ten years later, they made 250 pounds of butter. Tax records from Pope County in 1856 show that residents of Miller Grove owned livestock, including horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs. The agricultural census of 1860 reported that Harrison and Lucinda Miller owned 60 acres of improved land and 380 acres of unimproved land worth $1500, and livestock worth $500. They and their son Bedford grew wheat, corn, peas, beans, and tobacco, and made butter. Although their farmland decreased in value to $1000 in 1870, their crops diversified and included wool, molasses, and both Irish and sweet potatoes.
Oral history suggests that the black families living at Miller Grove were more literate than the surrounding white families. Archaeologists have found writing slates at Miller Grove sites. The 1860 census documents that the community had a black school teacher, Julia Singleton. She taught in a single room log structure that also served as Mt. Gilead A.M.E. Church. Although the structure was destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt. White and black neighbors met there for community celebrations.
Everyday activities carried out in Miller Grove were extraordinary in the face of the repressive Black Codes that restricted the freedom of the earlier Miller Grove settlers. The state of Tennessee had required freed blacks to leave the state, while Illinois (and neighboring states) required those entering to post a bond of $1000 to insure that they would not become a financial burden to the state. African American settlements were not rare at this time in southernmost Illinois, but their proximity to bordering slave states put residents in range of kidnappers who would sell them back into slavery. In spite of the danger, the communities thrived.
Henry Sides, a white man, entered the bonds for many of the freed families from Tennessee. He and his wife Barbara moved from Tennessee to Miller Grove with the original four African American families. A former slaveholder in Tennessee, Sides freed all of his slaves and posted their bonds to enter Illinois. In 1846, Henry and Barbara were assaulted by a gang that broke into their home, beat them severely, and stole silver coin which may have been bond money. Courageously, Henry and Barbara, who reportedly lost an eye in the attack, continued to post bonds for incoming African Americans. In his will, Henry bequeathed all of his property to Abraham Sides, a free African American.
In 1900, there were twenty families with 108 people in Miller Grove, but by 1920, only eight families remained and the population had fallen to 21. Farming had become unprofitable and opportunities in coal mining and major cities enticed younger generations to move on. Most of the unproductive land was sold to the federal government, becoming part of the Shawnee National Forest, but Wilbert McClure, a descendant of Bedford and Abigail Miller, maintains twenty acres of their original land.
Shawnee National Forest Archaeologist Mary R. McCorvie has conducted a number of archaeological investigations of Miller Grove, and Southern Illinois University holds part of its summer archaeological field school there. An Educating with Evidence project of SIU Curriculum and Instruction provides 3D images of artifacts discovered at Miller Grove that reveal the activities of its residents.
Special thanks to Mark J. Wagner, director of the Center for Archaeological Investigations, and Mary R. McCorvie, Shawnee National Forest Archaeologist, for information about Miller Grove.
Educating with Evidence. 2017. Using Artifacts as Evidence: African Americans and the Miller Grove, Illinois Settlement. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University.
LaRoche, Cheryl Janifer. 2014. Free Black communities and the Underground Railroad the geography of resistance. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
McCorvie, Mary R. 2002. Women of Color in Southern Illinois: Free African American Women in Rural Ante-Bellum Communities in Southern Illinois. Paper presented at the Annual Conference on Historical Archaeology, Mobile, Alabama, January 9-13, 2002.
McCorvie, Mary R. 2009. Archaeology and Abolitionists: Ardent Spirits, Riotous Mobocrats, Wide Awakes, Egypt and the Presidential Election of 1860. Illinois Archaeological Awareness Month presentation, July 15, 2009.
McCorvie, Mary R., and Vicki Devenport. 2004. Miller Grove: An Introduction. Paper presented at the 2004 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology, St. Louis, Missouri, January 7-11, 2004.
Wagner, Mark J. 2019. “The Place Where No One Ever Goes”: A Landscape Study of the Miller Grove Community. Paper presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Meeting, St. Charles, Missouri, January 9-12, 2019.