Roberts Settlement

 

Location: 3102 East 276th Street, Atlanta (Hamilton County, Indiana)

Installed 2016 Indiana Historical Bureau, Fall Creek Questers No. 758, Hamilton County Tourism, Inc., and Descendants of Roberts Settlement

ID#: 29.2016.1

Text

Side One

Free people of color left the South starting in the 1820s as threats to freedom and property escalated with slavery expansion. In 1835, Hansel and Elijah Roberts and Micajah Walden of North Carolina bought land in Hamilton County near anti-slavery Quakers. By 1838, Roberts Settlement farmers owned over 900 acres. In 1847, residents built school and church meetinghouse.

Side Two

Association with Wesleyan Methodism by late 1840s fostered ties with neighbors. Agricultural fortunes improved after the railroad’s arrival in 1850s. By 1870, Roberts included over 200 residents and 1700 acres. Emphasis on education prepared new generations for college and careers such as medicine, law, and clergy. Descendants celebrate annually since 1924.

Annotated Text

Side One

Free people of color[1] left the South starting in the 1820s as threats to freedom and property escalated with slavery expansion.[2] In 1835 Hansel and Elijah Roberts and Micajah Walden of North Carolina bought land in Hamilton County near anti-slavery Quakers.[3] By 1838, Roberts Settlement farmers owned over 900 acres.[4]  In 1847, residents built school and church meetinghouse.[5]

Side Two

Association with Wesleyan Methodism by late 1840s fostered ties with neighbors.[6] Agricultural fortunes improved after the railroad’s arrival in 1850s.[7] By 1870, Roberts included over 200 residents and 1700 acres.[8] Emphasis on education prepared new generations for college and careers such as medicine, law, and clergy.[9] Descendants celebrate annually since 1924.[10]

NOTES

[1] S.C. Harrison, Clerk, Free Papers of Elijah Roberts, March 8, 1820, Elijah Roberts Collection, Indiana Historical Society, submitted by applicant; Stephen A. Vincent, Southern Seed, Northern Soil: African-American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), xvi- xvii, 5; 1850 United States Census (Schedule 1),  Jackson Township, Hamilton County, Indiana, Roll M432_448,  page 140A, 140B, 141A, October 4, 1850,  accessed AncestryLibrary.com, submitted by applicant; Warren Eugene Mitleer Jr., The Complications of Liberty: Free People of Color in North Carolina from the Colonial Period through Reconstruction, Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013, ii-iii, 1-4, 10-11, Carolina Digital Repository, accessed cdr.lib.unc.edu.

Historian and professor Warren Mitleer explains the use of the term “people of color,” as preferable to other terms of racial designation. In his 2013 dissertation for the University of North Carolina, Mitleer explained that historically “’free people of color’ was used as a label of status that denoted a middling position in the sociopolitical hierarchy that ranked the free of the enslaved and the white over the non-white.” He goes on to explain that the term includes “free people of African descent, free people of Native ancestry . . . and a variety of individuals with mixed ancestry.” He further explains the preference for this term over “black” or “African American” as many of these individuals had no or little African ancestry. Some were descendants of white and Native American Indians with no “black” ancestors. IHB uses the term on this marker as the ambiguity of the term makes it more inclusive of the multicultural backgrounds of Roberts founders. Mitleer’s conclusions about free people of color in North Carolina apply directly to the Roberts settlers who came from North Carolina to Indiana and is a reliable source for more information on this topic.

For more information on how the residents of Roberts Settlement (and the nearby Beech Settlement) thought about their own racial identity see historian Stephen A. Vincent’s discussion in the introduction to Southern Seed, Northern Soil. Vincent’s monograph, published in 1999, remains the academic authority on these Indiana Settlements and is used heavily in the following notes. Vincent explains “the importance of Beech and Roberts residents’ identity as a people both within and outside the mainstreams of African American as well as American societies . . . While they were African-descended people and suffered the common disabilities facing all African-Americans, they were also perceptibly different from the vast majority of other blacks.”  That is, they were relatively light-skinned, with ancestors who had been free since before the time of the American Revolution. Some had little African ancestry at all and were also descended from Iroquoian-speaking peoples of the 18th century.

Roberts Settlement pioneer Elijah Roberts’ 1820 “Free Papers,” support the claim that the early settlers were free people long before entering Indiana. The free papers also refer to his race as “mulatto.” Census records describing several of the pioneers as “m” for mulatto, show the settlers were mainly of light-complexion.  Several nineteenth-century photographs picturing the second and third generations at Roberts show how light their skin was, a feature that likely eased relationships with neighboring whites and separated them from recently enslaved people.

Vincent continued, “Time and again they identified themselves with other people of African descent . . . Yet time and again they also sought to keep themselves apart . . . Because Beech and Roberts residents saw themselves and were seen by others with varying and shifting identities.”  He also uses these as reasons he employs the term “free people of color” among other terms to convey “the multicultural heritage and fluctuating identities of those involved.”

[2] James Roberts to Willis Roberts, February 1830, letter from private collection of Carl G. Roberts, transcription submitted by applicant, original letter accessible through the Jonathan Roberts Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana before 1900 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1957), 50; Stephen A. Vincent, Southern Seed, Northern Soil: African-American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 9-10, 26-28.

By the late 1820s, the growth of plantations benefiting from the forced labor of enslaved African Americans, along with an increase in slave rebellions and the resulting restrictive laws, threatened the freedom of and opportunities for free blacks in the South.  Free land-owning blacks, like the Roberts family of North Carolina, felt caught “between two fires,” that is, threats posed to their property and freedom by both whites and enslaved blacks. That telling quote comes from an 1830 letter from James Roberts of North Carolina to his cousin Willis Roberts, recently arrived at the Indiana frontier. James responded to a letter from Willis about his considering returning to North Carolina from Indiana.  James strongly warned Willis that this is not a good idea for the future of his young family.  James wrote:

It seems very plain to me that you are now going to make one of the worst mistakes that you ever made, in many ways. The first is that you are taking your children to an old country that is worn out and to slave on, where they are in between two fires as I may call them, for it is well known to me that where there is slavery it is not a good place for us to live . . . To think that you are a going to take your small children to that place and can’t tell how soon you may be taken away from them and they may come under the hands of some cruel slave holder . . .

According to Vincent, additional reasons for leaving the South included white suspicion that free blacks were working with enslaved blacks to overthrow the institution of slavery.  This led to the creation of laws and policies restricting the freedom of free blacks. For all of these reasons, a small group of free people of color left North Carolina for Indiana in the 1830s. (See footnote 3 for more on their arrival in Indiana). Most of the families who would found Roberts Settlement came from Northampton County, North Carolina (with others from adjacent Halifax County, North Carolina, and Greensville County, Virginia).

[3] Indianapolis District #V, Tract Book 2, Auditor of State Land Department, Reel A-16, U.S. Land Office Tract Books, 2007358, 401-D-5, accessed Indiana State Archives at Indiana Archives and Records Administration, microfilm; United States of America to Elijah Roberts, Land Deed, March 20, 1837, Certificate No. 23777, U.S. General Land Office Records, 1796-1907, accessed Ancestry.com; United States of America to Hansel Roberts, Land Deeds, March 20, 1837, Certificate No. 23779 and Certificate No. 23750, U.S. General Land Office Records, 1796-1907, accessed Ancestry.com; United States of America to Micajah Walden, Land Deeds, March 20, 1837, Certificate No. 23364 and Certificate No. 23778, U.S. General Land Office Records, 1796-1907, accessed Ancestry.com; 1850 United States Federal Census (Schedule 1), Jackson Township, Hamilton County, Roll M432_148, page 140A, lines 1-34, page 140B, Lines 9-27, page 141A, Lines 6-13,October 4, 1850, accessed Ancestry.com; Vincent, 39-43.

Between 1831 and 1834 free blacks claimed 1,503 acres in Rush County to create Beech Settlement, according to Vincent who cites land deeds and an Indiana University geological survey. This land was not ideal for farming as it did not drain properly and settlers were forced to look outside the community by 1834. They looked further west and north toward the frontier where the land was inexpensive.  Their other requirement was proximity to Quakers or other “non-hostile whites.”

Fortunately, an area in Jackson Township, Hamilton County, fit their needs perfectly: good cheap land near Quakers at Baker’s Corner and abolitionists at Boxley. (See map below). Using obituaries and land deeds, Vincent painstakingly reconstructs the early formation of this area that would become Roberts Settlement.  The pioneer settlers were Hansel Roberts, who had arrived in Indiana from Northampton County, North Carolina, only weeks before, along with Elijah Roberts and Micajah Walden, also from Northampton who were “only marginally successful in establishing themselves at Beech Settlement” in the previous year or two. This group and possibly the four sons of Hansel’s brother Willis, determined that the area was desirable (surveyors had judged it “as among the best in the vicinity”) and made homestead claims. They cleared land for farming and built cabins. In July 1835, cousins Elijah and Hansel Roberts, and Micajah Walden traveled to Indianapolis to purchase a total of 400 acres of land. The U.S. Land Tract Book for the district confirms Elijah, Hansel and Micajah made these claims July 29, 1835. Other Roberts relatives made claims in the district in October and November 1835 and even more Roberts and Waldens joined the pioneer settlers in 1836, according to the tract book.  [Note: The tract book accessed via Indiana State Archives confirms the 1835 purchases while the 1837 deeds accessed by the applicant via ancestry confirm payment and recognition by U.S. Land Office. The deeds also provide description of exact location].


[Map 4, Vincent, 43]

[4] Indianapolis District #V, Tract Book 2, Auditor of State Land Department, Reel A-16, U.S. Land Office Tract Books, 2007358, 401-D-5, accessed Indiana State Archives at Indiana Archives and Records Administration, microfilm; Thornbrough, 134; Vincent 42-43.

According to Vincent, “By the start of 1838 ten black farmers had bought 920 acres of public land.” He continues to explain that the 1840 census incorrectly counted only five black families: “while this estimate clearly understates that actual numbers present, it is unlikely that more than seven to ten families of totaling fifty to seventy-five blacks had taken up residence at Roberts Settlement at this time.” Vincent cites land deeds housed at the Hamilton County Courthouse and the 1840 Census. Thornbrough puts the acreage at 960, but does not cite a primary source. The U.S. Land Office Tract Books confirm the steady purchase of farm land in the district for several years after the original settlers’ purchases.

[Map 6, Vincent, 49]

[5]“Autobiography of Rev. C. W. Roberts,” Noblesville Daily Ledger, July 2, 1925, submitted by applicant; Vincent, 72-73, 76-77.

Vincent explains that the Roberts settlers built a meetinghouse on land donated by Elias and Mariah Roberts in 1847.  Here they held church services and classes for children.  Prior to the establishment of the meeting house, Roberts families worshipped at the homes of white neighbors (as they had in North Carolina) and children attended a nearby white subscription school. 

The deed transferring the meetinghouse property cites three Roberts men as “trustees of school district No. One in the northwest of Jackson Township . . . the Roberts District.”  According to Vincent, this wording means that by 1847, “the Roberts school apparently was included in the public school system and received government funds. . . [which] suggests the cordial ties between the pioneers and their white neighbors.”

The Reverend Cyrus W. Roberts, who was born at the settlement in 1848, recalled attending the school as a young man.  He wrote, “We attended what was called in that day a ‘Subscription School,’ the tuition being usually $1.00 to $1.50 per month, being taught in the little log cabin (the first built in the community for both church and school purposes) . . .” [See footnote 7 for more information on the religious traditions and transitions at Roberts Settlement.]

[6] “Afternoon Session,” Wesleyan Conference Journal, October 1849, Wesleyan Church World Headquarters, Fishers, Indiana, submitted by applicant; “Slavery,” Indiana Wesleyan Conference Minutes, 1849-1867, page 44; submitted by applicant; “Union Circuit, Indiana Conf.,” True Wesleyan, January 3, 1851, 3, submitted by applicant; Map of Hamilton Co. Indiana (Waterloo City, Indiana: C.A.O. McClellan & C. S. Warner, 1866), accessed Hamilton County Surveyor’s Office, HamiltonCounty.in.gov;  L. C. Rudolph, Hoosier Faiths: A History of Indiana Churches & Religious Groups (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 360, 377-379; Vincent 72-73, 104-106; “The True Wesleyan,” The Wesleyan Church, accessed www.wesleyan.org; “Travels in Time: African American Sites,” Division of Historic Preservation, Department of Natural Resources, http://www.in.gov/dnr/historic/files/africanamericansites.pdf.

After a brief alignment with the A.M.E. church in the mid-1840s, Roberts settlers joined the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in the late 1840s, according to Vincent who estimates the year as “probably 1848.” By 1849, Roberts Settlement became part of the Union Circuit (the local district or group of churches sharing ministers). This meant that the Roberts congregation joined with nearby white congregations for worship and social activities. The 1849 Wesleyan Conference Journal reported that Hansel Roberts served as “delegate for Union Circuit who appeared and took his seat as a member of this Conference.” Other Wesleyan congregations formed west and south of Roberts in former Quaker settlements.  Roberts Settlement residents attended revivals and meetings at these white churches and acted as host for such activities as well. In 1851, the True Wesleyan, the official news publication of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, reported that Indiana Conference of the Union Circuit was held at Roberts Settlement.

The draw for these early converts to the Wesleyan branch was an anti-slavery focus similar to Quakerism but with the evangelical focus of Methodism. According to L. C. Rudolph in his extensive study Hoosier Faiths, “Methodist bishops, with heavy responsibility for preserving denominational peace and unity, were slow to side with abolitionists and to take a clear position against slavery. So some enthusiastic abolitionists among Methodists withdrew in 1843 as the Wesleyan Connection.” According to Vincent, the Wesleyans saw themselves as reformers taking a moral stand against “alcoholic beverages, tobacco, war, secret societies, Sabbath breaking, licentiousness, adultery, and excessive display… Most vigorous of all, however, were the group’s attacks on slavery and all who refused to condemn it…”  The Indiana Wesleyan Conference Minutes present their clear position on slavery: “Whereas the system of Slavery is a gross violation of the law of God and of every principle of moral justice and common humanity…”

In 1858, Roberts residents replaced the log cabin meetinghouse with a frame building chapel, (along with some help from local Quakers). The main portion of the original 1858 chapel is still standing. According to the Division of Historic Preservation, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the three-story belfry was added in 1916.

                According to Rudolph, after the Civil War the focus of Wesleyanism shifted from reforming society (especially in regards to racial injustice) to reforming the individual.  According to Vincent, at Roberts Settlement this focus on the “self” influenced the development of a middle-class (as opposed to working class) identity.  Morality, self-control, and refinement were valued by the residents. [See footnote 9 for more information].

During the Civil War, internal divisions within the congregation paralleled disputes in the Wesleyan community as a whole, and the Roberts congregation briefly disbanded. A small Baptist congregation developed and the church can be seen on this 1866 map.  After the war ended strong leadership brought the Wesleyan congregation back together for another generation until the community itself began to fade. Reverend Cyrus Roberts, a Wesleyan Methodist elder since 1874, wrote that when he returned to Hamilton County after a number of years preaching in other states, he found “so few colored Wesleyans in the North to preach to, in the fall of 1887, I cast my lot with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Several important Roberts residents became members and leaders in the A.M.E. church.

[7]George E. Leefe and Indianapolis and Peru Railroad Company, “Map of Peru and Indianapolis Rail Road with Connections,” n.d., circa 1850, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, accessed https://www.loc.gov/item/98688768; “Peru & Indianapolis Railroad,” January 19, 1854, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Indiana Railways,” Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, January 18, 1855, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Seventh Census of the United States: 1850, Embracing a Statistical View of Each of the States and Territories, Arranged by Counties, Towns, Etc. (Washington: Robert Armstrong, Public Printer, 1853), 764, 787, 790, 792-4, United States Department of Agriculture, Census of Agricultural Historical Archive, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University, accessed agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu; Agriculture of the United States in 1860; Complied from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864), 38-45, United States Department of Agriculture, Census of Agricultural Historical Archive, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University, accessed agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu; Ninth Census – Volume III, The Statistics of the Wealth and Industry of the United States, Embracing The Tables of Wealth, Taxation, and Public Indebtedness of Agriculture, Manufactures, Mining, and the Fisheries, Compiled from the Original Returns of the Ninth Census (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 75, 81-86, 90, 138-45, United States Department of Agriculture, Census of Agricultural Historical Archive, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University, accessed agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu; Indianapolis, Peru & Chicago Railway Co. to S. R. Roberts, receipt, April 20, 1877, Stephen Roberts Papers, Library of Congress, submitted by applicant; Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850-1880 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau & Indiana Historical Society, 1965), 322, 332-3;  Francis H. Parker, “History of the Nickel Plate Heritage Railroad,” Indiana Transportation Museum, accessed http://itm.org/history-of-the-railroad/; Vincent, 61,91, 93.

By 1850, the Indiana Legislature was inundated with applications for railroad charters.  The proposed lines were mainly intended to “supplement the system of waterways,” according to Thornbrough. The Peru & Indianapolis Railway (later the Indianapolis, Peru & Chicago Railway) formed in 1846 to connect to the Wabash and Erie Canal. It was completed in 1854.
[Map 7, Vincent, 82]

The settlement quickly benefitted from the easier access to grain and livestock markets. According to Vincent, the P & I connected Indianapolis with Noblesville, which was twelve miles from Roberts in 1851, and Arcadia, only four miles from Roberts, in 1853.  Thus, Roberts farmers could easily bring goods to sell at the state capital by the early 1850s and to ship via the Wabash and Erie Canal by the line’s completion in 1854.  U.S. Agricultural Census records show the growth in production and “improved acres of land” from 1850 to 1870 for Hamilton County.  By 1850, Hamilton County farmers had improved 54,250 acres; this figure increased to 100,537 by 1860 and 125,984 by 1870. An 1877 receipt from the Indianapolis, Peru & Chicago Railway Co. shows that Stephen Roberts was using the railroad to transport large numbers of cattle and hogs [see below].

[8] Vincent, 90-1, 93-96, 118.

Citing census records, Vincent gives the population of Roberts Settlement as 206 in 1870. Of those residents, twenty five held 1,738 acres of land.  The remaining residents included families of the landowners and others who worked that land or rented. Vincent notes that during the Civil War period, much of the land was managed by the widows of the first generation of settlers and then divided among heirs as they came of age.  This created small farms that were unsustainable and contributed to the demise of the community. However, between 1850 and 1870, newcomers and the second generation also bought farms, accounting for the growth in land ownership between those years.

[Table 13, Vincent, 91]


[Map 9, Vincent, 94]

[9][Newspapers in this note submitted by applicant unless otherwise noted.] 
Indianapolis Leader, November 29, 1879, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Cyrus Roberts, “History of Roberts Settlement,” Noblesville Ledger, July 25, 1925; “Colored Woman Who Taught 40 Years Dies,” Terre Haute Star, January 7, 1938; “Surgeon Robert’s Skill Conquered Bias Barrier,” Chicago Defender, January 30, 1943, 13; “Dr. M. J. Gilliam Dies at Age 76,” Noblesville Daily Ledger, September 24, 1945, 1; “Roberts, Rev. Dolphin Pernander,” in Richard R. Wright, ed., The Centennial Encyclopaedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: Book Concern of the A.M.E. Church, 1916), 188, accessed Google Books; Vincent, 73-4, 76-77, 109-10, 135-6.

While education became increasingly more important to Hoosiers in general in the mid-nineteenth century, it was even more important to Roberts residents who “associated education with freedom and accomplishment” and illiteracy with “racial oppression,” according to Vincent.  At the time of settlement, Roberts children attended integrated subscription schools.  However, with the completion of the church and school building in 1847, this log meetinghouse became the settlement school. [See footnote 5].

The 1850 census reported that one-fourth of children age 5-20 attended school; the 1860 census showed an increase to one-third in the same age group; and by 1870 the figure increased to two-thirds. The 1850 census shows that 31% of residents age 21-30 could read and write; by 1870 that figure had increased to 71.4%.  According to Vincent, “these dramatic improvements helped maintain if not actually extend the educational and literacy advantages that Beech and Roberts residents had long held relative to most other northern blacks.” In 1879 the prominent African American newspaper the Indianapolis Leader noted the “intelligence and sobriety” of the residents of Roberts Settlement.

Other improvements included public funding after the Civil War, which allowed access to schooling for children whose families could not afford subscriptions.  The quality of teaching improved with state mandated reform and the length of the school year doubled. According to Vincent, “Armed with a solid common school education, a significant number of Beech and Roberts students went on to complete course work at the high school and college levels . . . Even more impressive were the ranks of those who attended – and graduated from – colleges and professional schools throughout the Midwest.” 

Robert’s resident Cyrus Roberts boasted about the successes of the community at the 1925 Roberts Settlement Homecoming celebration:

Our religious and educational facilities and opportunities have not been excelled in the past, until our religious influence and intellectual ability, are no longer limited by the geographical boundaries of Roberts Settlement, but are known and felt far and wide in every hamlet, and village, and town, and adjacent city, until our talent is sought and the name, ‘Roberts Settlement,’ has become a synonym, not only for greatness, but also for honesty, and uprightness wherever spoken. The enlightenment of its citizenry, the expanse of its civilization, has and does today command the best talent of those who teach, and of those who preach. Others need not apply. This community has produced and sent forth into the various fields of professional life men and women of recognized talent and ability.

Notable examples of Roberts residents who found successful professional careers include educators Adorah L. Knight and Dr. Marcus J. Gilliam, the reverends Dolphin Pernanders Roberts and Cyrus Roberts, and the surgeon Dr. Carl Roberts.

[10] Minutes of First Roberts Settlement Homecoming,” July 4, 1924, Roberts Family Papers, Library of Congress, submitted by applicant; “Arcadia,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 16, 1927, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Vincent, 152, 155.

Descendants celebrated “the first formal homecoming at Roberts Settlement” on July 4, 1924 (though there had been sporadic earlier reunions), according to the Indianapolis Recorder. The minutes of the first meeting note that “the Home Coming be held at Roberts Chapel on the 4th of July, each successive year.”  During the 1920s through the 1950s these reunions drew hundreds of people, first from around Indiana, then the Midwest, and ultimately from across the country, as descendants became more widely dispersed.  The attendees have been essential in gathering and preserving the history of Roberts Settlement as well as the chapel, which still stands.  Roberts Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Visit the Roberts Settlement Blog to view photos from past celebrations, including the 90 year homecoming in 2014 (which drew a large group of descendants and friends), read articles, view a timeline, and learn about recent events. View the Roberts Settlement documentary Southern Seed, Northern Soil made possible by Indiana Humanities with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other partners.