The National Park Service and the Center for American Archeology supported this research. The goal of the project is to produce a multi-site National Register nomination for Underground Railroad sites in Madison County, IL. The Rocky Fork community, now largely an archeological resource, is one of these sites.
The greater Alton area was a destination and waypoint for the migration and immigration of African Americans prior to the Civil War. Alton was a growing pioneer town in the newly formed State of Illinois, and absorbed many free blacks looking to establish a new life in a free State. Madison County was one of a limited number of locales where large numbers of free black pioneers settled in Illinois.
Madison County was also an important way station for slaves fleeing the South, seeking the safe harbor of Canada. The county was one of three major Underground Railroad entry-points into Illinois, and a number of Underground Railroad routes began in Madison County, and ended on the docks of Chicago where transport to Canada was available.
Most Underground Railroad exploits are attributed to predominantly white, male abolitionists. African American actors (Harriet Tubman, William Stills, locally Priscilla Baltimore and others) were apparently the exception rather than the rule. This is due in part to the letters,
diaries and memoirs written by the white Station Masters and Conductors. If caught aiding, hiding or transporting Freedom Seekers, especially after the 1850 Black Laws were enacted, they would be subject to a fine and possible imprisonment. That they were willing to take this chance is honorable. Yet the punishment for an African American would be much worse. It is likely they would be sent South and enslaved for life. In fact, even law-abiding free blacks lived in fear of being caught by slave catchers and "sold South."
Alton in the mid-1800's was a hotbed of abolitionist - and anti-abolitionist - fervor. Yet only a few individuals have been identified as aiding escaped slaves. The black population of Madison County left no written traces of giving aid to fugitive slaves. However, oral tradition of this activity is still extant today, and circumstantial evidence is compelling.
Alton in particular, since it was a significant port on the Mississippi River, was a prime spot for both free blacks and fugitive slaves to enter into Illinois. Steamboats were used by both freed slaves, and possibly by slave crewmembers who may have taken the opportunity to escape in a free port. Other methods were also used get to Madison County. These include using private boats and ferries, crossing the Mississippi on foot in winter when it was frozen over, and overland from southern Illinois. There are also reports of escaped slaves swimming the River. With or without an Underground Railroad Conductor, Freedom Seekers from Missouri, Kentucky and other Slave states arrived in Madison County as early as 1818, and the migrants continued to arrive through the Civil War.
It is a well-kept secret that the history of the settlement of Illinois included all black settlements. A search of the literature for reveals only a few cases, which misrepresents the actual settlement patterns of early Illinois African Americans.
Brooklyn (St. Clair County) and New Philadelphia (Pike County) are formal, platted towns, while Rocky Fork and Miller Grove (Pope County) are rural, dispersed enclaves. A core of free black landowners marks these rural communities. In Rocky Fork, at least, this population is augmented by a significant number of non-landowning tenant farmers and day laborers. All four of these settlements have a few things in common. First, they are all in border zones - on or near the border of a free state where it abuts a slave state. Second, they are on or very near known Underground Railroad routes. And third, they all have formed around free black-owned property. This legitimizes the community, and may contribute to the community's ability to safely harbor refugees.
In addition to Rocky Fork, Charlotte Johnson, a local historian, has identified nine black communities in early Madison County (personal communication), and two neighborhoods in Alton that were predominantly black. Whether all of these communities were involved in Underground Railroad activities is yet to be determined.
Siebert's (1898) prodigious volume on the Underground Railroad documents several routes through Illinois. All but one route ends at Lake Michigan, and most start (if he can identify the start) along the Mississippi River. This reflects in large part movement of people from Missouri, a slave territory and state, into Illinois. Siebert chronicles known Underground Railroad Operators. Although his map indicates Alton as a starting point, there are no individuals identified for Madison, St. Clair, Greene or Macoupin counties. Siebert relies on written records and oral histories of the white participants. If the Station Master were African American, the danger was greater and the likelihood of written documents is negligible. Only through oral histories would this information be available.
In addition to white-owned Stations, black Freedom Seekers also sought refuge among the free black residents of the county. This is documented for Rocky Fork (Johnson, 2001; Hoffman, 2005), and likely occurred in other parts of the county as well. However the physical traces of Underground Railroad Stations would be missing in these black communities. In this situation, it is the presence of the black community that afforded protection, and not a physical structure.
The history of Rocky Fork stretches back into the early 1830's. At this time Francis Hogg, a free black entrepreneur, purchased property along both sides of Piasa Creek, which extended into the Rocky Fork drainage area. He built a sawmill on this property, and this enterprise provided jobs to the African Americans who lived in Rocky Fork. His property may have provided safe passage for those refugees trying to reach the Rocky Fork community who would follow Piasa Creek after crossing the Mississippi River.
The formal beginning of the Rocky Fork community was the purchase of five parcels by 4 free black families. These pioneers bought adjacent parcels in the heart of the Rocky Fork drainage basin, as seen on the 1861 plat. By 1861, five homes were platted in the Rocky Fork black community. Shortly after the Civil war, Rocky Fork residents erected a church.
Through the years the Rocky Fork settlement expanded significantly, and was a vibrant community for many years. However, by the mid twentieth century, the population had dwindled to only a handful of families still living in Rocky Fork. During the 1970's and '80's, the community was the subject of racially motivated attacks. The church was repeatedly vandalized, desecrated and was eventually burned to the ground - twice! Also on New Year's Eve 1976, an arsonist burned the homes of the remaining inhabitants of Rocky Fork while they were attending church services. Today only the rebuilt church and its cemetery remain. All other traces of this once-vibrant community are archeological sites.
Recent archeological surveys conducted by the CAA and ITARP have identified a number of sites associated with the Rocky Fork community. Nine early homesteads and a private cemetery have been located. Of these, three homesteads and the private cemetery can be tied to the original settlers of Rocky Fork.
The George Russell and Peter Baker homesteads have been investigated by Phase I surveys (Durst, 2004). The George Russell homestead is located in the uplands ca. 1/2 mile west of Rocky Fork Creek. This site yielded ceramic diagnostics that indicate an Early Industrial (late 19th century) occupation. The Peter Baker homestead is located on a ridgetop immediately west of Rocky Fork Creek. This site yielded a mix of prehistoric and historic artifacts. The site contained a light widespread scatter of non-diagnostic prehistoric lithics, and non-diagnostic historic material.
The Peter Baker cemetery is located to the east of the Peter Baker homestead, on the western sideslope of Rocky Fork Valley. This cemetery is a small, currently unmarked cemetery. A survey conducted by the CAA identified 7 slight depressions, and only a flagstone to mark one of these graves. Charlotte Johnson reports that at one time there were 24 marked graves, but vandals have removed the stones.
Limited test excavations have been carried out at the Anna and Gabrial Bell homestead, one of the original Rocky Fork families. This location had been continuously occupied until the New Year's Eve arson attack in 1976. The house foundation and old roadbeds are the only structural remains at this home site. Also preserved is landscaping of the front yard of the home, and the 'trash gully' located ca. 200 yards behind (north) of the house.
Material recovered includes refined ceramics, stoneware, large quantities of glass - largely bottles, jars and small quantities of tableware, badly corroded metal items and brick fragments. Also recovered were small quantities of coal, leather fragments and rubber. No bone has been recovered. The assemblage contains artifacts dating from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century. Early diagnostics include Upper Alton stoneware (COIPS, 2009), a piece of Greenwood ironstone, flow blue, green and brown transferware crockery, and early medicine and soda bottles. No evidence of plastic was found, even though the house was occupied into the 1970's. The assemblage as a whole is indicative of a rural, poor, subsistence-farming occupation.
The archeological investigation of these early homesteads may be our only access into the early history of these free black communities. Written records are rare and even the Rocky Fork church records have been destroyed. Oral histories give us some insight, but with the dispersal of community members 30 years ago, even this information source is beginning to dissipate. To further exacerbate this problem, the Village of Godfrey is planning to construct the Crosstown Road - which would run right through the heart of this abandoned community. The attendant development along this road would jeopardize the remaining archeological resources.
Collectors of Illinois Pottery and Stoneware (COIPS)
2009 Upper Alton Stoneware, Madison County, Illinois. http://www.coips.org/id28.htm
2004 Phase I Archaeological Investigations of the Crosstown Road Project (US 67 to IL 3); Madison County, Illinois. Project Log #02219. Archaeological Survey Short Report, Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, University of Illinois.
2004 God's Portion: Godfrey, Illinois 1817-1865. Cold Tree Press in conjunction with Lewis and Clark Community College Foundation.
Johnson, Charlotte E.
2000 Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, Camp Warren Levis (Rocky Fork Area) Application. National Park Service
Siebert, Wilbur H.
1898 The Underground Railroad, From Slavery to Freedom, A Comprehensive History. Macmillan Company, New York and London. [reprinted by Dover in 2006].