Early African American Settlers in Madison County

Collinsville Township

Madison County records in 1815 included a “Register of Free People of Color.” The list has twenty names. Among them are James Suggs Singleton, his wife Phillis, and their three sons: James, Isaac, and John.

The register says that Phillis (born about 1760) and the children obtained their freedom from a man named Ogle in St. Clair County. Phillis traveled to the Illinois Territory with Colonel Joseph Ogle, a white Revolutionary War veteran. Ogle left New England for Illinois in 1785. He had settled in St. Clair County by 1789.

Census records for 1830 and 1840 enumerate a James Singleton household of “free colored persons” in northern St. Clair County, near Madison County. Sources suggest he is the eldest son of James Suggs Singleton and Phillis Singleton. In 1850, James and his wife Elizabeth (“Betsey”) still lived in St. Clair County. James and his sons Isaac, James, and Oliver worked as laborers.

James III married Caroline Mumford. He started out as a tenant farmer. Singleton moved his family to Madison County and built a house on Goethe Avenue in Collinsville in the early 1860s. By the end of the decade, Singleton had 40 acres of his own farmland and several children (including an 11-year-old son named James). The Singleton farm produced 300 bushels of Indian corn in 1870.

Wood and metal hand corn planter. MCHS object 1988-130-0001.

This type of hand corn planter was developed around the time the Singletons grew Indian corn on their farm. To plant corn, the farmer jabbed the point of the tool (known as a bill pick or corn jabber) into the soil. When he pushed the top wooden handle forward, the brace in front of the tool hit the ground, activating a spring. This caused the birdlike “bill” at the point to open and release the seed.

Pin Oak Township

Early African American settlers in the Ridge Prairie area of Pin Oak Township include Robert Crawford, Michael Lee, Samuel Vanderburg, Henry Daugherty, and Thomas Sexton. Henry Blair came to the area in the mid-1850s.

Twenty-five-year-old Robert Crawford and several other people left Virginia for Illinois as Edward Coles’s slaves in 1819. Along the way, on a flatboat on the Ohio River, Coles gave the group their freedom. Coles set up Prairieland Farm in Pin Oak Township. Crawford worked on Coles’s farm.

By the 1830s, Crawford and his wife Kate had purchased land in Pin Oak Township. (Coles had purchased land for them in what would later become Knox County. The Crawfords sold that land and used the proceeds to buy land in Pin Oak.) Crawford managed Prairieland Farm as Coles’s agent. He also pursued a parallel career as a preacher. The Crawfords sold their land in Pin Oak Township in 1843 and moved to Montgomery County, Illinois.

Henry Blair was born in Tennessee in 1816, on the Blair plantation in Montgomery County. He gained his freedom in 1850 and married Rachel McDougal three years later. The couple left Tennessee for Illinois, settling in Pin Oak Township. Blair became a prosperous farmer. The Blair home sat on top of a picturesque knoll. When Blair died in 1880, his nearly 900 acres of farmland valued at $43,925. In terms of share of GDP per person, this amount of wealth is equivalent to $12,600,000 in 2017.

Foster Township

Early African American settlers in the Wood Station area of Foster Township include Samuel Bates, James Ballinger, James Henry Johnson, G. Washington Arbuckle, Moses Stewart, and James Stewart.

James and Matilda Ballinger in 1913

Candle mold. MCHS object 1983-002-0001.

The Ballinger family came to Foster Township shortly after the end of the Civil War. Helen Ballinger Walker, daughter of James and Matilda Ballinger, remembers her grandmother making and selling tallow candles from their home in Upper Alton. She used a mold she had from Virginia, where she was born. It was probably very similar to this candle mold from the same time period.

James Henry Johnson was born in 1810 to an enslaved mother in Virginia. After gaining his freedom, he lived first in Kentucky and then in Missouri, working in the lead mines. He and his wife Eleanor (née Madden) moved from Missouri to the Wood Station area in Foster Township. They started Oak Leaf Farm in 1850 with eighty acres. By the time of his death in 1863, Johnson owned 200 acres of contiguous land. Johnson founded and pastored Baptist churches in the Alton area. He also represented Madison County at the State Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Illinois in 1856. Oak Leaf Farm, still owned by the Johnson family today after over 150 years, qualifies as one of seven “sesquicentennial farms” in Madison County.

Samuel Bates married Martha Arbuckle in 1847 in Madison County. They settled in Foster Township where Bates worked as a cooper. By 1860, the couple had a two-year-old son John, $1,000 of real estate, and $800 of personal property. Bates built a brick home for his growing family in 1865, making the bricks himself. When he died in 1898, Samuel Bates’s estate was worth $8,423.25 (equivalent to $2,030,000 in 2017). Bates sent his son John to Shurtleff College in Upper Alton. The lavish party he threw in his home for his daughter’s wedding made society news. The house still stands on Wood Station Road at Seiler Road in Alton.

Cooper’s drawknife (left) and adze. MCHS objects 2018-034-0006 and 2018-034-0003.

Samuel Bates worked as a cooper when he was a young man. A cooper made barrels for storing everything from flour to molasses to beer. He used a drawknife to shape the barrel staves. After setting the staves into a truss hoop and bending them together using a windlass, he trimmed the free ends with a hand adze. 

Chalk lithograph illustration of Samuel Bates House, from Brink, McCormick & Co. of Illinois, Illustrated Encyclopedia and Atlas Map of Madison County, Ill., (St. Louis: Brink, McCormick & Co. of Illinois, 1873), 147.


Bassett, Kathie. “Heartland Heritage: Johnson Family’s Farm is History in Making.” Home Style Magazine, 4, no. 2 (Fall 2010).

Brink, McCormick & Co. of Illinois. Illustrated Encyclopedia and Atlas Map of Madison County, Ill. St. Louis: Brink, McCormick & Co. of Illinois, 1873. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Celebrating 150 Years: Fosterburg, Illinois, August 18 & 19, 2007 Sesquicentennial Celebration. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Directory of Illinois African American Resource and Sites. 1995. Manuscript. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Find A Grave. Accessed January 2, 2019. https://www.findagrave.com/index.html

Gordon, Nicholas. “The Man Who Freed His Slaves: A Narrative of the Life of Edward Coles.” Last updated August 22, 2010. Accessed December 27, 2018. https://www.poemsforfree.com/edwardcoles.html

Henry Blair probate documents. Accessed December 27, 2018. https://www.ancestry.com/ (subscription required).

History of Madison County, Illinois. Edwardsville: W.R. Brink & Co., 1882. Available at the Madison County Archival Library. Also available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library at https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiuo.ark:/13960/t48p6410n

Illinois Historic Farms: Honoring Our Enduring Heritage. Morley: Acclaim Press, 2015. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Illinois State Archives. Illinois Servitude and Emancipation Records (database). Accessed December 27, 2018. https://www.ilsos.gov/isa/servemansrch.jsp

James H. Johnson probate documents. Accessed December 27, 2018. https://www.ancestry.com/ (subscription required).

Johnson, Charlotte. African Americans in Madison County, Illinois. Collection prepared for the staff at the Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library. 2001. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Johnson, Cyrus L. A History of Negro Settlement in Foster Township. Presentation, Honoring Foster Township, Spring Meeting of the Madison County Historical Society, Fosterburg Grade School, Fosterburg, Illinois, May 15, 1960. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Kalman, Bobbie. Colonial Crafts. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1992. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Leichtle, Kurt E., and Bruce G. Carveth. Crusade Against Slavery: Edward Coles, Pioneer of Freedom. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.

Mabry, Eddie. The History of Wood River Baptist District Association. St. Louis: John S. Swift, 1996. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

MacNaul, Willard C. The Jefferson-Lemen Compact: The Relations of Thomas Jefferson and James Lemen in the Exclusion of Slavery from Illinois and the Northwest Territory with Related Documents 1781-1818. A paper read before the Chicago Historical Society February 16, 1915. The University of Chicago Press: 1915. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Madden, Betty I. Art, Crafts, and Architecture in Early Illinois. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

MeasuringWorth. Accessed January 2, 2019. https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/uscompare/

Moore, Sam. “A History of Corn: Hand-held Corn Planters and Checkrows.” Farm Collector, December 2003. Accessed August 22, 2018. https://www.farmcollector.com/equipment/history-of-corn-corn-planters

Parish, Norm. “A Legacy on the Land.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 29, 2003.

Proceedings of the State Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Illinois, Held in the City of Alton, Nov. 13th, 14th and 15th, 1856. Chicago: Hays & Thompson, printers, 1856. Accessed December 27, 2018. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=_pwTAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PP5

Samuel Bates probate documents. Accessed December 27, 2018. https://www.ancestry.com/ (subscription required).

Schaefer, Mary Louise. “Sisters recall grandfather who helped to free slaves.” Collinsville Herald, August 16, 1979.

The Single Tree: Singleton Reunion, St. Louis, Mo. Aug. 11, 1990. Manuscript. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Sloane, Eric. A Museum of Early American Tools. New York: Ballatine Books, 1964. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

Tunis, Edwin. Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1965. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.

United States census records and other public records.

United States Department of the Interior National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form [for Salem Baptist Church, 2001 Seiler Road, Alton, Madison County, Illinois]. Certified November 7, 2013. Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/pdfs/13001004.pdf

Weber, Austin. “Roll Out the Barrels.” Assembly, May 1, 2004. Accessed August 1, 2018. https://www.assemblymag.com/articles/83823-roll-out-the-barrels

“A Wedding Celebration on Wood River.” Alton Telegraph, August 23, 1883.

Winch, Julie. Forgotten Time, Forgotten People: Pin Oak’s African American Farmers. Manuscript. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.