Uncovering Michiana’s Black History: The Kentucky Slave Raid of 1847

Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 6:32 PM EST
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CASSOPOLIS, Mich. (WNDU) - Black History Month is only 28 days long, but the lessons we learn in February give us a glimpse into what it means to be Black in America 365 days a year.

It’s also a month when we uncover new knowledge that was either altered to put white ancestors in a better light or was just left out of the history books altogether.

16 News Now reporter Jack Springgate is unearthing some of those untold stories that happened right here in Michiana.

It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 freedom seekers escaped to the north using the secret system of trails and shelters known as the Underground Railroad in the years leading up to the Civil War.

An estimated that up to 1,500 of them came to Cass County, Michigan, known back then as Young’s Prairie, home to several stops on the Quaker Line.

Unfortunately, escaping the south didn’t mean freedom seekers were safe. In 1847, more than a dozen slave catchers come to Young’s Prairie to reclaim what they considered their property.

What happened during the Kentucky Slave Raid of 1847 cemented this part of Michigan as a place of opportunity for Black people before, during, and after the civil war.

Much of this event can be explained at the Stephen Bogue House, which is currently being curated by the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County.

Head docent Cindy Yawkey knows this story well and has even illustrated many of the key moments to keep this history alive.

“Can you tell us what happened here at the Bogue House, and this was actually an Underground Railroad station. Tell us all about it,” Jack said.

“In 1831, Stephen Bogue and Hannah Bogue moved to this area. In the attic is where freedom seekers were given shelter. This is an important house because this is where Perry Sanford ran during the Kentucky Slave Raid of 1847,” Yawkey said.

She regularly gives tours of this house, all culminating with her telling of the true history that occurred here.

“I’m about to tell you about one of the most exciting anti-slavery events to happen in Michigan, the Kentucky Slave Raid of 1847. In the spring of 1847, two large groups escaped from their Kentucky plantation. The first group was 22. The second group was 11 and included Perry Sanford. In August of 1847, 13 slave catchers come into the area.”

Another sketch depicting freedom-seekers on the Underground Railroad.
Another sketch depicting freedom-seekers on the Underground Railroad.(WNDU)

Cindy says the slave catchers broke up into smaller groups from there, shackling freedom seekers at several locations around Young’s Prairie including Josiah Osborne’s, Joel East’s, Zachariah Shugart’s, and Henry Shephard’s farm. The plan was to rendezvous at the O’Dell Mill in Vandalia. But things didn’t go according to plan when they came upon the Bogue House.

A map of the different houses that were part of the Underground Railroad in Cass County.
A map of the different houses that were part of the Underground Railroad in Cass County.(WNDU)

“Joe Sanford, his wife, his daughter, a man named Rube Stevens, and Perry Sanford are staying [at the Bogue House]. Around 4 o’clock in the morning, they hear a knock at the door. Joe goes, ‘who’s there’? A voice replies, ‘a friend’. They all recognize the voice. It’s the voice of Jack Graves, Joe’s slave master. Joe doesn’t let him in. Joe starts yelling, “Murder. Murder,” hoping someone would hear him and come to his rescue. Then Jack Graves takes his double barrel shotgun and sticks it through the window of the cabin. Joe picks up a hickory stick. He strikes Jack Graves with a hickory stick. Jack Graves drops his shotgun in the window and he leaves. No one thinks to pick up the shotgun, and Jack Graves and the others soon return. They capture Joe, his wife, and his daughter,” Yawkey said.

Perry Sanford managed to escape through the roof and make his way to the Bogue House to warn Stephen. While he went to go get reinforcements, Sanford hid right up here.

A sketch depicting a freedom-seeker erupting through a roof under the night sky.
A sketch depicting a freedom-seeker erupting through a roof under the night sky.(WNDU)

Rube Stevens also escaped to get help.

“Rube Stevens made it to William Jones’ home. William Jones mounts his horse and rides to Stephen Bogue’s home. The slave catchers are there. They have pistols and bowie knives. William Jones, a Quaker, he doesn’t have any guns, but he tells them he can shoot as fast as they can. He stays there and talks to them until Stephen Bogue and 30 others come from Cassopolis. They go from Stephen Bogue’s home to the O’Dell mill in Vandalia. Where it’s estimated 100-300 people had gathered.”

Thirteen of them were slave catchers with nine freedom seekers, but the rest of the crowd was made up of Quakers, free black people, abolitionists, and townspeople.

Another sketch depicting people gathering in Vandalia.
Another sketch depicting people gathering in Vandalia.(WNDU)

“Josiah Osborne spoke to the slave catchers and they agreed to have their case settled in court,” Yawkey said.

With the Cass County Commissioner out of town, this case was presented to the Berrien County Commissioner. Ebeneezer McIlvain was secretly a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Niles, who gave freedom seekers an edge never seen inside a courtroom at that time.

In this special report, WNDU's Jack Springgate explores the history behind the Underground...
In this special report, WNDU's Jack Springgate explores the history behind the Underground Railroad of Cass County.(WNDU)

“He allowed Blacks to testify against their slave owners. Then he turned to the Kentuckians and said, ‘Prove your case,’” Yawkey said.

McIlvain overruled their argument under the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, ruling in favor of the freedom seekers.

The nine joined a group of 31 more on their way to Canada with Sanford deciding to stay in Battle Creek where he would later tell his story in a newspaper in 1884.

The aftermath of this event and many others like this drove lawmakers to make even stricter Fugitive Slave Laws like the one in 1850 that denied anyone accused of fleeing from a plantation the right to testify against their supposed master. It also established harsher punishments for those who tried to hide freedom seekers and even led to numerous free Black people being unjustly sent into slavery without the ability to defend themselves in court.

However, Kentuckians got the message that Young’s Prairie was off limits, forming a haven for freedom seekers and free Black people.

A lawsuit in 1850 sought to go after the white settlers that helped freedom seekers during the botched raid. While the case was eventually dismissed resulting in a hung jury, many of the defendants were forced to sell their farms and move out of state due to court costs.

“Sometimes it costs a lot to do the right thing, but it’s always right to do the right thing,” Yawkey said.

By the 1860s, more than 100 Black-owned properties popped up in Young’s Prarie. Cass County was home to the second-largest number of Black settlers in the state at that time.

This historical event is proudly displayed on a mural in downtown Cassopolis that commemorates the spirit of respect and inclusivity that molded this community on August 17th, 1847.

It’s legacy not only lives on in the documents at the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County but also in the DNA of folks who still call this place home.

Hear from a woman who traces her lineage back to one of the early free Black pioneer families that settled in Young’s Prairie in the 1850s as we continue with part-two of Uncovering Michiana’s Black History.