February is Black History Month. When talking about black history in our county, I often tell stories from Cheyenne Valley, an area near Hillsboro which was home to a large African-American farming community from the 1850s through the 1920s But there is black history in other parts of the county, and this time I thought I’d focus on one of those stories.
This story begins with a newspaper article from 1964. Local historian Myrtle Wolfgram wrote about a man named Jefferson Craft and his family, who settled in Viroqua in the late 1800s. She noted that the Crafts were the first and, as of 1964, the last African-American family to have lived in the city.
The article says that the family arrived “as it were from nowhere,” but research materials available to us today show that they came from – yes, Cheyenne Valley. All roads lead to Cheyenne Valley, it seems, so we’ll focus on that community again, at least to begin with. Then we’ll move on to the Craft family’s life in Viroqua.
Cheyenne Valley is located primarily in the town of Forest. The 1870 census for Forest gives us the details about a Jefferson Craff: black male, age 68, a farmer, born in Tennessee. He is living with Celia Craft, age 61, Lottie Godfrey, age 18, and Lottie’s 3-year-old daughter, all described as black. I don’t know how Celia was related to Jefferson – perhaps a sister? – but she disappears from record after 1870.
On March 27, 1873, Jefferson and Lottie were married in Viroqua by the Vernon County Judge. We are very fortunate that an official marriage record for them exists, stored at the Vernon County courthouse. I don’t know why they traveled all the way from Forest to Viroqua, the county seat, to be married. Records clearly indicate that they lived in Forest throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and the journey by foot or horse on dirt roads from Forest to Viroqua would have been considerable. But had they been married in Forest, it is much less likely that a marriage record would have been filed.
The 1878 plat map shows that Jefferson Craft owned 40 acres in Section 35 of the Town of Forest, near the Goole post office. By 1880, according to that year’s census, he and Lottie had four children: Florence, age 13; Arthantha, age 8; Benjamin, age 5; and Mary, age 3. Only Arthantha is said to be attending school, possibly the nearby Eastman School, which was founded in 1877. Oldest child Florence had attended school earlier in the year, but then probably graduated, as 13 was the age at which most children at that time finished their schooling.
A goldmine of information, the 1880 census also tells us that Lottie and her parents were born in Kentucky, while Jefferson and his father were from Tennessee. Jefferson’s mother was born in Africa, and this is the clearest indication we have that he and his mother were once slaves. She probably was brought to this country as a slave, on a slave ship, sometime before January of 1808, when the African slave trade was abolished in the U.S. Jefferson Craft’s marriage record indicates that his mother’s name was Mary Craft, and his father was Mat Hagwood. I don’t know if Mat was a slave or a slave owner. Since Kentucky was a slave state like Tennessee, Lottie was probably also born into bondage.
Jefferson and Lottie could not read or write, again according to census records. So, no one wrote them a letter to say that Cheyenne Valley was a good place to live, but somehow they learned about it. Their neighbors Ed Harris and Thomas Shivers were also former slaves from Tennessee, and perhaps they had all known each other in the south. There must have been a network of communication guiding former slaves to welcoming communities.
I also note from the census that in 1880, Jefferson is said to be 65, and Lottie 25. Obviously, Jefferson couldn’t be 68 in 1870 and only 65 ten years later, but we have seen this type of confusion over ages before, especially with former slaves – if people didn’t know their birth dates, they and the census taker might have just made an educated guess. The censuses do agree that there was at least a 40-year age difference between Jefferson and Lottie.
The Craft family appears on the 1885 Wisconsin state census as still living in the town of Forest, and then – they moved to Viroqua. Next week we’ll look at their life in the county seat.