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Archaeologists find location of Ramptown

June 17, 2002

KALAMAZOO--When a team of archaeologists from Western Michigan University was asked to help locate the site of Ramptown, the final stop on the Underground Railroad for many African Americans who fled slavery from the 1830s to 1860s, they didn't expect to find it in more than one place.

Any signs of Ramptown, a rural enclave located near Vandalia, Mich., believed to have housed hundreds of escaped African Americans, disappeared more than a century ago. Last fall, the Michigan Historical Center and the Vandalia Underground Railroad Foundation asked Dr. Michael Nassaney, WMU associate professor of anthropology, to locate Ramptown's site as part of a state and local effort to highlight the Underground Railroad's role in Michigan's history.

This spring, after eight months of preliminary research, Nassaney and students in WMU's 2002 Archaeological Field School dug up evidence, which not only verified Ramptown's existence, but also indicated that, contrary to popular belief, Ramptown wasn't located at a single site. Instead, Ramptown consisted of a number of cabins and residences spread out over a wide area.

"The name 'Ramptown' gave the connotation that it was a very confined place, but in doing our survey we've found evidence that 'Ramptown' was probably used more as a description for the community of escaped African Americans in this area as a whole," Nassaney explains. "Our evidence indicates that there was a pattern of distribution of the cabins of these individuals that was like the patterns you find for sharecroppers in the American South. They weren't all located in one place."

After arriving in Michigan's Cass County via the Underground Railroad, many escaped African Americans were given five- or 10-acre plots to farm by local Quakers in exchange for their labor clearing land or harvesting crops. The African Americans and their families established cabins on those plots, where most stayed for five to 10 years. Hostile environments created by raiders who came to Cass County to kidnap and take African Americans back to slavery in the South led many of them to move onto other locations such as Battle Creek, Mich., or Canada. It was only a few decades after the abolition of slavery before standing structural remains of Ramptown could no longer be found. Ramptown's location also never appeared on any historical maps.

Finding Ramptown became a cause after it came to the attention of the Freedom Trail Project of the Michigan Historical Center at the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries. Dr. Michelle S. Johnson, the project's coordinator and a visiting professor at Michigan State University, was investigating Cass County's ties to the Underground Railroad when Sondra Mose-Ursery, executive director of the Vandalia Underground Railroad Foundation, told her about Ramptown. The Michigan Historical Center soon contacted Nassaney about searching for the site and awarded a $21,000 grant for WMU archaeologists to do just that.

"This was truly a collaborative effort," Johnson says. "It illustrates the strength that emerges when state agencies, local historians, community organizations and university scholars come together to document local, state, national and international aspects of the Underground Railroad."

The WMU team began last October narrowing a list of possible sites for Ramptown. Amanda Campbell, WMU graduate student and the manager for the project, pored through piles of maps and other historical documents and conducted interviews with Ramptown descendants. Prior research conducted by Virginia Springsteen, an 82-year-old Vandalia resident and local historian, her brother Warren Wooden, and Dr. Veta Tucker, associate professor of English at Grand Valley State University, was instrumental in helping Campbell whittle down Ramptown's potential locations. In 1995, Springsteen and Wooden found the first archaeological artifacts believed to have come from Ramptown.

This spring, the WMU team surveyed a number of those possible sites, looking for and finding traces of domestic households. Most of those sites were located in agricultural fields being plowed in preparation for planting, which made the search for artifacts a little easier.

"We found pottery shards and ceramics that are contemporaneous with Ramptown's time period, nails, and bricks that could be from the construction of the cabins, potentially from chimneys or hearths," says Campbell, who hails from Harrisville, Mich.

The artifacts were found in what Nassaney describes as a "scattered distribution pattern" rather than in one large cluster, which would have indicated a single, established residential area. The locations of the artifacts showed a pattern consistent with cabins that would have been located on five or 10-acre plots at the corners of roads.

"We found eight clusters of artifacts that we could identify as possibly belonging to Ramptown residents. Looking at old maps, we were able to find the land that Quakers owned and ascertain that the sites where we were found artifacts would have been on those properties," says Nassaney.

WMU archaeologists will spend the next year analyzing the Ramptown artifacts and Johnson says the information from the analysis will be integrated into Michigan Historical Center publications, museum exhibits and educational programs. The search for Ramptown is part of a larger effort by the state to promote and preserve the history of the Underground Railroad in Michigan. These efforts also are in concert with work being conducted by the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.

"The Underground Railroad serves as a reminder of the courageous actions of African Americans who escaped slavery and those who came to their aid. This Michigan Freedom Trail collaborative project with Western Michigan University and the Vandalia Underground Railroad Foundation seeks to minimize the mystery and myth of the Underground Railroad," says William Anderson, director of the Department of History, Arts and Libraries. "Projects such as this attain the Underground Railroad as a significant part of Michigan's history and increase the cultural currency that contributes to sound educational historical tourism in Michigan."

For the Underground Railroad Foundation in Vandalia, the findings by WMU archaeologists are a solid confirmation of the existence of Ramptown, which until now had lived on only in stories passed down through generations.

"It's a story that has been told and told and told, but we needed artifacts to confirm it," says Mose-Ursery. "Deep in my heart, I knew it was there."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 269 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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