WMU News

Searching for site of escaped slave settlement

Dec. 12, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- A Western Michigan University anthropologist has begun a search to pinpoint the site of a large settlement of escaped slaves near Vandalia, Mich., that disappeared more than a century ago.

Armed with a $21,000 grant from the State of Michigan and the Michigan Historical Center, Dr. Michael S. Nassaney, WMU associate professor of anthropology, has begun the process of narrowing the list of possible sites of Ramptown, a rural enclave of 100 cabins that was the final stop for many slaves who traveled north along the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. Today, there are no standing structural remains of the cabins or the settlement, which was believed to be near Vandalia, a small community a few miles east of Cassopolis.

Nassaney's work is part of an effort recently started by the National Park Service to identify key locations of the Underground Railroad, a pre-Civil War system that helped fugitive slaves reach freedom in the North and in Canada. Nassaney, who led a 1998 effort to ascertain the original site of the colonial Fort St. Joseph in Niles, Mich., was asked to lend his expertise in the search for Ramptown.

"Supposedly there were 100 cabins located in this area," Nassaney says of Ramptown. "For there to be no evidence remaining from this site is just implausible."

Believed to have been one of the largest escaped slave communities in southwest Michigan, Ramptown was built on land that was provided by neighboring Quaker farmers. At its peak, Ramptown harbored hundreds of escaped slaves and their families, who were given five-acre plots of land to farm.

"Right now, we want to locate these cabins and examine how being given their own plot of land helped these runaway slaves establish new lives," says Nassaney.

According to Sondra Mose-Ursery, Vandalia mayor and executive director of that community's Underground Railroad Foundation, many of Ramptown's residents worked the five-acre plots for 10 years before setting out on their own.

"We think that around 1870, all the available land around the original site was used up, and the community just disappeared," says Mose-Ursery.

Nassaney, aided by graduate student Amanda Campbell of Harrisville, Mich., is currently conducting interviews and collecting historical documentation to help narrow the actual Ramptown site possibilities. Based on this information, Nassaney and his colleagues will begin excavating potential sites in May as part of WMU's 2002 Archeological Field School. The goal of the field school will be to find artifacts that can help conclusively pinpoint the location of Ramptown.

"It's like a story that has been told and told and told, and now we need to find artifacts to confirm the original site," says Mose-Ursery.

Media contact: Scott K. Crary, 269 387-8400

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