A MsStorian Adventure
From Slavery in the Deep South to Freedom in Minnesota’s Northwoods:
A Civil War Colored Infantry veteran, buried in an abandoned rural Aitkin cemetery, is part of Lake Country’s forgotten past
Written by Julie Jo Larson | Photographed by Vicki Foss
THE WOODS ARE RECLAIMING THE BLACK CEMETERY IN WEALTHWOOD TOWNSHIP. The century-old cemetery is the last remnant of a once thriving farming community led by black Civil War veterans. Only one headstone still stands erect amongst the tall weeds, small trees, and sunken graves. While eight scattered graves are outlined by rocks and boulders, the grave of Sergeant Joseph Henry from Company D of the 125th United States Colored Infantry is marked by a military-issued marble headstone. Joseph and his comrades’ plight from slavery in the Deep South to freedom in Minnesota’s north woods, is a true testament to the determination of these civil war veterans. Their 800-mile journey is a forgotten segment of the Lakes Area history.
The MsStorians were able to locate the Black Cemetery through Aitkin County Find-a Grave, an online resource for genealogy. Once we were on the right dirt road, we contacted Bill Dougherty, who owned both the neighboring Wealthwood Golf Course and the cemetery. He granted us permission to tour the grounds, and clearly stated the cemetery had been “left alone for years.” I was greatly saddened when I saw the condition of both the cemetery and Joseph’s headstone. The once noble tribute to a Civil War veteran had obviously been used for target practice in the past and the back of the stone was now covered with BB pellet holes. Chunks of marble were missing from the stone’s edges. Thankfully, the engraving on the front of the headstone was still legible; the lettering was our first clue into uncovering the names of the black families who moved to Aitkin County in the fall of 1898. With those names, we uncovered the identities of several individuals buried in the Black Cemetery.
After a month of research, we discovered that most of the adult men in this group were born into slavery, fought together in the Civil War, and moved north from Kentucky to Fergus Falls in April of 1898. This mass migration was linked to the 1896 Grand Army of the Republic’s yearly Encampment in Saint Paul. That year, commerce committee members placed real estate brochures in hotel rooms to encourage Union Civil War veterans to relocate to Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Good farmland, education, and jobs were promised to those willing to uproot their families and journey north.
Two men came from Kentucky to scout the area in the summer of 1897. When they returned home, the scouts reported that the land was good and the community would welcome all of them. Farmers and businessmen alike sold their land, equipment, and possessions before boarding a train with their families in late March of 1898. Small town newspapers along the route reported on the veterans and their journey, noting that the intelligent group would make fine citizens once settled in their new homes. The newspapers stated it was the largest mass migration of freed black slaves to Minnesota.
A former slave by the name of Prince Honeycutt served as a one-man welcome wagon for the sixty men and boys and twenty- five women and girls who were on the train bound for Minnesota. Prince was also a Civil War veteran. At the age of ten he attached himself to a Union Army patrol in Tennessee under the leadership of Captain James Compton. After the war, he kissed his mother goodbye and followed Compton’s family north to Fergus Falls. Prince quickly became a well-loved member of society and was active as a teamster, volunteer fireman, baseball organizer and barber. He married Lena Marsden, a white woman, with whom he had two children. The local KKK was not happy about the arrangement and predicted a short marriage. Their premonition rang true, four years later Lena died during childbirth. Prince then married a black woman named Anna Brown and they had two girls. Prince’s children were talented musicians and several became Otter Tail County schoolteachers.
Central Baptist Church, Fergus Falls, Minnesota, taken in 1925. By this time, Wealthwood’s black settlers had moved to Fergus Falls to join the original 85 black settlers because the shores of Mille Lacs Lake were not suitable for farming. (Photo courtesy of descendant Peg Carpenter.)
On April 7, 1898, Prince received a telegram two hours before the arrival of the Kentucky contingency. The weary travelers spent the night in train cars because Prince could not find lodging on such short notice. By noon the next day, housing was arranged for most of them. Jobs, however, were difficult to secure for such a large number of hard-working young men and honorable veterans. Within a few months, several families boarded yet another train and headed east to a new settlement called Wealthwood Township near Aitkin. The families included those of Civil War pensioners Alexander Penick, William Strader, Frank Marshall, and Joseph Henry. They were soon joined by twenty-five more black people from Kentucky and Tennessee, including the families of Robert Patterson, Joseph Cox, West Phillips, and Valintina Patterson. A man named C.B. Maybens sold the settlers land at the rate of $2 an acre. Three generations of descendants lived on that land before it was sold to outsiders.
One of the first things the parents did upon arriving in 1898 was to register their children for school. Education was very important to the freedmen and women; over half of Wealthwood Township’s black population could read and write, including Joseph Henry, his wife, Belle, and their 9-year-old adopted son, Richard. This was an unheard of occurrence and probably helped Joseph receive his promotion from corporal to sergeant during the Civil War. The importance of education and patriotism was passed on through generations. Many of the community’s children and grandchildren graduated from high school and college. Still others served in the U.S. Armed Forces. The settlers learned early on that experience, or lack of, would also prove to be a good teacher.
The southerners in general were ill-prepared for that first harsh winter. Nine-year-old Ioben L. Marshall died from exposure on January 12, 1899. He was the first person buried in the Black Cemetery, which was located on William Strader’s farmstead. It was common on the southern plantations to bury relatives in family cemetery plots on the homesteads, and this tradition continued when the families moved north.
The 1900 U.S. Census for Wealthwood Township showed that thirty people were living in the black community. The men were farmers, loggers, laborers, dray linemen, and workers for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Several of the women were employed as housekeepers, cooks, and wash women in the city of Aitkin. The black community grew for a few years and then decreased sharply due to deaths and members moving in search of better employment opportunities. A few of the families returned to Kentucky after several hard winters in Minnesota.
Prince Honeycutt, a freed slave and Civil War veteran who settled in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, is pictured with his second wife, Anna, and his children.
(Photo courtesy of the Otter Tail Historical Society)
Sergeant Joseph Henry died in 1901 and was buried in the Black Cemetery. Several of the Strader children soon followed, one died from pneumonia and another was stillborn. Alexander Penick’s first wife, Johanna, was laid to rest near Joseph and the others. The Black Cemetery records transcribed by the WPA in early 1940 showed that fourteen people were originally buried in the cemetery; however, two were later reinterred in Aitkin’s Lakeview Cemetery. Several depressions can be seen outside of the cemetery fence and suggest that undocumented graves may exist. Church records are limited from the early 1900s due to fires, tornadoes, and changes in church leadership.
Church life was very important to the black pioneers of both Fergus Falls and Wealthwood Township. The First 85 from Otter Tail County originally attended a Swedish Baptist church, but they were unable to understand the service because it was in Swedish. Through a combined community effort they were able to build Central Baptist Church. That church held regular services through the 1940s; it was one of only two churches left standing after the Fergus Falls cyclone of 1919.
In October of 1915, the Wealthwood nondenominational Mission Church was formed with fifty-five charter members. The community built Calvary Baptist Church in 1921, and the old Mission Church was disbanded. Marriages, baptisms, and funerals were held regularly until the 1950s. By the 1960s, only a few of the black families remained in Aitkin County.
Through online searches and area historical societies, we were able to locate several descendants of the black Civil War veterans who settled in Aitkin and Otter Tail counties. Family and faith remain as important to the fourth and fifth generations as it was to their forefathers. In August of 2014, a large Wagner family reunion was held in Fergus Falls, which included one hundred and fifty family members of the First 85. The participants shared stories, photographs, and mementos with each other. Organizer Sylvia Amos said it was a time to reconnect with family and celebrate their shared past.
Peggy Patterson Carpenter, a descendant of the Wealthwood Township community, was unable to find the Black Cemetery several years ago when retracing her family roots. Now that the Black Cemetery has been located, Peggy and other descendants will travel to the final resting place of their brave family members.
Julie Jo Larson and the MsStorians, a group of Brainerd women who meet each week to explore and research Lake Country’s historical mysteries, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.