- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

VANDALIA, Mich. (AP) — Sondra Mose-Ursery has received a lot of blank looks from neighbors in response to her questions over the years about a nearly forgotten 19th-century community of fugitive slaves.

“You’d ask people about Ramptown, and no one had heard about it,” said Miss Mose-Ursery, a local historian.

That was before a team from Western Michigan University’s anthropology department verified Ramptown’s existence with the discovery of the first archaeological evidence of fugitive slaves ever found in Michigan, said Michael Nassaney, the team’s lead investigator.

“Sites like this one are tremendously important,” said Fergus M. Bordewich, a New York-based author whose book “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America” was published earlier this year.

“Archaeological evidence of the Underground Railroad is rare, and even very local sites like this one have national importance,” Mr. Bordewich said.

An estimated 1,500 fugitive slaves arrived in Cass County before the Civil War seeking freedom. They were aided mostly by sympathetic Quakers and free blacks.

Some left the county for Detroit or Canada. For about 200 who stayed, the Quakers provided small plots of land in exchange for harvesting crops or clearing trees for farmland. Blacks lived in sharecropper-style cabins on the land, sometimes for years.

In 2002, archaeologists uncovered 1,143 artifacts at 12 sites in Penn and Calvin townships near Vandalia, a village in southwestern Michigan.

The Western Michigan team submitted its final report last month on its findings to the Michigan Historical Center, a state agency that commissioned the research to identify key locations of the Underground Railroad.

Within a few decades of the abolition of slavery, the structural remains of Ramptown no longer could be found. The location of the community, originally known as Young’s Prairie, never appeared on any historical maps, and people with firsthand knowledge started dying.

“Because this was a clandestine activity, it’s been difficult to try to identify evidence of this,” said Mr. Nassaney, an anthropology professor at Western Michigan.

His archaeology team surveyed several sites to look for signs of domestic households. Searching in agricultural fields being plowed in preparation for planting, they found nails, horseshoes and pieces of pottery, glass and brick.

The sites did not coincide with locations of residences on maps from the mid-1800s. Using written and oral accounts of the area’s history, the team concluded that Ramptown residents had occupied the sites.

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