EXPLORING A FAMILY LEGEND
The SHELDONS and the Underground Railroad in Michigan
Family legend has it that my second great grandfather Elmer SHELDON (1819-1898) was an active participant in the Underground Railroad in Jackson County, Michigan. The underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and sympathetic citizens aiding enslaved persons in their flight to freedom. In 1974 my aunt wrote to me the following about her great grandfather, Elmer SHELDON:
“Mother said that his father was a real old Shylock–he used to go around in his buggy lending money to farmers who had come upon hard times. Then when they couldn’t pay he would foreclose the mortgage and take over the farm. When my grandfather died [Justus Warren SHELDON] owned five farms in Michigan., two of which were full sections, which he had inherited from his father [Elmer]. One of these, near Eaton Rapids, Michigan is now the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars [Children’s Home].Grandmother SHELDON [Elizabeth SMITH SHELDON] did not like to have him come to dinner very often because he tried to run everything and many times would not take his hat off to eat—and always carried a bottle or pure alcohol with him with which he laced his coffee. However he apparently made a lot of money which left Grandfather SHELDON [Justus Warren SHELDON] very well off (1)”
My mother wrote in an undated memoir:
“Elmer decided that the safest way to move [passengers] was to build a buckboard with a false bottom in which the escapees could be moved to safety. There were always farmers who were behind on their loans….he would give them an extension to repay their loans if they agreed to become a permanent place to hide slaves until they could be relayed up to Canada. ” (2)
So with that bit of family lore I set out to see what I could find.
Elmer SHELDON was born in Pawling, Dutchess County, New York 18th of April 1819 (3). I can find no verification that he or his parents were members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), although they lived in proximity and were active at the Merritt Store at Quaker Hill (4). The Friends of Quaker Hill were a sect of Friends known as the Hicksite Friends. We know that Elmer’s great grandfather Isaac SHELDON came to Pawling in 1756 when he appears on the tax rolls there (5). His grandfather Justus SHELDON (Isaac’s son) was born in Pawling about 1764. Justus SHELDON married and Sylvia SHERMAN and together they had seven sons (no known daughters). Sylvia’s father was Benjamin SHERMAN who settled at Quaker Hill in the spring of 1764. He was a journeyman carpenter and helped to build and oversee the building of the Friends Meeting House. In the spring of 1765 he purchased a farm at the foot of Quaker Hill. (5) The SHELDONs lived nearby and were probably not “Friends” but appear to be very friendly with them.
The second oldest son of Justus and Sylvia was Warren SHELDON born about 1788 in Pawling. The youngest son Justus Jr. was born about 1796 in Pawling. In 1815 Warren SHELDON was a customer in Dover (township just north of Pawling). I cannot locate him in 1820, but he surfaces in Cato, Cayuga County New York on the 1830 census. Meanwhile his brother Justus SHELDON appears on the census for Pawling in 1820 and 1830 and then in Cato, Cayuga county in 1840, obviously following his brother West.
LAND in JACKSON COUNTY MICHIGAN
Some background on the catalyst for migration from New York to Michigan from A Profile of Hicksite Quakerism in Michigan 1830-1860:
“During the 1830’s a phenomenon known as ‘Michigan fever’ spread through New York and New England. Thousands of families joined the westward movement in search of richer farm lands. Many New York Quakers were among the emigrants to Michigan prior to 1837. In 1827 the separation between the two groups within the Society of Friends had taken place. In western New York there were both “Orthodox” Friends who placed great emphasis upon the doctrine of the atonement and “Hicksite” Friends who tended to emphasize the primacy of the Inward Light as the source of personal salvation.”
Both Farmington and Scipio Quarterly Meetings in New York experienced doctrinal dissension and later formal separations. [Scipio lies about 20 miles south of where the SHELDONs lived in Cato] In 1834 the Hicksite Friends in these areas withdrew from New York Yearly Meeting and, joining with like-minded Canadian Friends, organized Genesee Yearly Meeting. This separation affected the newly arrived Quaker settlers in Michigan. Both Orthodox and Hicksite Friends corresponded with Michigan Quakers and encouraged the organization of monthly and quarterly meetings. In the frontier areas, however, doctrinal matters were often subordinated to an overriding concern among all Friends for the abolition of slavery.” (7)
Among the several transplants from Dutchess County New York to Parma and Sandstone Townships, is Townsend E, Gidley from Poughkepsie who settled near Parma in Sandstone Township. He was a known a Quaker, a successful businessman and a known “station agent”on the underground Railroad. (8) Like Gidley, Warren and Justus SHELDON were among the first property owners of record in Jackson county, Michigan. The original land tract records are filed in the Office of the Treasury of Michigan and extracted in the book: Landsmen of Jackson County Michigan. (9) On June 13th, 1836 Warren SHELDON of Cayuga county, New York acquires 120 acres in Section 8 of Springport Township. On June 16th 1836 Justus SHELDON of Dutchess county, New York and his brother Warren SHELDON of Cayuga county acquire land patents of 320 and 148.17 acres respectively, in Section 5 of Springport Township, Jackson County, Michigan. The next day, June 17th, Warren acquires a land patent for an additional 149.71 acres in Section 5 of Parma Township. Totals are Warren 417.88 acres and Justus 320 acres.
On 26th May 1837, Justus & his wife grant to William REED part of his lands in Springport. (10) A few months later on August 14th, 1837 Warren SHELDON and Justus SHELDON while living in Cato, Cayuga county, New York record land purchases of 268.19 acres in Springport Township for Warren (transaction 13189) (11) and 469.71 acres in Parma Township for Justus (transaction 13188) from the U.S. Land office at Monroe, Michigan. On January 15th 1840 Warren SHELDON adds to his lands by acquiring a parcel from Jon W NORTON in Section 5 of Parma Township that lies in between the parcels of his brother Justus.
October 28th 1843 Justus SHELDON who appears to have remained in Cayuga county, New York, grants to his son Elmer SHELDON his parcels in Springport and Parma. So on the map the parcels belonging to Justus are now Elmer’s. A year later, November 21, 1844 Warren SHELDON appears to deed his interest in the same parcels to his nephew Elmer and on the same date Elmer deeds to his aunt Sarah SHELDON, Warren’s wife, part of the NW parcel he acquired from her husband Warren SHELDON. I have not located any further deeds through 1870 on their Parma lands. During the period from 1836-1873 Justus, or his son Elmer SHELDON owned the property on which Quakertown and its Meeting/school House is located. And many years later Justus’ grandson Justus Warren SHELDON owns a parcel in Section 5 Parma slightly south of the others. If not Quakers themselves they certainly seem to have been in sympathy with them.
We learn from The History of Jackson County Michigan for Springport township that Mrs. Warren Sheldon had come west with her sister Mary Evans in 1838 and that she lived in Parma. (12) Furthermore we find in the Pioneer history of Springport Township “Miss Mary Evans…came to this state in 1838 with her sister Mrs. Warren SHELDON who located in Section 5 of Parma.” (13) Also of note ..Mrs Dennis used often to relate in after years, their experience with bears and wolves while living in Parma…[in] the fall of 1865 when Lydia [Dennis] marries Mr. Warren FULLER the mother then went to live with her sister, Mrs SHELDON, in Parma..” (14) Warren is listed in the 1840 census in Springport, however he is listed on the 1850 and 1860 census for Parma. I suspect that Elmer’s first two children were born on this property in Parma as Elmer’s son Justus Warren’s obituary says he was born in Parma in 1845. By 1848 Elmer is 1848 living on his property in Springport Township where his son Abram is buried in Springport. The road that defines Justus Sheldon’s property in Parma on the east takes you north to his property in Springport. In this History of Springport we find:
“The following was written by Louisa Sheldon Hess (1849-1917), a daughter of Elmer and Rachel SMITH SHELDON who came to Springport in the spring of 1844, from the state of New York., to the then far ‘west’. They settled at Quakertown and about three years after located in a newer part of the township [Springport] north of the village, where they lived many years, clean and industrious lives gaining a competence.” (15)
Further confirmation is found in the files of the Sheldon Family Association in reference to Elmer SHELDON it states “Family story is that he [Elmer SHELDON] joined uncle Warren SHELDON who owned a farm in Parma, MI.” (16)
The Quaker families of Daniel Gidley, John Hoag, Samuel Upton and John Mott (17) are among the Quaker families that settled early in Parma Township and are credited with being active in the Underground Railroad. More on the foundation of Quakertown appeared on http://www.mlive.com:
“A mile and a half east of Devereaux at the corner of Devereaux Rd and Gibbs R, lies what was once called Quakertown. All that remains of the old one-room schoolhouse and a large boulder with a plaque commemorating Quakertown; the boulder and plaque have been in place since 1931. In 1829, settlers began arriving in Jackson (then called Jacksonburg) area, followed by the Quakers who set up homesteads in Parma Township in 1835. They called their new community ‘Hickory Grove’ and a post office was established in 1839; when it shut down in 1855, the community’s name was changed to Quakertown. The Quakers were fiercely anti-slavery and helped many
escaped slaves get to freedom via the Underground Railroad. They helped the slaves get to other stopover homes in Blackman, Jackson, Grass Lake, Stockbridge, and other communities as they fled to freedom. In 1878, the
original log Schoolhouse was torn down and replaced by a wooden one, which stands to this day. The Quaker’s original Hickory Grove Cemetery still exists and resides next to the old schoolhouse.(18)
The Quaker community that founded Quakertown in 1835 and built a schoolhouse in 1838 was established on the lands Justus SHELDON purchased in 1836! So whether he or his brother Warren were Quakers or not, they seem to have a close relationship with them. Warren SHELDON appears to have lived on the land between that of his brother Justus, originally acquired in 1838, until his death the 16th of February 1865. He is buried in Griffith Cemetery in Springport. His widow Sarah (EVANS) SHELDON appears on the census in 1870 in Parma. At her death record has her dying at Parma 10th of February 1881 As Sarah SHELDON WILLIAMS. The Map of 1874 clearly showing her property, originally that of her brother-in-law Justus SHELDON.
“In 1836, Milton Meeting [of Friends: Quakers] was renamed Battle Creek Monthly Meeting with subordinate meetings for worship in Battle Creek, Parma, and Sherwood… The meeting at “Quakertown” near the village of Parma in Jackson County flourished. The first meeting was held near Parma by John Mott, Fourth Month 11, 1838. John Mott was born in South Hempstead, Long Island, in 1783, and was recorded a minister at age 32. After conducting a private academy at Rennselaerville, New York, for many years, he and his wife moved to Hickory Grove near Parma in 1837. Both he and Joseph Merritt of Battle Creek were valued traveling ministers in the midwest. His death in 1848 was a great loss for the Society of Friends in Michigan. In 1840, the meeting near Parma was given monthly meeting status and a simple frame meetinghouse was erected. The name of the group was changed to Hickory Grove in 1844. Parma Friends were active abolitionists and were agents of the underground railroad which ran through the village. By 1880, the meeting had dwindled away and the meetinghouse was abandoned. A small burial ground remains.” (19)
ABOLITIONISTS & the UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Elmer’s daughter Rachel Elizabeth SHELDON is born in Springport, Jackson county, Michigan 20 Sept 1844. On the 7th of October of the same year Michigan’s anti-slavery newspaper, the Signal of Liberty, carried this article that highlighted Jackson County communities that were in line to hear anti-slavery lectures. Springport and Parma were to hear these lectures twice on the 16th and 17th respectively. “Let us all true Liberty men in their respective towns volunteer without delay to meet and agree on the BEST PLACES in their respective towns to hold these meetings and spare no pains to see that very family is duly notified.”
Elmer’s son Justus Warren SHELDON is born 19th of Dec 1845 at Parma, Jackson county, Michigan. It would be nearly impossible for Elmer not to have been a willing participant in the Underground railroad given the location of the Quaker school/meetinghouse and the strong convictions of so many in the community, against slavery. Further confirmation that the property is rightfully identified is a mortgage of Elmer SHELDON, Mortgagor to Reuben H Meters Mortgagee, as recorded in Book 81 pg 187 of Section 5 for Parma March 15, 1873. This is reflected on the map as a subsection of the original parcel that is the location of Quakertown. (See above map.)
The author of Michigan’s Crossroads to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in Jackson County, Linda Hass replied to me thus:
“If your ancestor lived in the section of Parma near Quakertown, it’s a safe bet he was connected in some way to the Underground Railroad, whether it involved something as active as conducting and harboring, or passive like lending moral or material support.“(20)
This was written before I realized that Quakertown was actually on the SHELDON property. Without written contemporary documentation yet to be discovered in an archive, attic or basement we will never have absolute proof, but the evidence is very strong that this family legend is indeed true.
Jackson county was a hotbed of the abolition movement.
“Abolitionists in this southcentral Michigan county felt so strongly about their cause that they hosted a national convention designed, among other things, to abolish slavery. The July 6, 1854 convention gave birth to a new political entity—the Republican Party. By the time the event ended, the new Party adopted a platform that condemned slavery, called for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, nominated candidates, and pledged to defend non-slaveholding men in confrontations with slaveholding men, among planks. No other town can claim this legacy. ” (21)
MORE ON ELMER SHELDON
Although not specific to the issue of slavery we have some additional information on Elmer SHELDON some of which confirms the allegations of my aunt. The following is a description of a school in Springport.
“Dist. No 6 [school] organized Sep 19, 1853, Elmer SHEDLON being the first Director… The first school was taught in a log shanty that stood near Thomas Camms residence. (22)
Please note the map shows the location of Thomas Camm’s Residence so the school building would be located nearby.
We have confirmation that Justus Warren SHELDON’s farm was to become a VFW home:
“This land, originally a farm consisting of 472 acres, has a historical background…It is beautifully situated on the bank of the Grand River, thereby making it an ideal spot for raising stock, which Mr. Perrien did for many years. At his death it was purchased by J. Warren Sheldon, who erected a commodious farm house, a mammoth barn and out buildings, He specialized in raising stock in large numbers and it became known as the Grand Rivers Stock Farm.” (23)
On Ebay 5 Jul 2020 a “Solid Brass Sign Plaque “Grand River Stock Farm” of Eaton Rapids Michigan was auctioned. “This is probably the only one that exists. Sign is 19” x 4 1/2” Original wood board is 22” x 9 1/2” I believe this sign hung at the entrance of the ‘Grand River Stock Farm’ in Eaton Rapids Michigan in the 1920’s”
I will close with this poem by Louisa SHELDON Hess daughter of Elmer and Rachel SMITH SHELDON as published in The Pioneer History of Springport Township. Perhaps some of the battles won refer to the battle to end slavery. (24)
Seventy-five years are now of the past
Since the first log house was begun;
And we, the descendants, almost stand aghast
At the battles our parents have won.
Each year as it passed brought conveniences more
To increasing inhabitants here;
While now we can boast our surroundings compare
With the “East” which always seem dear.
The state has come forward to help with “good roads.”
The women for franchise rights,
The country at large has convenient abodes.
And the village electric lights
Our “Uncle Sam” comes to the door each day
And delivers the farmer’s mail
And automobiles go whizzing away
Without trolley-wire or rail.
The flying machines, of whatever name,
Go careening through the air.
And the wireless message “just he same,”
Before it has started, “gets there.”
Electricity does so much for us,
In so many different ways;
And does it without bustle or fuss
The livelong nights and days
That we will not stop to enumerate
Another single thing:
But pass it all on as up-to-date,
While hoping our lives will ring
Without any flaws or fears,
Emulating the lives of whom we sing
Those loved old pioneers.
JACKSON COUNTY, MICHIGAN LAND TRANSACTIONS
|Jackson County Michigan DEEDs|
|Date||Grantor||Grantee||Book: Page||Sec.||Township/ Range||Acres||Notes|
|1||06/13/1836||State of Michigan||Warren SHELDON of Cayuga Co. NY||8||1S 3W||120||Patent; Springport|
|2||06/16/1836||State of Michigan||Warren SHELDON of Cayuga Co. NY||5||1S 3W||148.17||Patent; Springport|
|3||06/16/1836||State of Michigan||Justus SHELDON of Dutchess Co., NY||5||1S 3W||144.32||Patent; Springport|
|4||06/17/1836||State of Michigan||Justus SHELDON of Dutchess Co., NY||5||2S 3W||149.71||Patent; Parma|
|5||05/26/1837||Justus SHELDON & wife||William REED||5: 308||5||1S 3W||SE 1/4; Springport|
|6||08/14/1837||US Land Office Monroe, MI||Warren SHELDON of Dutchess Co., NY||8 8||1S 3W 1S 3W 1S 3W||268.19 total||E 1/2 of NW 1/4 NW 1/4 of NE 1/4 NW 1/4 includes 1 & 2 Springport|
|7||08/14/1837||US Land Office Monroe, MI||Justus SHELDON of Dutchess Co., NY||5 8 5||2S 3W 2S 3W 1S 3W||469.71 total||N 1/2 of NW 1/4 E 1/2 of NE 1/4 S 1/2 (doc 13189) includes 4 & 5 Parma & Springport|
|8||01/15/1840||Jon W. Norton||Warren SHELDON||15: 283||5||2S 3W||40||N/W of W 1/4 of NE 1/4 Parma|
|9||10/23/1843||Justus SHELDON||Elmer SHELDON||15: 476||5||2S 3W||Nw ? of NW 1/4 Parma|
|10||10/28/1843||Justus SHELDON||Elmer SHELDON||16: 606||5||1S 3W 2S 3W||see deed Springport & Parma|
|11||11/21/1844||Elmer SHELDON||Sarah SHELDON||15: 476||5, 8 5||1S 3W 2S 3W||NW? of W 1/2 of NE 1/4 & NW of W 1/4 of NE 1/4 1/4 Parma (Sarah his aunt)|
|12||11/01/1844||Warren SHELDON||Elmer SHELDON||16: 605||5, 8 5||1S 3W 2S 3W||see deed Springport & Parma|
|13||08/05/1853||State of Michigan||Elmer SHELDON||4||1S 3W||74.88||Patent|
|14||12/15/1853||State of Michigan||Elmer SHELDON||6||1S 3W||148.24||Patent|
|15||06/15/1854||US Land Office Michigan||Elmer SHELDON||4||1S 3W||74.88||Patent|
|16||09/09/1854||Elmer SHELDON, Mortgagor||Daniel H. Piersons, Mortgagee||12: 580||9||1S 3W||SW 1/4 of SW 1/4 Mortgage|
|17||No date listed in index||Warren SHELDON||John E. Dey||23: 21|
|18||03/28/1859||Elmer SHELDON||Dewitt C. Goodyear||44: 135||8||1S 3W||See deed ; Springport|
|19||08/31/1869||Elmer SHELDON||Daniel Diehl||81:146||8||1S 3W||SE 1/4 of NW 1/4; Springport|
|20||03/15/1873||Elmer SHELDON||Reuben H Myers||81:187||5||2S 3W||See deed, Parma|
|21||11/24/1874||Elmer SHELDON||Dewitt C Peters||116: 136||5||1S 3W||See deed; Springport; Son in law|
|22||04/29/1876||Nathaniel Hicks||Elmer SHELDON||87: 578||16||1S 3W||SE 1/4 of SW 1/4|
|23||05/12/1877||Sarah SHELDON WILLIAMS||Samantha Coleman||92: 352||5||—||Parma|
|24||08/04/1880||Dwight Merriman et al||Elmer SHELDON||101: 278||—||See deed|
|25||09/18/1883||Elmer SHELDON||Frederic C Brown||111: 135||19 & 30||2S 3W||See deed; Parma|
|26||04/10/1884||Charales Inus||ELmer SHELDON||116: 162||17||See deed; Springport|
|27||10/28/1884||Elmer SHELDON||Noah Tormes?||115: 354||20||1S 3W||See deed; Springport|
|28||04/27/1885||Elmer SHELDON||John Chappell||116: 38||15||IS 3W||pt of SE|
|29||04/03/1885||Josiah T Hamond||Elmer SHELDON||114: 185||17||2S 3W||See deed; Parma|
|30||05/31/1915||Louise R & Helen SHELDON||Estate of Louisa S. Peters||4: 568||Will & Order; their aunt|
|31||10/25/1917||Justus W SHELDON||Power of Atty. Louise R. Anderson||232: 506|
|32||10/30/1917||Justus W SHELDON||Power of Atty. Helen M SHELDON||232: 506|
(1) Nelson, Dorothy personal correspondence 27 Jul 1974
(2) Mosier, Jane undated memoir circa 1995
(3) Eaton Rapids Review, Obituary Dec 1923 & Eaton Rapids Journal
(4) Doherty, Frank J. Dutchess County New York: Settlers of the Beekman Patent. Vol XI pg 458
(5) Doherty pg 458
(6) Smith, James H. “History of Pawling” The History of Dutchess County, New York. 1882 pg 551
(7) Davidson, Carlisle G.A “Profile of Hicksite Quakerism in Michigan,1830-1860” Bulletin of Friends Historical Association, XLVI (Autumn, 1957) 107-109
(8) Hass, Linda. Michigan’s Crossroads to Freedom : The Underground Railroad in Jackson County 2017 Book locker St. Petersburg, FL pg 37-41
(9) Peck, Lt Col Paul R. Landsmen of Jackson County. Liberty Town Press Clark Lake, MI 1977
(10) Jackson County Deed Book 5 pg 308 Section 5 1S 3W SE 1/4 (Springport Twp.)
(11) US Bureau Of Land Management Document 13188 dated 8/14/1837 Springport Twp. Jackson Co, Michigan 1S 3W E 1/2 NW 1/4 Sec 8; 1S 3W NW 1/4 NE 1/4 Sec 8; 1S 3W NW 1/4 Sec 5
(12) Interstate Publishing Co. History of Jackson County, Michigan. 1881 pg 1086
(13) Joy, Ben A. The Pioneer History of Springport Township : a story of the settlement of the township and the pioneer life of its people 1910 pg 15-16
(14) Joy pg 16
(15) Joy pg 43
(16) Sheldon Family Association
(17) Hass pg 42
(18) Peek Through Time: Some see only farms, but Parma Township boulder reveals history of Quakertown Updated Jan 20, 2019; Posted Oct 16, 2013
(19) Davidson pg 108
(20) Hass, Linda. Personal correspondence 15 Oct 2020 used with her permission
(21) Hass pg 3
(22) Joy pg 26
(23) ‘The Only Eaton Rapids on Earth: The Pioneer History of Eaton Rapids and Hamlin Townships With Reminiscences’ by W. Scott Mum Ann Arbor, Michigan. 8/2/1952
(24) Joy 26-27