Editor’s note: This column contains language that some readers may find offensive. 

As Black History Month ends, it’s worth turning to some of our earliest history here in Licking County for some hidden African American figures in plain sight, even if nameless in our written records. Evidence shows the African American residents were living here before white settlers put down roots.

We know there is “Native knowledge written on the land” in the shapes and enclosures of the Newark Earthworks, taking us back more than 2,000 years. Native Americans lived here from the retreat of the glaciers over 10,000 years ago, and on into the earliest written records, including modern tribal names like the Shawnee and Delaware describing some of the communities present in the 1700s.

Christopher Gist passed through Licking County in 1751 with a brief mention in his journal. 

The second formal written account marking our initial historical record is from the Rev. David Jones, a Baptist minister and missionary who would be pivotal in directing some of the first Euro-American settlers to the region after the end of the Revolutionary War.

But Chaplain Jones, as he would become better known later for his service under Gen. George Washington and Gen. Anthony Wayne at Valley Forge, came through what’s now Granville and Newark in 1773. In his account, “A journal of two visits made to some nations of Indians on the west side of the river Ohio in the years 1772 and 1773,” he notes on Feb. 10, 1773 that he and his traveling companion “came to the designed town, called Dan. Elleot’s wife’s; a man of that name was said to have here a (Native American woman) for his pretended wife.”

Already we have to sort out some of the Western assumptions around marriage, identity, and leadership. Gist’s record a generation earlier talks about the “White Woman,” whom we know from other accounts as Mary Harris, a colonial child taken in a raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1704 who becomes a clan leader in her own right near today’s Coshocton. “Dan. Elleot’s wife” is apparently a Shawnee woman who survived her common-law husband’s demise and was a community matriarch in 1773 somewhere between Granville and Newark on the north side of Raccoon Creek and the Licking River.

Jones goes on to say of the woman’s community, “This is a small town consisting of Delawares and Shawnannees. The chief is a Shawannee woman, who is esteemed very rich – she entertains travelers – there were four of us in company.”

Jones wrote that the African Americans living in that community were compelled to give up their living quarters, “which had a fire in the middle without any chimney,” and that the African Americans were “taken from Virginia in the last war, and now esteemed to be her property.

The “last war” would be the “French and Indian War” in North America, part of a wider colonial “Seven Years’ War” between Great Britain and France; the Shawnee and Delaware at this time largely took the side of the French, against the British, as a young George Washington would encounter at Fort Necessity and in Gen. Edward Braddock’s Defeat in 1754 and 1755. Somewhere in this frontier turmoil, it is likely escaped enslaved people made their way to the protection of the Shawnees, who were known to harbor such fugitives. The phrase “esteemed as her property” may be Jones’s assumption, but not the actual view of “Dan. Elleot’s wife.” 

Whatever their actual status in the community, these African Americans had a structure of their own, substantial enough to have a hearth within and to house four travelers. Jones and Duncan and their porters would travel on, but these quarters were a residence through that winter for “several negroes … from Virginia” who lived under the authority of a Shawnee woman who was a town leader, a chief in her own right.

This means that, before there were any so-called settlers – residents around a full cycle of the seasons, who were European American living in Licking County – there were African American residents here. Native Americans came first, no doubt, but “white people” as settlers came third, decades later. Before the white settlers arrived here around 1800 to plant crops and build their cabins, a community of African Americans was seen in 1773 living in the heart of Licking County – residents who were here for an unknown span of years, with a Shawnee woman as the first documented leader in this place.

We may never know their own names, but we can acknowledge that they lived here first.

Jones closes his comments on what we now know as Licking County by saying, “The country here appeared calculated for health, fertile and beautiful.” And so it is.

Jeff Gill is a pastor, a mediator and a freelance writer in Granville, Ohio.