LAKESHORE REGIONAL NEWS: Door County, Kewaunee County, Manitowoc County, and Sheboygan County

Local 5 Investigates: Washington Island and the Underground Railroad

Local News

WASHINGTON ISLAND, Wis. (WFRV) — Door County’s Washington Island has a population of 660 people, but it’s also home to legends, and a history many people haven’t heard of before.

That history was recently brought to light by local author Thomas Davis, whose 2019 historical novel, In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams, told the story of escaped slaves who temporarily made Washington Island home.

“I accidentally ran across this reference,” Davis told Local 5. “This was a long, long time ago, before 2000. And I saw this reference to this black preacher on Washington Island.”

That reference started a journey ending with the publishing of his book.

“Where did they come from? Where did they go to? Why ain’t they here now?” Davis wondered.

Local 5 took the trip to Washington Island to look for answers ourselves.

Our first stop on the island: the bookstore that inspired the book.

“The proprieter there, after I asked her if she had any material on this, told me about the archives, of course, at the Washington Island library.” Davis said. “But also, she started sort of trying to talk me into writing a book about Reverend Bennette and what had happened on the island.”

Fair Isle Books is closed for the season, but owner Deb Wayman told Local 5 that In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams was her best seller over the summer.

“His book has been phenomonally popular,” Wayman said. “It’s been the bestseller in my shop. Even in 2020, it was my bestseller for the whole season.”

According to Wayman, The book’s popularity gave rise to conversations about the fishing community that was once on the island.

“People seemed aware of, generally, that there was a black community on the island back in the 1800s,” she said, “but I don’t think there was much knowledge about, like just about that much.”

One thing everyone is in agreement on is the location the escaped slaves likely set up camp.

“A black community of fishermen that had formed in West Harbor on Washington Island,” Davis said.

The land that most people think those escaped slaves likely occupied is now a part of Gibson’s West Harbor Resort.

Local 5 set out to talk to the man who has owned the land since the 1970’s.

“I took over from my folks in 1970,” Herb Gibson told Local 5, “and my folks bought the property in 1947.”

Gibson has spent his entire life on the island, save the years he served in the Coast Guard.

He’s heard about the black community that once took up residence here.

“That’s the story that I heard many times and continue to believe that it was a location that was handy for the Underground Railroad, getting to Canada, you know,” Gibson said.

A life long native who knows the area, he can picture in his mind’s eye what life would have been like for those escaped slaves.

“This just happened to have a nice little protected harbor and an area where they could build their little cabins and build their little church and catch fish,” Gibson said, “So I think it got to be a really nice place for them. But then I think the pressure of the other growing community at the time and I’m sure other things could have effected them just packing up and going.”

Stories like the ones Gibson has heard have been passed down over generations.

To find out what is known for sure, Local 5 headed into the Washington Island Archives.

“There’s just not a lot of concrete evidence about the subject itself,” Stever Reiss, the Washington Island Archivist said.

The details faded and were lost over the years, but Reiss does believe there is a general outline of what may have really happened.

“Early 1850’s, probably 1852, was when they were first, when the colony of families, I think it’s several families were down in West Harbor,” he said.

Those families didn’t stay long.

“By 1855, I think they were gone,” Reiss said. “They moved on sometime around 1854 so really they were only here three or four years.”

A short time remembered, thanks in part to the documentation of Jessie Miner.

“Jessie Miner was born in 1850, and he died in 1915,” Reiss said. “He writes a lot of his recollections of early island happenings.”

Those recollections include a tidbit about the black community that shared the island with white settlers for a time.

“He talks about, here there’s a paragraph,” Reiss said, “it’s probably about 50, 60 words.”

50 or 60 words make up one of the only primary-source documentations of the black community on the island.

Davis says that’s probably by design.

“We had some legislation that had passed that was absolutely horrific really from our modern sensibilities. There were two Fugtitive Slaves Acts,” he explained.

Davis says those laws explain the lack of a paper trail.

“The bounty hunters got a really handsome bounty for those times for taking a slave down south, federal government paid it,” he said.

It would have been a scary time for the small settlement, and those laws may be why they left West Harbor without a trace.

The group left stories behind, indicating Washington Island wasn’t just a stop on a long journey.

For a few short years, it was a home.

“During the time that they were there, there’s evidence that Preacher Bennette particularly, but the other families, were pretty well accepted by the island,” Davis said. “There’s stories that have come down to us where people from the island visited just to hear preacher bennett preach.”

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