Brushy Fork Community

It was a perfect place for a homestead and farm in 1839. There was a creek running through the east side of the northwest quarter of the southwest quarter of section 11 in Sargent Township with plenty of trees growing along it and the larger Brushy Fork less than a mile away. After residing in northern Coles County for at least a year, this land looked like good farm land to Lewis James so he bought 50 acres from the federal government for $50 on May 27 and moved his family of eight to their new home. What made this especially sweet was that Lewis and his wife had been enslaved less than ten years before in Virginia. According to the 1875 Douglas County Atlas, he purchased freedom for himself for 300 and odd dollars and that of his wife for about half that sum. He was from Brunswick County, Virginia and probably worked for the Benjamin Lewis family who in 1810 had 126 slaves. In 1830, he must have held an important position with the family and its businesses, as he is listed in the census as a slave by name. Benjamin Lewis had died in 1824 and his widow carried on, probably with Lewis James' help until her death in 1834. It is probably near that time that he purchased his freedom.

James' family included he and his wife Nancy, both about 50 years old; another woman over 55 years old, Lucy Dupee, who researchers think might have been a sister to one of the James; a woman about 35 who was Lucy's daughter, Malissa Armstead; and four of Malissa's children, Lucy, John, Joseph and Emily all under 10.

The James family built a home, cleared land and prospered. He had $900 worth of property in 1850 and by 1860 $2000 in real estate and $200 personal property. Lewis added 50 acres south of his original purchase in 1849 and 80 more acres to the west in 1854. The Atlas called James a "noted character in this township (Sargent)" and explained that twenty-five or thirty years ago (from 1875) Mr. James was quite the leading man in the community, and had a large and well stocked farm. Nancy James' 1860 tombstone is the only remaining stone in what is known as the Negro Cemetery, the last tangible remnant of the community they
started. Lewis outlived his wife, passing between 1877 and 1880 when many in the community moved west to Kansas.

Lucy Dupee was the matriarch of the community. Her husband Edward Dupee, a free person of color from Woodford County Kentucky had purchased land for her
here in 1846, but maintained his residence in Versailles Kentucky. He died in 1852 leaving a will
giving the land to his daughter, Malissa, and all her heirs. Mrs. Dupee lived to a ripe old age, she was in her 50s when she moved here and lived past 1877. She is listed in her granddaughter, Lucy's home in 1870 and is a party to the sale of the land from the estate in 1877. She and the two James were born in Viriginia, though Dupee must have also lived for quite awhile in Kentucky.

In the late 1840s the community grew to three homesteads and six families. Lucy Dupee and Malissa Armstead had their own home in addition to the one built by James. These women had another young newly wed couple, Malissa's daughter Lucy Minnis and her husband, Isom Bryant, living with them. The pair would later purchase their own property nearby with an inheritance Bryant received from David Yarnell (a white man who brought Bryant to Illinois). Bryant died of consumption in 1854 and is buried in the Negro Cemetery.

Lucy was the sister to the man who had the third house, Ned Minnis. Besides Ned's growing family of four, Simeon Wilmot resided with them. Wilmot was the brother of Jane Bryant (unknown if she is related to Isom) and a former slave of General Robert Matson. In 1847 Jane and her four children were awarded their freedom in a Coles County court trial in which Abraham Lincoln represented Matson. Wilmot, while not mentioned in the case, also attained freedom at this time. The Bryants chose to immigrate to Liberia in West Africa, however, Wilmot remained in what would become Douglas County for the rest of his life. He would eventually buy his own land closer to Tuscola and leave this community, but for now it seems they were willing to give him refuge.

Ned is probably Malissa's oldest child, born about 1826 in Kentucky. He married his first wife Elizabeth Ann Lee in 1849, but she died in the mid-1850s. They had three children, but only one lived to adulthood. Ned traveled to a large community of free mixed race families in Vigo County, Indiana to find his second wife, Duphena Emily Bass in 1856. By the time Ned moved everyone to Kansas, he was married to his third wife, the widow Susan Jones. He had a total of nine children live to adulthood. The family is not sure when Ned died but it was between the 1877 move and 1880 probably in Kansas.

Around 1854, the Manuel family enters the community. Brothers, David and George Manuel moved north from North Carolina sometime after 1850 settling in the Brushy Fork community. In 1856, George marries the widow Lucy Minnis Bryant. Buchanan has discovered that the Manuel family emigrated from Sampson Co., North Carolina which was home to the Coree, Coharie or Croatan tribes. Manuel was a common name in this area and tribe and they have a long history of serving in the American military: three Manuel's were in the Revolutionary War from Sampson County, two men were on the the muster rolls for the War of 1812, and George traveled to Massachusetts to join an African-American regiment to fight in the Civil War. He returned to Brushy Fork after the war and the family joined Ned on the 1877 trip west to Kansas.

By 1870 there were five households near the original James property, and two others a little further south. All the families were descendants of the James' and Dupees. They had built a church and the children attended the local one-room school. Thompson and Zachariah Bowen were living in Crittenden, Champaign County, Illinois in the 1870 census with the family of David H. Jesse from Virginia who had also lived sometime in Indiana. The Bowen brothers were listed as Caucasian and were also born in Virginia. Nancy A. Bryant, daughter of Isom and Lucy Minnis Bryant Manuel married Zachariah (age 35) in January 1872. Jerusha Minnis, daugther of Edward and Emily Bass Minnis married Thompson (age 43) in December 1873. Bowen family tradition is that the Brushy Fork families had previously known the Bowens before their arrival, and implies that Zacharaiah had come there to marry Nancy. These older men, must have greatly affected the community, and may have instigated the move to Kansas.

In 1967, Alice Van Voorhis talked with a News-Gazette reporter about these families. She was the granddaughter of William
Coffey who bought the land when the community moved in 1877. Van Voorhis was a small child when the families left though at the time of the interview she was 92. "My mother said they stopped at our house to say good-bye. Aunt Lucy Manuel who had taken care of me so much, was standing in the back of one of the wagons. When I saw them start off and I know she was leaving I ran down the road with my arms held out to her, crying as I ran. Aunt Lucy stood there in the wagon with tears running down her cheeks holding her arms out to me. My mother always said this is the way you and Aunt Lucy parted." she recalled.  The only evidence of this community is the memorial stone marking the "Negro Cemetery." 

New 2020!!!
There is a new article recently published from Eastern Illinois University history professors Charles Foy and Michael Bradley in the Journal of Illinois State Historical Society, The African-American Community in Brushy Fork, Illinois, 1818-1861. We appreciate their sharing the article which gives a perspective on the lives of the inhabitants and how that compares to life for blacks in Illinois and the Ohio Valley.