Monday, November 27, 2006

The "French Negroes" of Illinois

In the Gunsmoke post of a few weeks ago, I mentioned Sisters Mary Celestine (Addie Francis Micheau) and Philomena (Emma Micheau) of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Since then, I have come into possession of a small trove of information about the Micheaus of southern Illinois and Missouri. This information touches on the Civil War, slavery, Catholic history in America, the demographics of southern Illinois, the history of the Caribbean nation of Haiti, and many other topics. I'm still analyzing it, but present here a brief overview of some of it.

A major piece of information is a letter dated February 28, 1981, written by Sr. Philomena to Sister Mary Joan Weissler at Red Bud, Illinois. Sr. Mary Joan was a member of an order called the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, which has a house in Ruma, Illinois. Sr. Mary Joan apparently was writing a history of the Adorers in Illinois and Sr. Philomena was writing with information.

It affords me great pleasure to assist you in gathering information for the writing of the history of your community which I have known from early childhood. . . .

Your interest and inquiries involve the French Negro families who settled in Prairie Du Rocher [Illinois]. What a great story indeed. This story to be worthwhile and true must begin with the great-grandfathers and slave ancestors of the entire black community who lived in Prairie Du Rocher in 1852 or earlier.

Sister Philomena proceeds to tell the story of Prairie du Rocher with her family, the Micheaus, as the centerpiece. Although Sr. Philomena may not have realized it, the entire story ultimately stretches from revolutionary Paris to an American Civil War battle at Pilot Knob, Missouri, and includes the Haitian slave rebellion.

Prairie du Rocher is a village in Randolph County, Illinois. In 1825, it had less than 300 people, of which there were more than 25 slaves and 10-15 free people of color. At the time of the 2000 census, there were no blacks living in Prairie du Rocher.

Over the next few posts, we'll explore some of the history of Illinois' "French Negroes," aided by Sister Philomena's letter.

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