Ancestors: At right is a photo that shows members of the Dixon-Stewart family, who were among those who established the Lost Creek Settlement in Vigo County in the early 19th century. Image courtesy Dee Reed
Ancestors: At right is a photo that shows members of the Dixon-Stewart family, who were among those who established the Lost Creek Settlement in Vigo County in the early 19th century. Image courtesy Dee Reed

Pioneers were inherently gutsy.

They left their homelands; traveled on foot, horseback or in wagons; endured cold, heat, storms and wild animals; crossed creeks, rivers and mountains; coped with diseases; and built homes, farms and towns in the wilderness.

The pioneers that created the Lost Creek Settlement possessed an even deeper layer of courage.

 

They came to Vigo County in the 1820s from North Carolina as “free” Black Americans. As a Library of Congress historical account explains, free Black Americans in the pre-Civil War South still lived in the shadow of slavery, restricted from travel or assembling under discriminatory, racist laws. The seemingly simple pursuit of forming churches, schools and fraternal organizations was complex and dangerous, the account states.

“While they were free African Americans, ‘free’ wasn’t really free,” said Dee Reed, a descendant of the historic Lost Creek settlement.

So, six Black families in North Carolina made the brave decision to move north to settle lands in west-central Indiana. Their destination was an area that’s now in eastern Vigo County. Indiana was hardly devoid of racial injustices in those years shortly after it gained statehood in 1816. But those settlers who traveled in a caravan by foot and wagons had escaped the increasing dangers of living amid the institution of slavery in North Carolina and found independence by developing their community just a few miles from the Wabash River.

“It’s really an amazing story,” said Mary Kramer, executive director of Wabash Valley Art Spaces. “They are among our first non-indigenous settlers ... They moved here when it was a risky thing to do and required a lot of courage.”

The Lost Creek settlers’ amazing story will, fittingly, be commemorated as the fourth sculpture on Terre Haute’s Cultural Trail.

On Tuesday, Art Spaces announced the plan by the Cultural Trail Committee, a community group organized in 2007 to collaborate with the nonprofit arts organization to celebrate through outdoor sculptures the historical figures from Terre Haute that made an exceptional impact on the nation and world. The Lost Creek settlement sculpture will join three others on Trail — the elegant and popular “Max Ehrmann at the Crossroads” by artist Bill Wolfe, “A Song for Indiana” toasting state songwriter Paul Dresser by Teresa Clark in Fairbanks Park, and “Dreiser — Shadows of Meaning” honoring famed novelist Theodore Dreiser by Russell Rock and Jeanine Centouri, just outside the Vigo County Public Library’s northeast entrance.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this to be the next sculpture on the Cultural Trail,” Kramer said Wednesday.

The new sculpture’s location is still under consideration, she said. A national search for a sculptor is upcoming, too. She estimates the total cost of the project at $100,000 to $120,000, though the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic could affect expenses. Art Spaces landed a $35,000 grant through the National Endowment for the Arts for the project, as well. A fundraising event could also generate donations toward the needed amount and educate the public on Lost Creek’s history, Kramer said.

Art Spaces will coordinate with descendants of the original Lost Creek settlers, including Reed, who’s also an Art Spaces board member. Lost Creek is one of the most well-documented Black pioneer communities in Indiana. Photographs, letters, artifacts and documents capture the history behind it.

Those relics include “freedom papers.” Black Americans making the tenuous journey from the South to the North had to carry those documents as verification that they weren’t enslaved people escaping bondage.

Reed’s late mother, Dorothy Ross — a beloved historian of the settlement — described her ancestor’s freedom papers to a Tribune-Star reporter during the Lost Creek Grove’s open house in 2016. The papers were carried in 1826 by Dixon Stewart, Dee Reed’s great-great-great-grandfather — one of Lost Creek’s original settlers from Wake County, North Carolina.

 

It read: “This is to certify that the bearer of hereof Dickson [sic] Stewart has been born and raised in our neighborhood and was born of free parents, and has conduct [sic] himself in an honest and orderly way.”

Dorothy Ross pointed to the freedom papers and told the reporter, “It was a shame, but it was necessary that they carry this with them in order to travel safely.” Ross died in 2019 at age 96.

Life still wasn’t easy and carefree in rural Vigo County, once those pioneers began settling and building farms and homes. But the chance to live independently was transformative.

“It certainly took a lot of courage to come to a land and start farming the property, because farming is a difficult enterprise,” Reed said. “But farming meant independence, that they were able to develop their own property and set their own course.”

They could make their own decisions, take their own risks and reap their own rewards.

“That land ownership gave them a sense of calm, that this was a safe place,” Reed said, “without the daily indignities that they had to endure” in North Carolina. That sense of security — “a ticket to self-efficiency and a sign that they had arrived” — could also be passed on to other generations. 

Reed’s ancestor, Dixon Stewart, purchased 80 acres for his family’s farm, and by the time of his death it had grown to 1,000 acres.

Lost Creek settlers established their own school and church, and set aside a cemetery. Racial injustice didn’t disappear, though, and still hasn’t. Schools in Indiana’s newly established Black communities were kept from hiring White teachers. So, the Lost Creek settlement families pooled their money and hired a Black teacher.

“Education was very important to them,” Reed said.

Today, a few individual homes stand in the Lost Creek settlement area. Lost Creek Grove, established in 1901, is a seven-acre private park for annual open houses, family reunions and special events, and is available for rental to the general public, Reed said. A historical marker pays tribute to the community, its African Methodist Episcopal Church and its place on the Underground Railroad as a refuge for Black Americans who fled slavery in the South.

The new Cultural Trail sculpture — wherever it’s placed and whatever form it takes — will provide a visual remembrance of the settlers’ bravery for future generations.

“I hope this is an opportunity to see the humanity in all of us, and that we share more in common than the differences we have,” Reed said. “It’s the resilience, perseverance and determination of the human spirit, and what that looks like in a community."

© 2022 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.