The "French Negroes" of Illinois–The Micheau Family

“Your interest and inquiries involve the French Negro families who settled in Prairie du Rocher,” Sister Mary Philomena wrote in a 1981 letter to Sister Mary Joan Weissler. “What a great story indeed.”

Sister Mary Joan of the order known as the Adorers of the Blood of Christ apparently was writing a history of the Adorers community at Red Bud, Randolph County[1][2][3], Illinois. Emma Micheau, who later became Sister Philomena of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, had been born into one of those French Negro families in nearby Prairie du Rocher. And the story of the Micheaus is illustrative of the “great story” of that entire community.

I George Micheau being the son of George Micheau Sr. and Margaret Micheau both at one time slaves of John Highly Sr. who was shot by one of Capt Mill’s men April 6, 1864 at Pr. Du Rocher Ill. At that time I was at a camp in Pilot Knob Mo., when his belongings came in. This camp was known as Headquarter Camp where the soldiers were on guard to head off Price on his way to St Louis. He was turned back at Potosi Mo. where I was sold as a slave as a baby. When his daughter Sally who was married to a Mr. Cohen, John Highly gave me to his daughter where I stayed until my parents escaped.

That brief note written or dictated by George Micheau (1852-1942) reveals a complex story of life in Missouri and Illinois at the lowest point in American history. It also raises several important questions. (A copy of the original was sent by Sister Philomena to Sister Mary Joan in 1981. A copy of Sister Philomena’s letter and enclosures is in the possession of Margarett Penny Manson, great-granddaughter of George Micheau.)

The French Negro Micheaus first appear in census records in 1850. John Micheau, 53 years old, is found living in 1850 in Ste Genevieve,[1][2] Missouri, with his wife, Liza, 50. Ste Genevieve is directly west across the Mississippi River from Randolph County, Illinois. John is described as a farmer born in Kentucky.

Then on the 1860 census, Auguste Micheau, 60 years old, is found living in Ste Genevieve with his wife Julia, 29, and son, Philip, 8. Auguste is described in the census as a laborer. Curiously enough, though he owns no real estate, the value of his personal estate is said to be $1215. Auguste, born in Kentucky like John, is likely John’s brother.

John and Auguste and their families were free people and not slaves.

After the Civil War, the Micheau family is enumerated in 1870 with George “Misho” as the head of a household in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. This George Misho is George Micheau, Sr., described in the writing referred to above.

Now this 1870 census entry raises some questions, especially in light of the note by George Micheau. What happened to the family during the Civil War? How did they get to Prairie du Rocher?

Both Prairie du Rocher and Ste Genevieve were early French settlements. Prairie du Rocher is believed to have been settled around 1722. It is said that many of the French fled Prairie du Rocher after the British victory in the French and Indian War.

Ste Genevieve’s settlement date is unclear. It may have been as early as 1722, also, but it is frequently dated from 1735.

The French Negro families were often free people, but others were slaves. Some of the free families had come to America in the 1790’s following the slave revolt in what is now Haiti.

Slavery was “abolished” perhaps three times in Illinois. The first abolition was in the Ordinance of 1787 when Illinois was still part of Virginia. While this statute bothered slavery in Illinois, it was held not to have affected the status of French Negro slaves already in the country. Likewise in 1818 the Constitution of the State of Illinois also barred slavery but again was held not to the effect the status of slaves already held in the state. After the adoption of the 1818 Constitution, there was much litigation and political posturing about the status of slavery in Illinois. Nonetheless Illinois was considered a “free” state.

It is not possible to tell whether the Micheaus began as free people or as slaves who were later emancipated. In any event, George and Margret Micheau at some point found themselves the slave of John Highly of Washington County[1][2], Missouri. The younger George Micheau was born in Potosi in Washington County in 1852.

For the most part Highly kept the family of six children together. But he did give young George to his daughter, Sarah (also known as Sallie), when she married a man named Abraham D. Cohen in 1861. George would have been about nine years old at the time.

According to Micheau family lore, Highly decided in 1864 to split the family up by selling three of the children. Young George overheard this plan and told his parents. The family then absconded to Pilot Knob, Missouri. How or exactly when this occurred is not known. However, it is said that Highly hunted the family, crossing into Illinois to find them. Civil war records indicate that at this time Highly was serving with the Confederate 5th Missouri Cavalry. Apparently he ran into some Union troops near Prairie du Rocher and was killed on April 6, 1864.

In the meantime, the Micheaus were hiding out with Union troops at Fort Davidson near Pilot Knob, Missouri. They apparently were still there in September of 1864, when Major General Sterling Price decided to attack the Union garrison there as part of his plan to eventually take St. Louis for the Confederacy.

The battle began on September 26, 1864. The Confederates gained the high ground around for Davidson and Pilot Knob. On the night of September 27, 1864, the commander of the federal troops, Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, Jr., ordered the fort evacuated and destroyed. The Micheaus escaped into the forest during the evacuation. They eventually found their way across the river to Prairie du Rocher.

Next: Prairie Du Rocher–A Great Story Indeed

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Craig


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