The great American experience; Jeffrey family migration

Black History Month

ONTONAGON, Mich. (WJMN) – The Jeffrey family migrated to the Upper Peninsula from New York. Eric Smith, historian, and family of the Jeffreys, says they commonly migrated to where they could get land.

“They left New England as a group and moved into New York State around the Erie Canal in the 1840s and they stayed there for about 10 years before they started to move up to the U.P. and it seems like Asa was the point guy, the point man, he would always go first and then everybody else would follow so they ended up there in 1850, they stayed there until approximately 1857 and then the clan moved down into the Minnesota territory, and then from there to Iowa and then eventually here to Chicago,” said Smith.

In the U.P. Josiah, Horace and Asa owned 400 acres between them. Smith says the family started out as farmers and moved into Ontonagon to acquire land. However, the family also worked as barbers and musicians.

“So what they did basically they were farmers according to their Civil War records because 11 Jeffrey members fought in the Civil War so I have their military records and the occupation is listed as farmer around 1860 or in that time period but they were also barbers,” said Smith. “Barbers lended you to be independent so when they were in the U.P. they worked as barbers and musicians my great-great-grandfather Charles was a fifer with the 19th Wisconsin regiment during the Civil War so what they did, they were like entrepreneurs they made their living mostly barbering and entertaining.”

After the beginning of the 1860s most of the family had migrated west to Minnesota and then later moved on to Iowa. The only Jeffrey family member that stayed in the Upper Peninsula long term was Asa Jeffrey.

“Asa was like a lone wolf, rest of the family had left I think I would say probably when he married Elizabeth maybe that’s the reason why he stayed I have a newspaper clipping where someone broke into his shop and they stole $58 so that was in the newspaper but he stayed there and the rest of the family moved on to Minnesota,” said Smith.

Initially, when they got to the Ontonagon, two of the brothers voted and Asa Jeffrey was elected as overseer of the poor in 1849, Ontonagon’s first election. Smith says they always participated in civic service in their communities.

“A lot of Jeffrey’s moved to Western New York and stayed in Rochester that’s where Susan B. Anthony stayed and that’s where Frederick Douglass lived,” said Smith. “Now Frederick Douglass’ first newspaper was called the Northern Star, Roswell Jeffrey lived there also, he was a minister, Fredrick Douglass’ newspaper the North Star was printed in the basement of his church.”

Smith says the Jeffreys were Native American and Black and part of the Narragansett, Montauk and Nehantic tribes, as time went on they intermarried and were considered of mixed race or black on their records. Smith says he also has the marriage certificate from Francis Frank Jeffrey and Augusta Koss his great grandparents.

“You could see at the bottom of that document they wanted the participants to list their race you know, the choices were White, Black, Mulatto, Indian, Mixed White and Indian, et cetera, now for race for my great grandfather they had it listed as Creole with mixed blood, but actually what he was, was he was Black and Native American,” said Smith. “And of course my great grandmother was listed as German which was kind of progressive for 1893 in Sparta, Wisconsin.”

Smith says people should seek out and document their family’s history.

“As far as being a genealogist that people should search their roots because you may find some interesting things, what I want people to know is like when I wrote this book I wanted to be documented a record that they were there because if you don’t do it and people don’t know about these things it will never be discovered,” said Smith. “So that’s what I want people to understand because to know that Black people were all over this country and I call it, as far as my family is concerned, I call it the great American experience because they were there in almost every period in this country.”

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